Shortly before ten o’clock on the morning of May 10 last year, Jim Balsillie, cofounder of Research in Motion (rim), the Waterloo, Ontario, company that created BlackBerry phones, took a seat in a conference room across from Parliament Hill. Next to him sat Colin McKay, an executive from Google, the company whose Android operating system was responsible, in part, for BlackBerry’s fall from grace. rim (now BlackBerry) was an industry powerhouse a decade ago, but the success of Android and Apple phones cut its share of the global smartphone market to nearly zero by 2016. Despite this history, it was Balsillie, sporting a neon green tie, who exuded confidence.
The men had been called to testify before the House of Commons ethics committee about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, triggered less than two months prior by Canadian whistle-blower Christopher Wylie when he revealed that a British firm had pilfered the personal information of up to 87 million people on Facebook, which was later used by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential-election campaign. But the hearing quickly devolved into an interrogation of the data-collection practices of a tech industry that, for years, has been hell bent on fending off calls for oversight. McKay, visibly uncomfortable, an uncooperative strand of his combed-back hair dangling above his glasses, was there in part to convince the MPs that Google was not guilty of the negligent privacy practices that Facebook had been accused of. Balsillie, who had cut ties with rim in 2012, joined in the takedown of his former industry, his zeal scarcely concealed.
The data-driven economy, Balsillie warned, was developing faster than the ability of policy makers to reckon with its consequences. “We are cascading toward a surveillance state,” he said, conjuring a world divided into the watchers and the watched, a world where Big Tech piles up astronomical profits by distilling our everyday experiences into data to monetize—in some instances, doing so “without a moral conscience.” He mentioned how, in Australia, Facebook had been caught designing algorithms to identify stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious teenagers on its network, presumably to assist advertisers who might want to target them. Google has faced its own parade of scandals, which include the accusation that it illegally collects children’s personal information through YouTube, a subsidiary with algorithms that can push viewers toward increasingly polarizing and vile content—from neo-Nazis to Trump-bashing conspiracy theorists. Why? Because that’s likely to keep us most engaged, thus maximizing Google’s ad revenue.