Surveillance capitalism is due for a regulatory comeuppance in the next few years. Travel companies that make the decision to build brands around user privacy now will be ahead of the curve.
The constant refrain in travel over the last five years has involved Facebook and Google’s role in not just travel inspiration and discovery but their emerging role disintermediating established players if they don’t pay up for advertising.
The reality, though, represents an existential threat for travel companies. With the two tech giants owning the top of the funnel and essentially spying on potential travelers, the calculus surrounding working with the biggest businesses in the world needs to change.
“If you’re not worried about it, you’re not paying attention; you should be,” said Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, early Facebook investor, and former mentor to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Skift Tech Forum 2019 in San Francisco, Calif. “They have one [modus operandi], you do the work and they take the profit. They’re going to run over Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan like they’re not even there. We have to use what power we have left to stop that or you will be working for them on their terms.”
McNamee, who has embarked on a three-year speaking tour pushing back on Facebook’s influence in both politics and business, sees Facebook as not only a pernicious and self-interested player in global affairs but a company exploiting loopholes in global law to assert its influence.
“They are undermining globalization, free trade, and the prosperity that has been so important to the last 70 years,” said McNamee. “Maybe the thing that comes after will be OK, but its not because they have a plan… Facebook is more about disruption than optimizing what comes after.”
He singled out both Facebook’s use of behavioral data and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs division, which recently released a variety of reports detailing its intention to turn Toronto’s waterfront district into a test bed for data-based exploitation of not just visitors but locals.
“They are basically doing a full conversion of a democratic system into an algorithmic system,” said McNamee. “Maybe the people of Toronto are going to be happy about that, but until two months ago people didn’t know [about it].”
The business model of Google’s Waze, which lets companies pay for foot traffic, is just one manifestation of Silicon Valley’s fixation on driving revenue through data-based manipulation of city life instead of usefulness for users.
Facebook couches its business moves in public health terms, he said, pretending that its motivation is the public good instead of profit. The introduction last week of Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra is just the latest example of the company’s willingness to undermine global institutions while building another revenue stream for Facebook.
“Libra is essentially a tool that, if it works, destabilizes the global currency system,” said McNamee. “If it doesn’t work, it blows things up in an unexpected way.”
What can travel learn, then, to be ahead of the curve as legislators and citizens alike slowly rebel against big tech’s pervasive global influence campaign? It starts with protecting consumer privacy: treating users and customers as people with the right to protect their data instead of pawns to be manipulated for financial gain.
McNamee compared Boeing’s denials in the wake of the Boeing 737 Max tragedies to the outcome facing Facebook if it doesn’t enact some sort of reform in the near future.
He connected the nascent conversation about regulating technology companies to the conversation around child labor in the early 1900s; companies that are successful without relying on extractive data processes will have a competitive advantage once this wave breaks.
Companies like Apple and DuckDuckGo, for instance, have already adopted privacy-first stances that will pay off down the road.
“There is the opportunity to fix this, for all of us this data is a drug,” said McNamee. “The notion of being able to see into the thoughts of consumers is compelling but the cost of it is incredibly high, it is so destructive to brands, because brand literally doesn’t matter [in Google and Facebook’s world].”
“It’s so destructive because it is inherently authoritarian. We make zero progress unless we go after surveillance capitalism, and that means a change in our collective thinking.”
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Photo credit: Roger McNamee, early investor in Facebook, speaking on May 27, 2019, at Skift Tech Forum 2019 in San Francisco with Skift founder and CEO Rafat Ali. Skift