📑 Neofeudalism and the Digital Manor

Bookmarked Cory Doctorow: Neofeudalism and the Digital Manor (Locus Online)

To engage in data-collection in the wake of 2013 isn’t just an oversight, it’s an act of collaboration with the forces of surveillance. In 2020, Google has admitted that it is being required to respond to “reverse search warrants” that reveal the identities of every person who was present at a certain loca­tion at a certain time; and “search-term warrants” to reveal the identities of every person who used a specific search-term. These warrants are utterly foreseeable. Google collects this data, so governments will require them to turn it over – and not just the US government, either.

As with Apple, the best way for Google to avoid being ordered to turn over data on its users is to not collect or retain that data in the first place. And, as with Apple, the next best thing is to give users the power to turn off that data-collection and data-retention altogether, something Google’s gotten marginally better at in the past year.

Reflecting on Apple’s move to restrict which operating systems are able to run, Cory Doctorow discusses what Bruce Schneier has called ‘feudal security’. This is where we hand over power and trust to platform capitalism to keep us say.

The security researcher (and Hugo Award-nominee) Bruce Schneier has a name for this arrangement: he calls it feudal security. Here in the 21st century, we are beset by all manner of digital bandits, from identity thieves, to stalkers, to corporate and government spies, to harassers. There is no way for us to defend ourselves: even skilled technologists who administer their own networked services are no match for the bandits. To keep bandits out, you have to be perfect and perfectly vigilant, and never make a single mistake. For the bandits to get you, they need merely find a single mistake that you’ve made.

To be safe, then, you have to ally yourself with a warlord. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a few others have built massive fortresses bristling with defenses, whose parapets are stalked by the most ferocious cybermerce­naries money can buy, and they will defend you from every attacker – except for their employers. If the warlord turns on you, you’re defenseless.

Going further, Doctorow ponders if in fact it is ‘manorial security’:

Schneier calls this “Feudal Security,” but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably “Manorial Security” – while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.

The problem is that we are then at the whims of somebody else’s choices or, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, abuses. In response, Doctorow posits that rather than a turn towards survellance, companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have an opportunity for a Ulysses Pact where in a position of strength these platforms decide to step away from shady data practices.

In his own commentary, Alan Jacobs suggests that this is why the open web is so important.

So let me bang this antique drum one more time: You need to own as much of your turf as you can. I explain why and how, in detail, in this essay. Avoid the walled gardens of social media, because at any moment they could appeal to digital eminent domain and move the walls somewhere else, and if they did you’d have zero recourse.

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