"The only way I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel" (Jeff Bezos, Business Insider, Aug 6 2019)
Jeff Bezos offered the comment quoted above regarding the wealth that he has acquired as Amazon’s CEO and dominant shareholder.1 Here we consider the harms produced by Amazon, along with other so-called Big Tech companies - Apple, Google/Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft,2 and offer a better proposal for how we might collectively redeploy their enormous revenues in the service of earthly flourishing. The Black Lives Matter-led movement against systemic racism, and the long abolitionist organizing movement in the United States,3 provide important context for our efforts.4 We are inspired by renewed calls to Defund the Police in the United States, which have reinvigorated vital debate regarding the funding of police departments, who is actually served by them, and what forms of historical injustice are perpetuated by current institutions of policing and incarceration.5 In the context of the abolitionist movement, to defund means to invite local and regional communities to decide how to redirect the disproportionate funds now invested in enforcement and imprisonment to support alternative, more holistic forms of well being and public safety infrastructure.6 In the spirit of that movement, we adapt some of its key concepts to the domain of public/community information and communications (ICT) infrastructures, particularly those now dominated by Big Tech. Our proposal is grounded on a key premise: to redirect Big Tech ’s excessive revenue flow, we must transform the conditions and funding structures that enable it. The aim is to free up resources to support a wide range of socially beneficial ends, not least community-based and community-oriented initiatives to develop digital infrastructures that better serve the public interest. While we are not calling for the demise of Big Tech, we are calling for radical reform. This includes abolition of the conditions that create and normalize Big Tech’s disproportionate reach over key ICT infrastructure, and their wide ranging negative consequences for society and the environment. We aim to retain — and expand — the many benefits that people currently derive from digital technologies, while better addressing their individual and collective needs.
We write at a critical historical juncture. The global Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the vital role that digital technologies play in so many peoples’ lives. This has contributed directly to Big Tech’s burgeoning fortunes while the rest of the economy is experiencing the worst crisis since the Great Depression. These growing wealth and informational disparities have sharpened recent calls by government and civil society to break up Big Tech’s monopolistic market power.7
We begin with a review of the mythical, and the actual, origins of Big Tech-dominated ICT infrastructure, as well as the harms that the existing system has brought. We then discuss ways to defund Big Tech, sketching the roles that different actors can play. Finally, we show how we might refund communities, helping them to develop and adopt ICT systems that better address their needs. We promote community tech as a way of redistributing resources to empower individual and collective initiatives in alternative infrastructure-building, many of which already exist but are starved for resources. Community tech here comprises a holistic effort to empower people with the ability to build, access and govern digital technologies that serve their interests.
I Why defund Big Tech?
The origin myth of Big Tech is familiar to most of us: Risk-seeking genius entrepreneurs start from nothing and pursue a novel idea, from creation through commercialization and production to scale. According to the logic of this myth, the venture capitalists who, against all odds, followed their ground-breaking vision should reap the rewards: they created the value that fuels the revenue. But, as we explain below, very little of this familiar narrative is true. Its endless retelling only detracts from our ability to see both the challenges and opportunities that new communication technologies present.
First, the Big Tech “visionaries” invariably started with technologies based on research at institutions that rely on significant public funding. The venture capitalists did not take most of the risk, nor did the technologists create the basis for the market valuation of their developments on their own. Instead, as economist Mariana Mazzucato (2013) and others have shown, far from getting out of the way of private innovation the State paves the way. It is the State, not private capital, that funds the long-term, high-risk research and development (R&D) that underpins Big Tech.8 Contrary to the reigning mythology, the State has not only generated the conditions that make Silicon Valley possible, it has also financed the R&D and in many cases supported its products up to the point of commercialization. Virtually every major technology that enables contemporary digital infrastructures, from the Internet itself to the now iconic smartphone, was created by nationally funded R&D long before the technology came to market.9
Second, despite its pivotal role the State has been systematically deprived of the rewards generated from its own innovation investments. Decades of lobbying for deregulation have allowed companies like Apple to avoid ‘paying back’ a share of their profits to the same State that funded much of their success.10 The Big Five exploit their clout to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes, as well as fines when found guilty of offenses. In the end, the State is left with a tail of complex issues to deal with.11
