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Disruption Network Lab’s Joana Moll on online data exploitation

INTERVIEW! Fresh off the stage from her Disruption Network Lab talk this weekend, research artist Joana Moll's latest work investigates how online companies are using us for free labour and energy. She tells us more about how we're being exploited.

Image for Disruption Network Lab's Joana Moll on online data exploitation

Photo by Jan Slavik, DOX. Joana Moll’s presented her latest artwork The Secret Life of an Amazon User at Disruption Network Lab conference in Berlin.

Berlin and Barcelona-based research artist Joana Moll is a dedicated voice calling out the “exploitative” activities of internet companies. Building on her previous artworks, which dealt with how online dating companies generate profit from selling users’ data, her new project The Secret Life of an Amazon User explores the practice in the context of free labour and environmental impact. Fresh off the stage from her Disruption Network Lab talk this weekend, we caught up with Moll to find out more about what online companies really know about their users and whether it’s possible to keep your data secret.

How would you describe your latest project The Secret Life of an Amazon User?

The project talks about the double exploitation of the user going on in any online business. The user’s activities are being recorded and this information creates profit. It’s a very simple way to put it. But also part of the energy needed to perform this exploitation falls on the user because all these data collection processes happen on the user’s computer. It’s about this double exploitation: free “labour” plus being forced to assume part of the environmental impact of it, the energy consumption.

It links up very well with your 2018 artwork called The Dating Brokers, looking at the data being sold from online dating companies. Can you share more about this project?

I bought one million profiles from a data broker selling dating profiles. A million profiles with five million pictures and very detailed descriptions of every user for €136. It sounds very cheap when you see the amount, but then you can’t really tell if that’s cheap or not. We don’t have a measure to quantify the value of data. All the data that’s being extracted from us, it’s being exploited by third parties and we don’t know what they are doing with it or all the benefit that this generates for them.

The main company that was exploiting these profiles was called Match Group, which is the biggest online dating company in the world. At least for 2019. It owns platforms like Tinder, OkCupid, Match and Meetic.

What was the reaction you received when you presented your artistic research?

Every time I give this talk people are very frustrated, very scared and very angry at the same time. A lot of people use Tinder and OkCupid, but they also feel so helpless. It’s really impossible to fight these companies on an individual level.

Match Group got angry. This project was commissioned by Tactical Tech and Match Group contacted them; it was very weird because they just asked us to change some things they said weren’t true. But they didn’t prove it, they couldn’t. They threatened us with legal action, but nothing happened because we weren’t defaming them. 

I know there is an open letter to Match Group,in which users complain about their information being sold on. They don’t mention the project, but I have the feeling that it has something to do with it.

Can you protect yourself and use these companies’ services? The answer is: not really. Either you get tracked or you can’t participate.

The Dating Brokers is presented as an ad. How did you come up with the visual representation?

It took me a while to understand how I wanted to present this, but then I just thought this is so grotesque: I could just buy all this data. Let’s do a grotesque thing. Because this is what it really is. Let’s do something spam-ish that really exemplifies how these companies are actually doing their business, like an auction market. In the end it’s the same thing.

Is there a way for users to track what websites are doing with their data and see what’s happening?

Not completely. You can sort of see the scripts that are being called from your computer and then you can try to read the code. If you are an experienced developer you might be able to understand a part of it, but not all of it. It’s very hard to make sense of, very opaque. Users should be able to understand what code does exactly if it affects their privacy. Code should be cleaner in many ways, not just for privacy purposes but also to make websites more sustainable in many ways. 

The GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] forces companies to disclose the amount of third parties with whom a particular website is connected to/shares user data with. It also allows the user to opt-out, however, when you try to do that sometimes you can’t opt-out completely and you don’t have a proper way to verify that those webistes comply with the choices of the user. However I do think GDPR is a good first step.

With the Amazon project I measured the number of interfaces that Amazon made me go through to buy a book. It was 12 interfaces. I managed to track almost 9000 pages of written code. Good luck reading that and trying to make sense of what it is.

Do you have recommendations for how to block the data from being gathered?

It’s very hard to tell. I’m not a privacy expert. The most efficient is using browser add-ons such as NoScript, but then a lot of websites are not working. Can you protect yourself and use these companies’ services? The answer is: not really. Either you get tracked or you can’t participate.

So it’s best to stay away from big companies…

Yes, but then again, I tried to quit WhatsApp for so long… I can’t. Most of my friends use WhatsApp and it’s just habit. Any privacy effort can’t be done on an individual level; it has to be a community level. Otherwise you are super isolated, and you’re not supposed to solve all these problems by yourself. Then it just replicates the neoliberal tendency that the individual has to do everything, solve everything. It doesn’t work like that.

What led you into these different art projects, looking at what’s behind the interface?

I’ve been working on this topic since 2009. I always wanted to understand how things really worked, to unveil complexity. A lot of times we forget to do this, and it’s harder and harder because most of the technology and infrastructure that we use are totally hidden from our eyes. But they are a critical part of our lives, making us operate the way we do. 

What is the impact of these activities on a global scale?

It’s massive. In 2015 the internet information technology accounted for almost five percent of the global electricity use and by 2025 it’s expected to take 20 percent. That is what it really means, and that’s super critical to address. There’s a huge lack of accountability in society, both corporate and political.

Why did you decide to take part in Disruption Network Lab?

Tatiana Bazzichelli invited me to Disruption Network Lab in 2016 and it’s a great project. For me it’s one of the reference projects in terms of art and activism in the world, let alone Europe. I really respect it.