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Stop treating citizens like consumers

When people are framed as consumers, society becomes little more than a marketplace

July 5, 2015 2:00AM ET

Two weeks ago, the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Watchdog and seven other advocacy groups announced that they were withdrawing from the Commerce Department’s talks over disagreements about the commercial use of facial recognition technology. Their withdrawal — a walk out protest, really — occurred after 16 months of “good faith” efforts to create a “voluntary code of conduct” governing the technology. They left accusing industry lobbyists of completely hijacking the process, leaving no room for compromise or discussion.

“At a base minimum,” the advocacy groups said, “people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement — and identifying them by name — using facial recognition technology.”

That might seem reasonable enough — a protection like this one should be assumed as given, not something that people have to be shielding themselves from. But apparently, that is still asking too much: “Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise,” the groups stated.

This outcome isn’t surprising. It’s just one more example of a widespread pro-corporate regulatory ideology that can be found in hallowed halls all over Washington. The prevailing vision is grounded in an assumption that people are first and foremost, consumers in a marketplace, not democratic citizens. It holds that “consumer-citizens” just needs to believe that industry will provide them with innovations and government will safeguard their material welfare.

The consumer-citizen pops up all over the place, like a cardboard stand-in for democratic citizens who have no other political concerns beyond self-interested consumption.

As the Commerce Department’s statement announcing the meetings on facial recognition technology says, “[C]onsumer trust is critical for our digital economy to thrive.” Because in their “campaign to drive innovation and better protect consumer privacy” what the department deems truly important is for consumers to trust the process enough to continue consuming.

When the private sector enters into the social contract, we get shallow public-private partnerships in which the corporate actors are really in charge.

This attitude explains why, after the advocacy groups left, a Commerce Department spokesperson said they “will continue to facilitate meetings on this topic for those stakeholders who want to participate.” Industry lobbyists such as NetChoice, which represents Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech companies, will get their way, and the government agency will be able to say they successfully provided guidance to industry — all while the advocacy groups look like petulant children who threw a tantrum when they didn’t get their way. 

When people are framed as consumers, society becomes little more than a marketplace. Social problems get treated with individualized, market-oriented solutions — where each consumer-citizen is solely responsible for spotting deceptive practices and avoiding unfair schemes — instead of collective, rights-based protections. For instance, protecting against predatory financial institutions and data brokers is a duty largely shouldered by individuals, who must remain ever vigilant against companies that hide in the shadows and track our every move. The more marginalized and vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to be targeted and the less likely you are able to defend yourself.

And when it comes to technological issues, this ideology is further reinforced by the tendency to divorce technology from political implications. For instance, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) during a recent senate hearing on the Internet of Things — physical objects that are embedded with sensors, software, and connectivity — proclaimed: “We should be doing everything possible to encourage this [technology], and nothing to restrict it … I also believe that this should be a public-private partnership. We all have a role.”

Booker is channeling the mainstream view: The least we, the consumer-citizens, can do to boost economic development and technological progress is get out of the way and allow industry to work. And at best, our obligation is to provide all the support and trust we can muster for these innovators and their innovations. Any attempt to regulate, restrain or redirect is irrational and counterproductive.

When the private sector enters into the social contract, the outcomes are these types of “light touch” gestures that don’t even provide the facade of regulation. Instead, they are shallow public-private partnerships in which the corporate actors are really in charge. While the public is hung out to dry with effectively no defense or recourse since our political rights have evaporated into market choices. In a recent journal article, law professor Zephyr Teachout calls this ideology “‘postpolitical’ democratic theory — a vision of democracy without a major political role for the citizens within it.”

It will take a lot of worthwhile work to dissolve the pro-corporate consumerist ideology and replace it with one that is focused on actually protecting citizens. But change has to first start somewhere. So, next time somebody is going on about consumer protections or what’s good for consumers, you should ask why not be concerned about citizen protections or what’s good for citizens. And see what new meanings, consequences, and possibilities that switch reveals. 

Jathan Sadowski is a freelance writer and Ph.D. student in the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He writes about social justice and political economy of technologies.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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