Finally, Big Tech companies are so highly profitable because they generate economic value at enormous scale.12 But who creates much of that value? Users. Facebook and Google sell user profiles, composed of content that was created by their users—not the company. What has value in a user profile is not the data structure, but the record of choices that users make and the content that they create. These choices, and the attention required to produce and consume them, become valuable assets for the platforms to sell to advertisers. Everything else facilitates that value’s extraction and monetization. In the case of Facebook, the company has secured a monopoly on the monetization of the value created by its users and prevents that from being shared more freely.13 Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram similarly rely entirely on their users to create the value that makes other users engage. All of these digital spaces are permeated by ceaseless advertisement. The labor14 of users in creating the value of these platforms can easily be counted in the engagement metrics that companies compile. To further complicate matters, the infrastructures that enable a significant proportion of the value of Big Tech’s key services rest on the shoulders of an extractive, underpaid, wide network of invisible labor,15 which has created a significant proportion of the value at the core of several of Big Tech's key services. A parallel situation plays out in the gig economy, in which workers are beholden to platform companies for uncertain, insecure, and temporary employment. This pipeline of labor is deeply problematic: its globally — and vastly unequally — distributed nature, across what Virginia Eubanks calls "low-rights environments," creates the conditions for a vulnerable workforce with virtually no legal frameworks for advocacy or protection.16 On top of that, this already troubling system is not exempt from the racial and colonial shadows of the past. From the racialization of women of color within the production pipeline of early electronics, to the ethnic stereotyping of South Indian workers as fit for technology-related work, the foundations of value creation of Big Tech, and Silicon Valley more widely, inherit the legacies of racial capitalism.17
So, what is the problem with all of this? At first sight, the rapid growth of Big Tech indicates that these technologies are meeting some societal needs. In just a few decades, Big Tech has become part of the daily life of billions around the globe. Yet the social costs of this approach to digital infrastructure and services are far less visible.18 Driven by a handful of individuals and shareholder imperatives, the Big Five are de facto monopolists, integrated both vertically and horizontally,19 positioning themselves as unavoidable gatekeepers in their respective areas of specialization. This market dominance has brought on multiple anti-trust investigations, by the US Congress,20 the Attorneys General of 50 US states and territories,21 and the EU.22
But the greatest threats that Big Tech wealth poses are to democracy.23 Similar to earlier historical periods when high concentrations of wealth threatened democratic practices, Big Tech companies use their economic power across a wide spectrum of political arenas. They are among the most active lobbyists in the communications and electronics sector,24 pushing the passage of laws in their favor or resisting those that aren’t.25 Brazenly pressing governments for their private gain over public interests, they are often powerful enough to get away with it. In areas where regulation is weak or non-existent, they charge ahead with a ‘catch me if you can’ approach.26 Given the relative novelty of their technological foundations and associated business models, key aspects of Big Tech operations are often arguably at the margins of or even outside conventional legal jurisdictions and regulatory regimes.27 Foremost within the tech industry, the Big Five typically claim that any constraint on their actions would ‘stifle innovation,’ threatening vague but ominous societal costs.28 They conveniently ignore the possibility that their innovations may be harmful and too often are.29
As many have pointed out, the fine-grained capture, analysis and exploitation of personal information to influence behavior on a population-wide scale in the pursuit of private commercial interests constitutes a dangerous form of what scholar Shoshana Zuboff (2018) refers to as ‘surveillance capitalism’. Monetizing the personal information and attention of their users has proven to be so lucrative for advertising-reliant tech companies that they have gone beyond developing features that provide value for users and have systematically designed their services to be ‘addictive’.30 Employing techniques from behavioral psychology that operate subconsciously, these companies ‘hook’ people into acting in ways that serve their commercial advantage. This can have deleterious effects for the individuals concerned, eroding their agency and autonomy. Most notably, these practices have contributed to people being subjected to political manipulation.31
In addition to the familiar ways in which large corporations have long sought to influence political processes, Big Tech’s novel business models, which rely to varying degrees on exploiting the personal information and communications of their users, introduce new openings for the disruption of conventional governance. The most prominent example is the controversy over the damaging role that social media plays in elections, witnessed recently with the storming of the United States Capitol. Facebook is currently the biggest public villain, tarred with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and for enabling hateful speech and inflammatory (mis)information to circulate widely and rapidly on its networks, especially during contentious elections.32
To compound the problems of mass surveillance, rather than reining in Big Tech’s bulk collection and exploitation of personal information, governments have sought to take advantage of their massive data stores and big-data analytic capabilities for State security intelligence purposes, foreign and domestic.33 As Edward Snowden has revealed, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has taken the lead in this regard. Its PRISM surveillance program, in which at least four of the Big Five companies formally participated, was reportedly "the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports."34
One disturbing result of Big Tech's infrastructures becoming an arm of the state is the use of pervasive surveillance to exacerbate the long-term mass incarceration crisis in the United States. Facial recognition, predictive policing and risk profiling algorithms, among other carceral technologies, serve as mechanisms that reproduce a long history of racial policing and discrimination both in the United States and abroad. These technologies are leveraged as weapons "used by law enforcement to identify, profile, and enact violence against categories of people" (Hamid, 2020). These techniques are further fine-tuned and normalized through unwitting participation of the public via consumer products, such as biometric identification on smartphones.
