The Coming Revolution: Why the EU is the best body for negotiating our future with Silicon Valley (written for LSE Polis)

The 2016 Brexit campaign was pitched as a crusade to repatriate Britain and ‘take back control’, however, subsequent scrutiny of the campaign run by Vote Leave exposed that parliament’s deficiency of sovereignty lay not in our alliance with Europe but rather with the large technology companies whose user data was harnessed and targeted to wield potent political power.

TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War juxtaposes a weakened and confused political institution with the emboldened strength of the technology sector. Power seems to have left the corridors of Whitehall, migrating to the sunny climes of California. The final scene set in the near future shows Cummings, director of Vote Leave, raging at how ‘there is a systems failure’ leaving the west ‘drifting without vision or purpose’, claiming that Brexit saw him ‘reset’ the system hoping that someone with a ‘modicum of imagination’ would ‘do something to make a change’.

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While it is true we are experiencing a moment of transformation and change, it is the story of Aggregate IQ rather than Brexit that illuminates the reshuffling of power.

Methods of data collection, profiling and advertising were the most important strategic tool for the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings, (the real one not Benedict Cumberbatch), boasts to have led the first campaign in the UK to put ‘almost all’ of their money into digital communications, investing 40% of the Vote Leave budget on Aggregate IQ. Gone were campaigns when Saatchi billboards would swing the election, here were the days when political propaganda was published straight to people’s Facebook.

Much furore has been made about the decision to publish pro-Brexit advertisements straight to user’s news feed, yet, Facebook make 90% of their profits through this very method.

The consolidation of Facebook’s power, awarding Aggregate IQ with the desired voter profiles, lies in their control of the social media market. They own 80% of online social networking sites suggesting they collect and target information on the vast majority of social media users. Facebook has been nice enough to provide the internet public with better communication tools than the US President had 20 years ago. In return, we have given them our data which has awarded Facebook with the ability to modify user behaviour. Such is the influence of the company over UK citizens, it is vital that politicians begin to both understand the working of the platform and attempt to hold them to account.

Unfortunately, the UK parliament has been ineffective at representing the public in the face of Silicon Valley. The shortcomings of British democracy have been embarrassingly highlighted by the inability to summon Mark Zuckerberg to the UK parliament, ignoring not one but two of the UK’s requests to speak with politicians.

Neither attempt was trivial. The first one inquired about how Aggregate IQ had used Facebook data to implement the most radical appropriation of voter profiling in UK political history, while the second, saw him snub a room of international politicians collectively representing 447 million people. Zuckerberg’s refusal to attend suggests a complete disregard for the British parliamentary system – not only did the liberal establishment get screwed by a technology they didn’t understand, they then weren’t able to speak with the man they deemed responsible.

Instead, the market and the European Union are acting as the two major agents influencing technology companies. Following scandals with both Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ, it was the market that inflicted the heaviest blow as Facebook lost $123.4 billion dollars in a single day. The latter has provided equal punch, successfully summoning and speaking to Mark Zuckerberg, taxing Apple $14.5 billion pounds and implementing the most effective legislature on protection through the GDPR. The EU, unlike Britain and the market, has the balance of both geopolitical clout and social representation, giving them the bargaining power of the market and the legitimacy of democratic consent.

There is no amount of debating society wit that will endear Silicon Valley towards UK democracy. Instead, Britain will require a coalition of socially conscious allies to mould these companies around our public values. At the moment, the European Union seems to be the network of political alliances that this country needs. Without such support it is hard to see how Britain will engineer change amongst Silicon Valley and rather than taking it back, we may have lost control altogether.

February 1st 2019