The Internet Platforms We All Use Should Be Publicly Owned and Democratically Controlled

James Muldoon

Web3 shows how our online lives are increasingly being monetized. It’s time to take democratic control of the internet — turning the platforms we all use into free public services.

Working, socializing, and accessing services online is already an integral part of everyday life. That doesn’t mean we have to accept that our online existence should be constantly monetized. (Brett Jordan / Unsplash)

Interview by
David Broder

The rise of social media has caused many doom-laden predictions about civilizational decline. Films like The Social Dilemma express a liberal “techlash” that blames our overreliance on sites like Facebook for everything from Donald Trump to the mental health crisis.

But nostalgic complaints about the pre-internet age rarely ask how we this technology might be run differently. Working, socializing, and accessing services online is already an integral part of everyday life. That doesn’t mean we have to accept that our online existence should be constantly monetized, any more than we’d accept this “in real life.”

James Muldoon is author of Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim Our Digital Future from Big Tech, a manifesto for digital technology run on noncapitalist lines. He spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the power of the tech giants and how we could remold our online lives on more democratic bases.


DB

Some might argue that companies like Google and Facebook have created something new that people want and need. You don’t necessarily have to pay to use them, and you could choose not to do so. In what sense are they like other things we think of as “public services,” or even basic necessities of life? Are there signs that using them is becoming more compulsory?

JM

There is a strong argument that certain digital services like a search engine or social network are now essential for living in most societies. Liberal reformers have made the case that because these companies operate in marketplaces with tendencies toward natural monopolies, we should extend the idea of public utilities from infrastructure to software in order to redress power imbalances arising from private control of these services.

In the past, the concept of public utility was used to justify a range of different remedies from increased state regulation to outright public ownership. With the case of digital infrastructure, the debate has been framed largely in terms of national regulations, which limits the options available and leaves questions of workplace democracy and user control over platforms largely unaddressed. It’s a very technocratic approach that enables a small group of American politicians and lawyers to dictate the terms for how global services are used by billions around the world.

Socialists should want communities to exercise greater control over the design and governance of these services and not leave them in the hands of billionaire shareholders and institutional investors. We should also not limit our imagination to essential services that could be argued to fall within a new class of digital utilities. There is a case for social ownership over a wider range of services in the digital economy to ensure more widespread democratization. Why stop at search engines without addressing short-term rentals, food delivery, and e-commerce platforms, for example?

DB

Your book defends the value of socialists contributing to visions of the future while also drawing on present trends. Vladimir Lenin cited the German post office as an example of the centralized organization that could be taken over by a truly “social management,” a theme also present in The People’s Republic of Walmart. So, could we say something similar of online platforms today — and could the spread of algorithmic technology be a good thing?

JM

Some platforms can be incredibly useful for connecting people, reducing search time, and solving problems of trust through verification systems. Who would want to live in a world without social networks, search engines, and online encyclopedias? But technology is not neutral, and many of these systems have been designed to serve particular interests, so it’s not going to be a matter of flicking a switch and suddenly the whole machine will be working for the public good. At the same time as we discuss questions of ownership and governance, we should also be reconsidering how the services are run and what we would like to change.

What I don’t think we should do is abandon the field and leave technology to the libertarian right. We need to liberate technology from capitalism and show that platforms and other digital services can be an important part of our emancipatory future. It’s not enough to criticize the latest round of tech innovations from Silicon Valley. We should have our own vision of 2030 that shows how we believe technology could make our lives richer and more meaningful.

How we do this in practice is unlikely to follow a single centralized or decentralized model applicable to every platform. In the book, I set out how a diverse ecosystem of alternative ownership models could be deployed from the local to the global level. The principal of subsidiarity is important here. Democracy often works best at a more local level, and platforms should be owned and operated by communities at the most local level to maintain efficiency and sustainability.

We could imagine many digital services functioning at a municipal or city level by workers’ cooperatives and municipally owned services. This could include courier services, household and domestic services, and food delivery. However, in the case of other platforms like social networks, it would only make sense for larger publics at a national and international level to govern them.

DB

What is the difference between a nationalized platform that has some sort of quango regulatory body (in the manner of say, the BBC) and the kind of democratic alternative that you suggest? How would you apply a cooperative model to a structure where the number of people directly involved in running it is tiny compared to the user base?

JM

We should look to the function the platform performs and its community of users to determine the best path forward for how users can be given ownership and governance over the platform. Part of the excitement behind Web3 today is from legitimate criticisms people have concerning the lack of transparency of big platforms and how disempowered users are. There is a genuine desire for people to have more of a say in how online services and communities function.

The democratic alternatives I mention in the book are generally prototypes and models where communities have more participatory rights in determining the rules of the game. It’s not just about national public funding. Communities should be able to participate in some forms of decision-making and play a role in agenda setting for the organization. There is always going to be some element of democratic leadership, but ordinary users need to be empowered to have their voices heard on issues where it counts.

As you mention, platforms bring together very diverse groups of people, some of whom may have different interests or different stakes in the organization. Some platform cooperatives are experimenting with varieties of multistakeholder governance that give different groups a share in the governance of the organization that is weighted based on their type of involvement. Workers for the platform might get more of a say with work schedules and issues that directly affect them, for example. You might also want something like a 20/40/40 split in governance rights between workers/customers/sellers on a streaming or e-commerce platform. This kind of setup can be determined by those who are using the platform and further debated as circumstances change.