There are further, less direct but no less potent ways that Big Tech enterprises play an outsized role in governance. As forceful promoters of technological solutionism,35 prioritizing technological answers to a broad range of social, economic, political and environmental questions facing contemporary society, they marginalize less intensively technological but possibly more appropriate responses.36 Even where digital technologies can play an appropriate role, Big Tech overly constrains the viable options. For example, instead of treating personal information captured during on-line interactions exclusively as a proprietary corporate asset to be monetized in various ways,37 with appropriate consideration of subject rights, that information could be viewed as a collective or common asset, to be managed through data trusts or cooperatives for public benefit.
Big Tech companies that rely on advertising erode democratic governance38 as well in their undermining of an indispensable feature of democratic deliberation, independent professional journalism.39 As Google and Facebook capture a large and growing proportion of advertising revenues, they deprive conventional news media of the income that supports their reporting40 and they typically refuse to underwrite the cost of producing the news content that attracts people to their platforms. Moreover they allow users to post excerpts of news on their platforms without properly compensating publishers. As a result, publishers’ find themselves drawn into an advertising business model that has serious consequences for independent journalism, and in which the news media that have safeguarded democracy for centuries are starving.41
In sum, Big Tech has shown that digital technologies can offer significant social value, but in a remarkably short period of time the industry has also developed practices that now threaten the capabilities of democratic governance. This brings us to our call for defunding, to ensure that digital technology serves the public interest.
II Defunding Big Tech
In the spirit of the anti-racist defund campaign, we propose to extend the project of resource redistribution to the domain of public infrastructures, and more specifically to the processes through which vital information and communication technologies are developed. In keeping with Ron Deibert’s (2020) and Cory Doctorow’s (2020) recent calls to restrain the forces of surveillance capitalism, we focus first on curtailing the power of Big Tech, while recovering resources currently contributing to its hold on our information and communications infrastructure (defund), which can then be redirected to community-oriented services (refund). These changes will require initiatives on the part of multiple actors, starting with Big Tech itself.
Big Tech (and other tech businesses):
The major tech companies need to take seriously the legitimate concerns about their excessive power and harmful impacts increasingly being voiced by actors across the social, political and economic spectrum. In particular, Big Tech companies need to:
– Pay their fair share of taxes. Lost revenues through tax avoidance by Silicon Valley’s largest companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Microsoft) exceed $100bn globally over the past ten years.42
– Stop secretive lobbying and other behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent regulation. While some degree of lobbying is legitimate, it must be conducted in full public view.43
– Offer API (Application Programming Interface) access to core functions compliant with open standards to enable interoperability with alternate service providers.
– Support the right to repair. If we cannot sustain the functioning of our devices, we cannot ensure they are used to the full.44
History has proven that Big Tech will not take these measures simply on their own initiative. Collective action on the part of civil society and government will be required to exert the pressure and regulatory force that can reshape Big Tech priorities and modes of operation.
Governments and Policymakers:
Government has the primary responsibility to promote the public interest, as well as being the only institution with enough legitimacy, authority and resources to hold Big Tech to account, especially to the degree that it works in concert with civil society. Elected public bodies must act decisively and collaboratively across jurisdictions to regulate Big Tech, require those corporations to pay fair taxes, and through their procurement and contracting powers foster a tech sector that sustainably meets people's information and communication needs. In particular, governments and policymakers need to:
– Revive antitrust laws45 to break up monopolies and uncouple anti-competitive mergers, to enable more competitive markets and rein in excessive political influence.46
– Designate large tech platforms as ‘Platform Utilities,’ prohibiting Big Tech from owning and monetizing both the platform and its users.47
– Require platform interoperability, including to facilitate ‘identity portability’48 to enable alternative business models, including non-profit ones, to emerge without holding users captive.
