Like most human beings, I like to feel that I have control over things I do, like writing a blog or using my mobile. Over the past two relatively calm decades, my digital days were regular. These came to a totally unexpected end on the 1st of December 2019. Opening my blog after breakfast, I found a completely irrelevant commercial at the end of six short paragraphs followed by repetitions after the second six paragraphs: Two pictures of a mother holding a young child promoting “Girl Earns $987 per day. How to get paid without a job. Don’t Miss Out.” Nobody had asked me, consulted me, or even considered the impact this would have on my blog which focused on the challenges of contemporary poetry.
My first impulse was to contact Word Press.com on the internet. Via Firefox I automatically sought to open my Yahoo account and pursue the offenders but: Whoaa!!! Firefox notified me that if I wanted to continue their service, I had simply to press my finger on AGREE which would endorse their new format. I could also press another spot with NOT or, further down, more information regarding the new policy agreement with OTHER. Desirous of more information on this, and reluctant to sign up to dubious agreements, I spent the entire morning reading the new legal provisos blocking my entry not only to Firefox but consequently also to Yahoo and Yahoo’s new American parent company Verizon. The latter with a 16 page draft which told me I could also visit at “Privacy Dashboard” for “Account Deletion Controls”!1 Trying to escape the very similar and in many ways overlapping requests, I tried to open Google and found myself once again blocked with almost identical “protective” choices. UNBELIEVABLE!
Although I have little internet training, I immediately realized that all these groups had come together to protect their financial resources from threatened billion dollar suits by the EU, the US, and other nations. l also noted that there were only minimal clauses to protect the security of the hundreds of millions of their users, such as myself. These groups obviously did not expect people like me would spend hours examining all their provisions. I found this entire process infuriating. My time, understanding (legal and linguistic), the infinite limitations, as well as my own financial security seemed violated. Each wanted my agreement to enter a new relationship which they claimed would not alter anything at all for me. Incredible, but very much the changed spirit of our times.
I had entered Yahoo some twenty years ago, giving my name, address and date of birth. At most this took two minutes. I felt this was far easier than opening a bank account. There were no questions asked, no demands and no payments required by this modest membership group. Indeed Yahoo thrived with the millions who signed up in the first decade. Yahoo also changed my life in many positive ways: I was soon writing letters (long emails) to friends across the globe. At no cost, I was also receiving innocent messages from neighbors across the street about the barking of my dog. Generally my Mac screen was free of commercials, political appeals, or intentionally false information. Looking back, this newborn facility was most welcome. Its spirit was truly utopian.
Social demands on me were free. Information on Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo and others flowed smoothly. Indeed, in this era I had no awareness of being watched or spied upon. I had no interest in joining the social media groups like Facebook. Even as Yahoo became vastly more popular, it did not become intrusive. At the beginning of my second decade, I became concerned that changes in its over-ambitious directorate could result in the introduction of advertisements — which I had come to loathe on the radio and television of the United States. I regarded a blank screen, free of propaganda of any kind, a blessing.
Now in December 2019, when talking on the phone to my elder son, Remy, whose career has been in television, I expressed my ire at what was happening and told him I was writing a blog on my revulsion at the tactics of Yahoo, Firefox, Verizon, Google and WordPress. He expressed bewilderment at my extreme reaction. Remy countered that I had known all along that my privacy had been abused not only by malware but also by political groups, advertisers and many — others including informers. True, I certainly had been aware of these invaders for some time and the Cambridge Analytica scandal had awakened me to the extent that users of the internet were now being spooked.
What had so profoundly shocked me now was that suddenly, without any warning, I was faced with an ultimatum by the groups whose services I had been using: Sign this agreement or our services for you will be terminated. Basically all their demands were being driven by threats to their profits — although this was camouflaged by their need to cover privacy issues being introduced by the European Union and new concerns in the US Congress.
