Al Gore says Silicon Valley is a “stalker economy”

By Yasha Levine , written on June 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Sarah Lacy kicked off the Nashville Southland Conference on Tuesday morning by interviewing former vice president Al Gore.

I was in the audience listening to the interview and was surprised and impressed with his willingness to address serious tech-related issues head on. He called NSA's mass surveillance operations unconstitutional, quoted from James Bamford's book "The Puzzle Palace," criticized the ongoing push to privatize public education and repeatedly talked about America's yawning wealth inequality and the hijacking of its political system by the ultra rich. He also argued against the idea that charity can replace government, and dismissed the widely held belief in the tech world that capitalism and markets are somehow more efficient than democracy.

Even more surprising: Gore's readiness to talk about the dangers posed by Surveillance Valley's for-profit surveillance business model.

After explaining that excessive government spying is detrimental to our democracy, he pivoted — unprovoked — to the private sector:

Al Gore: Okay, so governments — that’s one threat. But, business are collecting way more information than they should. We now have a stalker economy where customers become products. And I’m not the first one to say that. You’ve written about that.

Sarah Lacy: Why are people not more outraged about this? We write about that all the time. I’m more scared of what Google knows about me than what the government knows about me.

AG: Yeah, it is…Here’s the answer to your question: Every time we — collectively — have had a choice between convenience and privacy slash security, we’ve chosen convenience. But we are rapidly approaching a gag point where people suddenly realize — whoa wait a minute, you mean that Earth Inc has a digital file that is being sold not only to advertisers but to whoever has the coin to purchase it that has everything that people do online. We are reaching a gag point. … That’s why there is now a surge for a lot more privacy and I think that eventually we’ll get there.

It’s great that Al Gore (who is also a partner in the powerful Kleiner Perkins Silicon Valley VC firm) is now calling attention to big tech's for-profit surveillance business model. This is something that I and others at Pando have written about over and over and over again. And it's pretty amazing that his views on the issue of Internet privacy are infinitely more progressive and sophisticated than those of online rights advocates like Fight For The Future or EFF — groups that want to stop online government espionage, but have no problem with private companies doing exactly the same thing.

His current alarm at the scale of private-sector surveillance is particularly good considering that not so long ago Gore was a big booster of Google’s hyper-invasive profiling technology, going as far as helping the company talk down a California law maker who wanted to create stronger online privacy protections.

Yep, that’s right. Back in 2004, when Google had just launched its Gmail service, Gore was called in to intimidate California State Senator Liz Figueroa, who was planning on introducing legislation that banned Gmail-style email scanning and profiling. In the words of Google’s head of public policy Andrew McLaughlin, the company “mobilized the Big Al.”

Here’s how Steve Levy described the operation in his book “In The Plex”: Google [Al Gore] agreed to become a “virtual board member,” with the formal appellation of senior adviser, consulting with the five or six top leaders at Google and occasionally helping pull a lever or two with a government contact. … McLaughlin asked Gore to speak to the Democrat state legislator who was giving Google a privacy hotfoot.

Figueroa agreed to meet with Gore at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, where the former vice president was staying. Gore was ready for her. He launched into a defense of Gmail that was nearly as elaborate as the climate change slide show that would later help him share the Nobel Peace Prize. “He was incredible,” says McLaughlin. “He stood up and was drawing charts and did this long analogy to the throw weight of the ICBM, the Minuteman missile.”

“It was a full and candid discussion,” Gore would later recall, while claiming not to recall the ICBM analogy. “We talked through the fairly complicated nature of the advertising model that had the robotic analysis, without giving any human being any access to email.” Eventually, Figueroa modified her bill to permit the kind of automated scanning Google performed in Gmail. That was ten years ago. Hopefully, today's privacy advocates can similarly "mobilize the Big Al" against Silicon Valley's stalker economy and fight for the right to privacy online.

Want to know more? Read Pando’s coverage of Surveillance Valley