–Extend producer responsibility to mitigate environmental harms and to support repair versus planned obsolescence.49
– Establish and enforce a reasonable tax regime based on out-sized corporate profits or financial transactions or both, as well as other approaches that refund community.50
– Roll back mass state surveillance, particularly where it depends on secret and unaccountable government access to personal data held by platform providers.51
– Establish strong international privacy and other digital rights regimes, robust enough to effectively protect individuals as well as to help abolish the surveillance capitalism business model.52
– Reduce dependence of public institutions on Big Tech. Across several sectors, notably defense, government services and education, governments have come to rely heavily on Big Tech services, making it harder to rein in their excesses.53 Instead, public institutions could leverage their collective power in order to develop their own services, or support the development of alternative community-governed services that are not controlled by Big Tech.54
– Consult and collaborate with professional organizations, like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), workers and organized labor, advocacy and human rights groups, environmental groups and others to ensure that all voices are heard and that important local knowledge is considered when developing tech policy.
– Consult and collaborate with other governmental bodies, including towns, cities, and regional as well as national, international, and supranational bodies to help ensure that fair, prudent, and non oppressive digital policies are not just enjoyed by a privileged few.
Tech professionals/workers, researchers and their organizations:
As the people most knowledgeable about Big Tech operations, as well as those workers whose labors are essential for Big Tech’s ongoing viability, tech workers have an especially important, transformative role to play. Many entered the industry with high expectations about the contributions they could make to social betterment, but have since become disillusioned.55 While tech researchers are more removed from operations, they too can offer well-informed insights. Working together, these groups need to:
– Organize to oppose egregious Big Tech behaviour, drawing on already successful efforts.56
– Refuse sponsorships from companies violating criteria for good business practices.57
– Work within professional organizations to ensure that these issues get the attention they deserve.58
– Educate technology students about the dangers of Big Tech and how to take responsibility for the systems that they develop.59
– Support professionals worldwide who bring tech abuses to light and encourage community tech.60
– Use their technological expertise and social imagination to work with people in the community as well as with government officials and civil society organizations, to envision, design, build, and manage alternatives to Big Tech and other mainstream corporate approaches.61
Civil society organizations and social movements:
It is often civil society organizations (CSOs)62 and social movements that lead governments to act in the interests of the people they are supposed to serve, and then keep pushing to ensure that they do the right thing. They act as expert watchdogs, policy entrepreneurs and a primary vehicle for effective mobilizing, pressuring corporations and governments into action. While there are many CSOs active in the tech/digital rights field, so far there is not the same degree of social movement mobilization that other areas, such as racial justice and environmental sustainability, have attained. Here are some actions that could be taken:
– Closely monitor Big Tech and hold it to account in such areas as market competition, civil liberties, accessibility, labor and environmental sustainability.63
– Consider alternatives to Big Tech platforms for communicating with supporters, organizing events, and publicizing issues.64
– Cooperate with community members, tech workers, and others in developing and implementing approaches that improve the effectiveness of their efforts without sacrificing their ideals.
– Work with other organizations and networks around the world to ensure that tech companies and governments are using tech responsibly.65
We as individuals (consumers, business, investors):
If we want to abolish the conditions that lead to Big Tech harms while redirecting technology development towards a more just and sustainable future, individual actions, however small, that are commensurate with our skills, means and fields of expertise can cumulatively contribute to significant changes. Many of us are in a position to withhold both the personal information and money that Big Tech relies on, and to re-direct them more positively.66 Here are some steps to take, which are more effective when made in concert and collectively:
– Insist that governments serve their role as defenders of human rights and advocates for the public interest in pursuing the actions identified above, as without this pressure they will likely fail to do so.67
– Recognize that no computing comes without cost, even when offered ‘for free’. We pay collectively for advertising supported services through higher consumer prices. As noted above, we need to consider a host of other hidden costs as well, in terms of democracy, privacy and other civil liberties, and environmental sustainability.
– Resist Big Tech surveillance practices, by using alternative, preferably open source services for search, browsing, emailing, messaging, video conferencing, ad blocking, and web tracker blocking, and mapping.68
– Boycott advertising on Facebook and other platforms that harm democracy and otherwise act egregiously against the public interest.69
– Subscribe to, and when feasible pay for, high quality journalism and other informational resources, rather than simply accessing them through platforms that redistribute content for free without fairly compensating the source.
– Support and work with civil society organizations in their anti-surveillance efforts and other efforts to shape democratic technology.70
– Exercise our democratic rights and responsibilities, e.g. freedoms of expression, communication, privacy, and assembly.