I must make it clear that in my very first book, One Viewer, (1959), I strongly criticized how US radio and television had swiftly become dependent on parasitic commercials. On the other hand, I admired and supported the operation of the BBC and select radio news services in the US which operated on a not-for-profit basis. The way commercials polluted the public airwaves in the US aroused my revulsion. When I came to England in 1969 I was much relieved by the calm, non-sales operation of the BBC’s various channels. This has mercifully continued to the present time, but the commercial channels here have multiplied and in many ways are “corrupting” the air-waves. I find the promotion of material products ranging from underwear to dishwater tablets distracting and ultimately, irritating.
I can understand that Google, Verizon, Yahoo, and Firefox are all deeply concerned about the threats of regulation. Google’s search engine now cranks out more than $10 billion in annual sales and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is the world’s 4th most valuable publicly listed company.2 It is not taxed on its enormous store of data (on you, me and more than 2 billion contacts) which is at the base of its profits. Google wants to retain its control of privacy online as do all the others profiting so profoundly from the internet.
The New York Times in “A guide to protecting your privacy online,” concludes: “You can’t stop all tracking unless you live in a dark cave, but you can fight back.” It argues that we must guard against our increasing inability to distinguish fact from fiction in the media. While, the media are pushing us towards a so-called ”free” superficiality, advertising has become the life blood of the media. However its applications can prove to be a form of leukemia. Tristan Harris, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, points out that “technology has outmatched our brains, diminishing our capacity to address the worlds most pressing challenges.” In his brilliant presentation Harris points out that this is because our brains are not wired for truth-seeking. Information that confirms our outlook makes us feel positive. Info that challenges our beliefs doesn’t. Our attention economy has consequently turned us into a culture maladapted for our survival.3
In One Viewer, sixty years ago, I wrote that television “should activate our common desire for self-improvement, rather than encourage the further acquisition of material possessions. It should not drug us with escapism.” The motivation of the media should be service to the public, not profit. Currently the prevailing accepted concept is that each commercial group is trying to improve its own commercial standing. If the profit motive were not so prevailing, it would be exercising a much more open, social, welcoming approach to the billions of humans than they are presently milking. It is this outcome which has perturbed me profoundly an leads me to protest so loudly against the sudden nasty and joint interjection by the new powerhouse internet corporations with their basically strangling demands. The truth is that I cannot passively accept being DIGITALLY ABUSED.
TO GIVE A FLAVORING OF VERIZON’S “MEDIA PRIVACY P0LICY”
and why it took half a morning to read the text
1At Verizon “We serve our consumers, partners, advertisers and talent through our portfolio of digital platforms, products and services offered under our AOL, Yahoo and other brands.” Verizon Media works with partners who “may access your device to collect data for ad and content selection, delivery, measurement and personalization. You have the following choices about how these partners use your Data.”
“In some cases, you can review or edit your account information, including your marketing preferences, location data, mobile choices, advertising settings and search history, as well as account deletion controls by visiting Privacy Dashboard.
We may collect and combine information when you interact with Verizon Media Services
II Verizon Media may use device IDs, cookies and other signals, including information from third parties, to associate accounts and/or devices with you..iii. when you use our services to communicate with others or to post, upload, or store content (such as comments, photos, voice inputs, videos, emails, messaging services and attachments)
V For legal purposes. We may access, preserve and disclose information to investigate, prevent or take action in connection with (1) legal processes, and legal and governmental agency requests (2) enforcements of the Terms (3)claims that any content violates the rights of third parties ….(4-8) This may include responding to lawful governmental requests.
IX a Verizon Media has technical, administrative and physical safeguards in place to help protect against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure of customer information that we collect or store.
XI Contractual necessity….“We can’t provide you with our services without moving your data around the world….
NB I have added this compacted selection from the lengthy policy platform offered by Verizon as an example of what all the major groups like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are producing. This might explain to why I spent such a long time in trying to contact WordPress.
2 “Search he Result,” The Economist, December 7, 2019, p.10
3 Tristan Harris, “Our brains are no match for our technology” The New York Times. December 12, 2019, Intl. Edition