- Interview by
- Lola Brittain
Big Tech is fast becoming public enemy number one. Following revelations relating to Cambridge Analytica, criticism has developed from a quiet murmur into a full-blown tech-lash. Information about the exploitative, invasive, and dehumanising practices of platform giants has trickled into our collective consciousness, and while it was once in-vogue to claim that platforms would revolutionise society for the better, it is now uncontroversial to decry the companies that operate them as profit-crazed corporate entities threatening freedom, democracy, and human autonomy. And yet, little has been offered by way of alternative.
Until now. In his new book, Platform Socialism, James Muldoon articulates a vision for a democratically controlled and socially owned digital economy. Tribune spoke to him about Platform Socialism and what it would take to transform our digital infrastructure into something which prioritises not profit, but public good.
There are many existing accounts of what is wrong with Big Tech. Platform Socialism differs in that it provides a vision for an alternative. Before we turn to what Platform Socialism proposes, can you explain the problem with platforms today?
Many of today’s digital platforms function as value capture devices. Companies began to realise that when it comes to digital services, it is more profitable to create the digital environment within which other people do the work. So, if we take the example of Facebook’s recent rebrand as Meta, their ambition is to create a hybrid offline/online world in which everything you do can be monetised—essentially, to operate the digital infrastructure of our social lives. It is hard to imagine any of the major platforms fundamentally reforming as they exist to make money for their shareholders and are incentivised to put things like engagement and growth ahead of other considerations.
A critique of platforms that has gained significant attention is Shoshana Zuboff’s. In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she argues that tech companies have tricked us into foregoing privacy and autonomy for convenience.
You argue that this critique fails to apprehend what is really going on with the digital economy. Why is that?
Many people presumed that Surveillance Capitalism provided a Marxist framework for understanding digital capitalism. The book, however, is not a critique of digital capitalism, but digital surveillance technologies. It successfully unpacks the business model of advertising platforms like Google and Facebook that offer a free service in exchange for users selling data to third parties. But in seeking to isolate the surveillance imperative from companies’ pursuits of profit, it falsely assumes this is some rouge mutation of capitalism when in fact, many of the problems that Surveillance Capitalism diagnoses are a consequence of the extension of capitalism’s underlying logic of commodifying human life. Simply put, this most recent generation of tech companies is capitalism with digital toys.
Now let’s talk about the alternatives. Certain Big Tech critics have argued that the route to democratisation is either worker control or top-down nationalisation. You argue instead that the democratic structure of individual platforms must reflect the function that they perform. Why is a digital economy rooted in the principle of pluralism preferable?
We need a diverse ecosystem of alternative ownership models that range from small-scale co-operatives to municipally-owned services, right up to national and international organisations. It is limiting to think exclusively in terms of top-down nationalisation or workers’ control. The nationalisation schemes of the twentieth century often neglected questions of workplace democracy and worker participation in the decision-making process. But handing tech platforms directly over to workers fails to account for the variety of other users who rely on platforms and thus deserve a say in how they are run.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to turn to different types of organisations depending on the nature of the platform. The principle of subsidiarity is key. Platforms need to be governed at the most local and proximate level that still enable them to function efficiently and sustainably. Democracy often works best at a more local level and there are a range of platforms that could be run by smaller worker co-operatives, such as courier services and handywork. However, there are other examples which would require international organisations, such as social media.
Before we get to international organisations, let’s talk about your proposals for democratisation at the local level. You draw here on the new ‘municipalist movement’ and platform co-operatives as inspiration. Could you explain these traditions and their relevance to Platform Socialism?
When we talk about decentring the role of the state and empowering local communities and municipal organisations, this has a lot in common with the new municipalist movement. This movement is about devolving power, but also about transforming how power operates to democratically transform cities and change the ways we fight for social justice.
The second tradition that the book draws on is platform cooperativism—businesses that are owned and operated by workers which use digital platforms to sell products and services. This emerging movement is about considering how smaller organisations can challenge the big corporate platforms and offer genuine alternatives that treat workers ethically, share the value that is created on the platform, and provide public goods.
The idea with the book was to look at existing prototypes that draw on these traditions. One example is the DECODE Project, which stands for Decentralised Citizen-Owned Data Eco-systems. In one of the pilots run in Barcelona and Amsterdam, residents were given sensors to place in their neighbourhoods to gather data on air quality, noise pollution, energy usage, and so on. It allowed people to share data and create public value from a data commons while retaining privacy protection over their personal information. It is just one example of a municipal authority attempting to democratise the use of technology and flip the script on how we could build a data commons to serve the public.
The book offers plenty of other examples at the local but also the national level, such as Mercado Justo, the state-run alternative to Mercado Libre, the Argentinean Amazon. You emphasise, however, that the difficulties really begin when you get to the international level. What are the key challenges and what does Platform Socialism propose in response?
