In the simplistic account of what many call "surveillance capitalism," the original sin was swapping our attention for free content, summed up in the pithy phrase, "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product."

That's a comforting frame if you think that the problem with surveillance capitalism is *surveillance*, rather than capitalism.


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If you think that some companies want to make money the honest way, by selling you stuff, while other companies are full of evil wizards who want to spy on you in order to deprive you of free will, then the answer is simple: just pay for stuff, and you'll be fine.

But time and again, we learn that companies spy on you - and abuse you in other ways - whenever it suits them - even companies that make a lot of noise about how they don't need to spy on you to make money.


If a company has the power to abuse you - because of lock-in, or because someone else is making you use it - and if the company can make money by abusing you, it will abuse you.

Take Microsoft. It's making a lot of noise right now about how it will beat Facebook to creating the metaverse because people trust the company not to spy on them (this is the same claim they made about their failed search-engine Bing, but whatever).

Microsoft doesn't spy on you to show you ads, it's true. But Microsoft's work-from-home (AKA live-at-work) suite, Office 365, offers your boss a full-spectrum, asshole-to-appetite surveillance of everything you do:


They're not spying on you to show you ads. They're spying on you to sell products to your asshole boss who values the ability to strip you of your privacy and turn your lockdown life into a dystopian cyberpunk hellscape. This is a profitable angle, and Microsoft just announced a suite of expanded surveillance capabilities:


Microsoft is not a privacy-respecting company. It's a company that makes tactical decisions about spying on you, and when it is in its interest to do so, it has no compunctions at all about respecting your privacy.

Same goes for Apple. Yes, the company has done genuinely great stuff to head off mobile surveillance to block ad-tech (and, not coincidentally, to block commercial rivals like Facebook).


But they also sold out every one of their Chinese customers by removing all working VPNs from the App Store and backdooring their Chinese cloud servers.

Apple has a tactical commitment to your privacy, not a moral one. When it comes down to guarding your privacy or losing access to Chinese markets and manufacturing, your privacy is jettisoned without a second thought.


No one is giving away free Iphones in exchange for ads. You can pay $1,000 for your Apple product and still be the product. The idea that there is virtue in paying because it incentivizes better corporate ethics is absurd on its face.


The capture of the regulatory state by capitalism is why companies spy on you: spying only makes money if all costs (breaches, loss of agency, etc) can be externalized onto society, and if companies can manufacture consent by cramming an "I agree" button down your throat. In other words, they spy on you because they can get away with it, because the state permits them. We don't have a federal privacy law with a private right of action, we don't have statutory limits on terms of service.


Even where you do have some rights, we let companies take them away with "binding arbitration" waivers that confiscate your right to sue them and join class actions.

Which brings me to Vizio. Vizio is a surveillance company that incidentally manufactures TVs.


A Vizio TV nonconsensually spies on you and shows you ads, and it does so despite the fact that you're paying for it. Vizio's latest financials show that the company makes more money from spying on you than it does from selling TVs.

As Richard Lawler writes for The Verge, the division that handles ads and surveillance booked $57.3 million in profits, while the hardware division's profits were $25.6 million.


Vizio is a dirty company that breaks the law with impunity. The company doesn't even bother with the pretextual "consent" that other firms secure prior to spying on you:

And it uses software lifted from free/open source projects, flagrantly violating their licenses and stealing from the commons:


The company gets away with this because our justice system treats corporate crime as a feature, not a bug, and allows firms to use the proceeds from their misbehavior to buy their way out of accountability.

Which means that "paying for the product" can't possibly address corporate misbehavior, because the more money companies have - either through sales or spying - the more power they have to fight off a reckoning for their abuses.


"Paying for the product" isn't just hollow, it's actively harmful. Under conditions of gross inequality and high levels of debt, "paying for the product" excludes those who lack the means to pay from access to the digital world.


If Facebook charged for access, people who couldn't afford it wouldn't dig a hole and pull the dirt in over themselves. They'd land on a billionaire-subsidized platform - a social media version of Prageru - where moderators would delete comments that criticized corporate power. This is even worse than widely recognized issues like, "The truth is paywalled and the lies are free":


There's nothing inevitable about an ad market that requires surveillance. Contextual advertising - advertising based on the content of articles, rather than data on the readers - is *far* more profitable for publishers than behavioral ads.


The catch is that they're only profitable if the true costs of behavioral ads - privacy invasions, breaches and worse - are priced into the model. In other words, data is only "the new oil" if someone else pays for the oil spills. Otherwise, it's the new oily rag.

Cryteria (modified)



@pluralistic I have one of these TV's. It's constantly pinging services in AWS, google, and Yahoo for whatever reason. Luckily the Pihole I have really makes quick work of all its spyware. That being said to anyone else who might be less aware, visio TV's spy a ton! The visio TV I have makes more requests than any other device in my house.

@pluralistic "Contextual advertising - advertising based on the content of articles, rather than data on the readers - is *far* more profitable for publishers than behavioral ads." It's funny. Contextual advertising *does* make a lot more sense.

@petit @pluralistic that does make a lot of sense. I'd be more likely to buy a welder if I'm watching weld tube or, or machining tools when watching BlondieHacks, Abom, ToT, or AvE.

But instead I just get served crypto ads.

@ketmorco @pluralistic Yeah, I'm also more likely to trust an ad from a website that specializes in the thing being advertised. Maybe that's naive.

@petit @pluralistic At the very least, if the ad is displayed on a site that I'm reading content on, it's likely that I'll be able to make a more informed decision about the product that I'm looking at

@petit @pluralistic But it’s a problem, too, because it incentivices publishers to optimize their *content* for the ads.

Better not write something that gets people to think, else they won’t click the ad.

@ArneBab @pluralistic Is that a problem with contextual ads or ads in general?

@petit @pluralistic Contextual ads make it worse, but the general principle applies to all funding from sources who have an interest in influencing the primary "targets" of my content.

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