The Terms and Conditions of your Social Contract | Jack van den Berg

Contract by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

With reality mining becoming the livelihood of tech giants, the terms of service and conditions agreement is becoming the digital version of our Social Contract.

Technological advancements are being kicked into high gear. Finding someone – centenarians excluded – without a phone and social media app installed on it is as rare as hens’ teeth. Upon registration we were all asked to agree with a terms of service and conditions (ToS) agreement that is intentionally long to discourage the readers. This can lead to some interesting outcomes- a study in 2016 found that over 500 participants unwittingly agreed to give their first born to the company overlords. Surprise? Of course not. Whilst the Rapunzel-esque demand would never have held up in court, it does show how eager we are to throw away our rights signing online contracts without bothering to see what were giving away.

During the Dotcom bubble, Google had to change its revenue source to keep its head above water. The method they chose set the example for all tech giants ruling the Forbes top 100 list and created a very lucrative business model.

Before 2002 Google used the data it gathered from search requests to improve the search engine itself. With every search there was a behavioural data surplus that remained unused. This previously “surplus” data now makes up 86% of Google’s livelihood, and a similar structure can be found at other tech companies. User’s accumulated data over the years has proven to be a gold mine for tech companies. But at what point did they inform us?

If you had read the quarterly terms of conditions update that you were prompted with, that one time, and quickly dismissed, you would have been aware. Well, aware is an overstatement, since the language in the ToS requires at least a master’s in law to decipher what is happening with your personal information.

Tech companies’ services are based solely around trying to accumulate your online behavioural data as efficiently and accurately as possible, and all that under the guise of the interconnectedness or the self-actualisation they promise. Easy evidence of this is the acquisition of other tech companies by these giants. Zuckerberg stated himself that the direct revenue comes only second after the behavioural data in the purchase of Oculus Rift and Whatsapp. The same counts for when Google acquired Youtube. These acquisitions were not closely monitored simply because the product was ‘free’ for users, and promised no quick profits in the traditional sense.

The common phrase that: “if are not paying for a product, then you are the product” is also vastly outdated as a justification. Tech companies’ services are based solely around trying to accumulate your online behavioural data as efficiently and accurately as possible, side lining whatever interconnectedness they promised.

Of course, we shouldn’t dismiss the positive impacts social media has had on communities entirely. But, for all the happy family status updates and friends found, these terms of services have become the new social contract that we scribbled our names on without knowing the details what we signed up for.

The concept of a Social Contract has been debated by a lot of old white men in the past, Locke, Hobbes and co, but I prefer to use the dictionary definition from Merriam Webster who defines it as;

an actual or hypothetical agreement among the members of an organized society or between a community and its ruler that defines and limits the rights and duties of each.”

Our community participation has moved from the real to the virtual, it provides democratic spaces for citizens to express themselves and find likeminded individuals. The internet is now the biggest platform for meaningful debate. But a big downside is that ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’ are becoming even more common in comparison to the past by watching/reading partisan news outlets. It is precisely in these spheres that society’s views and opinions are shaped.

It would not be an enormous issue if these forums were merely targeted by advertising agents to stimulate consumerism like targeted advertising was done in the past. But with the Cambridge Analytica scandal it was revealed that, through behavioural data analyses, opinions could be swayed, influencing election outcomes.

This subservience of people to machines is described by Jeffrey Ocay as “the concept of compliant efficiency, which results in the individual’s submission to the apparatus without any form of mental and physical opposition”. In other words; the virtual has conquered the real without notification.

The relation between technology and society has been the topic of discussion by many famed philosophers & scientists, but with the transition into the digital we need to revisit this debate and move on from seeing technology as something purely abstract. The virtual has taken a foothold in our lives and is here to stay. Unfortunately, due to the neoliberal forces of deregulation and free markets the way our digital lives are constructed is guided by capitalistic forces that use online platforms to further their self-interests such as shareholder revenue.

The business models of tech companies have been allowed to run rampant on the acquisition of our personal information. And just as easily as we try to prove we are not robots by clicking a rectangle box, we signed part of ourselves to be monetised and turned against us. 

By no means do should we rally towards the liquidation of tech giants, but we must not forget to be critical and have an open discussion on how far our capitalist mechanisms should be applied to the digital world.

Luckily within the European Union we are somewhat going in the right direction, albeit not with the urgency it requires. The first big step was the introduction of the GDPR, which has escaped no one’s notice since the day after your inbox was filled with permission requests. The second big step is in process with the new Copyright directive that passed the European Parliament on the day of writing (26/3/2019). The Copyright directive has a clause on text and data mining (TDM), excluding the practice for non-research oriented organisations.

On a departing note, Christopher Maboloc puts the importance of our online life in the most pleasing way.

In today’s Internet age, true democratic participation can be found in thestruggle for recognition of many social movements which uses social mediato promote local culture, including songs and stories, indigenous artworks, andethnic dances, in order to celebrate the beauty of human life. In today’s world,these indigenous art forms are helpful if we need to inoculate ourselves from thedangers of a hegemonic consumer culture.

So let’s not let the hegemonic consumer culture dictate on what terms and conditions we make use of the virtual, but let data and contracts be governed by the society that produce it.

Further reading:

Maboloc, Christopher Ryan. Social Transformation and Online Technology: Situating Herbert Marcuse in the Internet Age

Obar, Jonathan A. and Oeldorf-Hirsch, Anne, The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services (June 1, 2018).

Gunkel, David. Social Contract 2.0 : Terms of Service Agreements and Political Theory. Journal of Media Critiques.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

Ocay, Jeffry V.Technology, Technological Domination, and the Great Refusal: Marcuse’s Critique of the Advanced Industrial Society

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