DB

You cite Erik Olin Wright talking about “present utopias.” Certainly, some uncommodified and collaborative platforms have a wide use, for instance Wikipedia, which has blown its private competition out the water, and you suggest it points to how something like Google might work. What would that look like — and why do you think it hasn’t happened already? Is it to do with the nature of the product itself?

JM

I don’t think access to humanity’s collective knowledge should be controlled by a for-profit company. If we had sufficient public funding, we could offer a search engine that was free to use and didn’t involve a surveillance and advertising business integrated into the software. It hasn’t happened yet because it would be so expensive and Google has been very effective at maintaining a monopoly over the search market.

The Wikimedia Foundation only needs to rent webspace and so has relatively low operating costs at around $100 million per year. But a search engine requires a much larger database and more sophisticated software, increasing the costs of storage and computational capacity. It’s going to be a thousand times more expensive, and it’s not something that you can have volunteers sign up for to edit a few pages. So, there are added challenges there. But the biggest hurdle is generating the political will. It would require a broad consensus that it was in the public interest to have a digital tool free from corporate control and funded by some kind of public body.

If we had a truly public search engine, we could begin asking important questions about how ranking algorithms should operate. Currently, they are a trade secret, which means we have no say over the algorithms that organize so much of what we see online. There is no way of avoiding some process of sorting and ranking, and this is necessarily going to involve difficult political questions. But it’s a debate we need to have. We should develop the institutions and processes to discuss these issues and for people to be made more aware about how such algorithms function. The way we rank websites as authoritative and influential reflect important social values that should be transparent and open to debate.

DB

Much platform-related labor organizing has centered on recognition that, e.g., Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders are, in fact, employees. But with platforms like Fiverr or Mechanical Turk, the technology itself seems to allow a dismantling of job roles and the creation of a more fragmentary and ephemeral relationship to work, which doesn’t seem conducive to unionization. Do these trends create new bases for organizing as workers — or is the necessary response more directly political and institutional?

JM

There are so many factors that make it difficult for microworkers on platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to organize through traditional methods. They are dispersed throughout the world, work irregular hours in private locations, and have few direct means of communication with other workers. Furthermore, in most jurisdictions, they are classified as self-employed and have no employment rights. Phil Jones’s excellent book on this topic, Work Without the Worker, ends on a slightly grim note when the reader is confronted with just how difficult it will be for workers in this industry to organize.

There are online forums where microworkers discuss issues and band together to raise funds for fellow workers. There are also initiatives like Turkopticon, which is a browser plug-in that overlays a worker’s screen on the platforms and allows them to write reviews about requesters, reversing the usual practices of the platform. This model could be generalized to other platforms. But as important as these efforts are, they aren’t the same as collectively organizing for power. If this model of work continues to grow and spreads to a range of industries, it’s difficult to see this as anything but capital reasserting its dominance over labor.

One possible response is to rethink the legal framework of who receives employment rights. At the Autonomy think tank, we are working on a new report about universal workers’ rights that would grant all individuals engaged in work a set of basic rights. This would cover those typically denied them on zero-hour contracts or who are classified as independent contractors or self-employed. The aim is to reconfigure employment law to keep up with the realities of modern work so that those in the gig economy would not be left without any protections under the law. Such a scheme could have employers paying into a state fund that all workers could apply to for sick pay, holiday pay, childcare, and other benefits.

DB

In your portrait of one possible future for 2042, you imagine a kind of TripAdvisor for employment called “WorkIt,” generalizing the ratings systems that exist already on Care.com or Uber. Do you think there is any prospect of resisting such developments and their possible expansion in the creation of more integrated “social credit” systems?

JM

Many workers are already forced to work under such ratings systems, as they are ubiquitous on most platforms. It opens workers up to further surveillance and arbitrary behavior from clients and customers. We already have so much monitoring and surveillance in our financial institutions, workplaces, and social networks, it seems we are already approaching something resembling a universal ratings system in everything but name.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Warwick, the university tried to create a subsidiary company that would employ students on casual contracts via new software that would include a ratings system. The idea was that every graduate student who could teach for the university would be available in a flexible labor pool with their experience and ratings accessible to all university departments. They would be constantly rated by students and their professors, and the ratings would be stored on the system. The university wanted to pilot this software at Warwick and then sell it to other universities across the country.

Students organized against this scheme and threatened to boycott all teaching if the university went forward with the idea. After several tense meetings and attempts to reach a compromise, the university was forced to shelve the plans due to widespread opposition. These kinds of systems are not inevitable. The problem is they are introduced promising a range of benefits or are even seen as an inevitable development that can’t be resisted. Even with the dispute at Warwick, it was introduced alongside the possibility of a small pay raise to help sweeten the deal.

One of the points of the book was to show us that there are different ways of developing this technology and that we should continue exploring alternatives to the current generation of corporate platforms. The book opens with a quote from Ernst Bloch, which I find very relevant to our tech future: “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.”