Imagining democratically owned platforms at the global level is absolutely necessary, but incredibly difficult, as you say. When you consider questions about global supply chains, mineral extraction, and the international scope of tools such as social networks, these cannot be addressed within the boundaries of a single national state. However, when we think about what kind of democracy could exist in the international digital economy, I admit it is difficult, and this is partly because democracy operates so imperfectly in nation-states, but also, of course, at the level of international institutions. When thinking about international organisation, we need to be attentive to relations of digital colonialism which are synonymous with the tech sector that has supported American firms to plunder the Global South both for resources and as markets for their products.
During the pandemic, tech critics called for companies such as Amazon to be nationalised. This would go some way to making them better services as they wouldn’t have the same incentives to exploit people, but what we need to do is internationalise them. The problem is, we don’t even have the language to talk about what international democratisation would look like, as our vocabulary of social ownership comes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the forms of national production that existed then.
In trying to take a first step towards thinking about how to democratise an international digital economy, I call for the creation of a Global Digital Services Organisation which could be established from a levy on Big Tech and later funded by countries’ contributions to the United Nations. It could exist as a specialised agency of the United Nations, like the International Labour Organisation. It is just one possibility, and it should be read as an attempt to put some ideas on the table, but the mission of this kind of organisation could be to improve access to technology and connectivity, fund projects in the Global South, and allow designers and developers to create new products for everyone to use. It could also help establish the right to access internet and broadband networks, especially in places with a large digital divide.
In the same chapter, you envisage a global not-for-profit search engine. What would this look like and how might it be achieved?
We need a public service engine that gives us access to our collective knowledge without tracking and surveilling us for advertising revenue. A publicly funded version of Google Search could eliminate the advertising model and enable the service to run free at the point of use. This could be administered by a not-for-profit foundation, and its mission may end up looking a lot more like Wikipedia.
The issue is, unlike Wikipedia, such a service would require huge investment to run an index of websites and fund the necessary data centres. We would need to generate the political will to have a public organisation fund this kind of thing, which would be really difficult. Another alternative I entertain is the possibility of transforming Google into a not-for-profit foundation. This poses both technical and political issues, but it might be an avenue to run it as a service for humanity.
I also wanted to talk about your vision for a democratised social media. You argue for a model of digital communication that relies on a free and open-source ecosystem of decentralised yet interoperable platforms. Can you explain what you mean by this?
So let’s look at this in comparison to search engines. When we look at the function of a search engine, it is inefficient to have twenty different versions when effectively we only need one. With social media, however, it is not necessarily desirable to have a single content moderation service and database responsible for all the world’s political communication. It makes much more sense to have a broad ecosystem of platforms with open standards and shared protocols through which users can access content and communicate within a federal framework. A platform socialism model of social media would look like an open fediverse made up of individual semi-autonomous nodes which remain connected within a larger system. This makes it possible to coordinate without the need for an overly centralised model of either platform monopolies or state bureaucracy.
So people would be able to communicate across platforms?
Yes. The principle of interoperability is key. This means designing software that allows people to communicate across platforms. If we take the example of email, it doesn’t matter what email server you use, you can send emails to anyone. This was one of the fundamental principles of the early web—that information should be free, and we should be able to communicate with anyone we want. The fact that you can’t today is part of the effort of corporate platforms to maintain monopoly power.
And in terms of content moderation, how would this work?
Each community would have the power to decide what standards to enforce, and we could move from secretive corporate standards towards a position where norms would be decided by users. This raises its own problems, such as the burdensome nature of platform moderation. So, we might see civil society organisations offering content moderation software that communities could employ to filter out child pornography or forms of racial abuse, among other things. This would also require some work by communities in handling other types of disputes in terms of moderation.
Finally, the book makes clear that challenging the power of Big Tech is not easy. Still, you emphasise that cracks are beginning to show. What are they and how might they be exploited to build Platform Socialism?
One of the points I wanted to get across with the book is that despite the dominance of big tech companies, they are incredibly reliant upon users’ social activity for the value that is produced. There are other ways we could organise these activities that don’t rely on for-profit platforms. But ultimately, this is a question of the distribution of power in society and challenging Big Tech will also involve building worker and user power in concrete institutional forms.
The book focuses on digital infrastructure because it is only through owning and governing this that we will be able to develop alternatives to corporate platforms. Worker resistance is an important part of that struggle, but we need to combine it with other strategies such as better regulatory frameworks. However, the struggle to increase competition in the tech sector is not the same as democratising platforms. There are clear limits to the anti-trust agenda that wants to break up Big Tech, and we need to focus on attempts to build alternatives and treat digital services as public goods that are free for everyone to use.