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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Column: On my SOPA box

I have a hard time trusting technology companies. That doesn’t mean, mind you, that I trust Congress. It’s just that we’re conditioned to distrust the people we inevitably elect. Tech firms, by contrast, are more often the objects of our praise and wonder. They’re supposed to be on our side. But the difference between the rhetoric of tech giants and its supporters as both protest SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, has introduced a nuance that calls that praise into question.

Big internet is concerned that the bill’s creators don’t understand the “architecture of the internet” enough to anticipate the implications of the legislation. People like you and me, who use Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, have begun to paint SOPA in the image of young versus old. Between us of the Internet Generation, and them, the other who cannot, for the life of them figure out how to “get on the Facebook.” It’s our generation that re-framed SOPA as the Stupid Old People Act.

That discursive split between tech giants and the Internet Generation is not so much about corporate politeness as it is indicative of an ominous dichotomy between the two. Tech giants aren’t really against the aged — they’re opposed to those who don’t understand their craft getting in the way of it.

It is we (who put the “us” in “users”) who are including ourselves among those in league with tech giants. Some of us are accomplishing this by way of explicit technopeagentry, whereupon we brand ourselves with gadgets. Some of us are trying to learn the levers of the platforms we adore. In this latter group, over 300,000 people in the first seven days of the New Year signed up for the start-up CodeAcademy’s computer programming lessons. If these companies are the architects of the internet, I’m afraid there’s a cult of exclusivity growing among those who hold the blueprints.

Take Google. While they’ve done their part to index and open the internet as a searchable reference, the company is famous for a strong insider-outsider culture. Ex-Google engineer Douwe Osinga wrote last year that internally, most information is open-access. When you leave, though, it’s a bit like leaving a “walled garden.”

Another undercovered story in the tech world this week peered into the elusive world of Apple through the eyes of Fortune Magazine editor Adam Lashinsky. He compares the company to a terrorist cell for the way it operates on a need-to-know basis. Among other leaks, he writes that Apple holds secret meetings, locks are frequently changed, windows are painted over in black and undercover company spies stake out in nearby bars to sniff out loose lips.

I’m as opposed to SOPA and PIPA as the next Facebook worm or Twitter twit, but I think there’s reason to pause when any powerful group begins to cloister itself. Tech giants are on our side today because we’re a mobile base of political support. The trouble here is that I don’t know what to do to push back when their interests and our interests are no longer the same.

For example, Google’s secrecy takes a turn for the awkward when you learn that Google and the CIA jointly funded a firm that believes it can predict the future, or that Google has built and sold to the national intelligence agencies the infrastructure they use for indexing information. This makes you wonder who Google’s “don’t be evil” motto is directed toward.

Since the beginning of the new year, Facebook has been demoing a new development that brings advertising into the main newsfeed section as “Sponsored Stories” — as if the advertisements were coming from our friends. As with all previous changes, Zuckerberg and Co. got a lot of heat for the implement. But just like all other the other changes Facebook makes, it’s probably here to stay.

What do you do when the user becomes the used?

You can electronically mail your correspondence to RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu

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