There is growing public support for reining in the power of Big Tech. Anti-trust initiatives are leading the way, with the goal of breaking up the giants and better regulating the industry. However, while these are urgent, vital measures, we need to look well beyond simply allowing the Big Five’s smaller competitors to participate in digital markets that remain driven by conventional business models.71 There is currently a rare window of opportunity to consider how these enormous revenue flows can be put to re-orienting technology development to better serve much wider societal aims.
III Refunding Community
The principal purpose of defunding Big Tech is to reduce its out-sized power and redirect its excessive revenue flows toward better serving human needs. There are many entangled areas of societal crisis that call for priority treatment, including the climate emergency and environmental protection, democratic reform, social in/equality (e.g. resolving economic, class, racial, gender disparities), and criminal justice reform, to name the most prominent. Without challenging these vital claims for resources, we focus here on technology developments aimed at meeting people’s diverse information and communication needs while remaining under community control. We refer to this broadly as community tech.72 We highlight what refunding would look like with regard to key digital technological infrastructures and services. By their infrastructural nature, these technological developments can assist in remediating the multiple crises mentioned above.73
Inspired by projects that imagine an Internet based on radically different foundations,74 here we identify the kinds of community based tech initiatives that would benefit from a redistribution of Big Tech revenues and contribute to re-imagining digital infrastructures. Central to defunding/refunding is a radical democratization of ICT design and governance, drawing on funding models oriented to public well-being rather than private profit.
The aim of these initiatives is not only to retain but also to expand the benefits that people currently derive from digital technologies, while better serving both their individual and collective interests. This process begins with the recognition that many millions of people rely daily on Big Tech's services (e.g. search, email, social networking, news gathering and sharing, mapping and way-finding), making them in effect infrastructural utilities. Like prior utilities such as water, electricity and telecommunications, we cannot allow our digital infrastructure to be operated by unfettered monopolists. Instead, they need to meet public interest criteria75 that include being governed and brought to democratic accountability as public utilities, so that all can enjoy them freely and equitably while helping to shape their direction. Beyond this, community actors also need open access to these digital infrastructures in order to develop new, potentially alternative services attuned to emerging or more localized needs. This vision of community tech represents a hybrid of classic public utility governance of societal infrastructures, and community-led innovation.
Community tech development well precedes the commercialization of the internet and the emergence of Big Tech in the late-1990s. Indeed, key innovations on which Big Tech enterprises have built their empires originated as non-profit, community initiatives in the mid-1970s76 and reached their zenith in the mid-1990s, when over 100 community networks77 around the world were organizing with each other and providing digital services to all, generally without cost and free of surveillance.78 While the community tech sector continues actively to this day, with few exceptions79 community-oriented initiatives remain relatively marginal due to a lack of resources. While tech startups that succeed in providing widely appreciated services can expect to thrive, non-profit ventures that are similarly successful in demonstrating their social value still face a nearly insurmountable hurdle in achieving sustainability. This is largely because they lack a revenue model comparably lucrative to their for-profit alternatives. Just as major public institutions founded on print media in an earlier era, such as schools, libraries and the postal service, would not exist without significant, reliable public funding, initiatives now emerging in the digital era that efficiently produce analogous public/common goods80 should receive comparable support. To accomplish that, funds diverted from current Big Tech subsidies and other revenues should be redirected through a democratically governed public purse to sustainably support essential digital services for all,81 experimentation by the community tech sector to develop new services, and successful initiatives that offer valued public/common goods. In terms of understanding the risks and the opportunities related to information and communication systems, there has never been a better time to establish public institutions appropriate for the distinctive needs and media of the 21st century.
Refunding community implies assuming greater shared responsibility for all aspects of the technology life-cycle, from concept and design to deployment, redesign, repair and retirement. All refunding community work should consider education as part of its mission, including how technology works and how to work with it, but also critical thinking with respect to its social implications. This includes identifying and communicating the real costs of tech and potential future harms, and sponsoring conversations around tech workers and working conditions.
There are now thousands of new projects that support various aspects of democratic decision-making including discussion, deliberation, service design, information sharing, local news aggregation, DIY media, decision-making, environmental monitoring, government transparency, and participatory budgeting. One of the challenges is providing the resources and the institutional infrastructure to keep these projects thriving. The City of Seattle, for example, established a Citizens Advisory Board on Technology (CTAB) that, among other duties, makes small grants to neighborhood tech projects. At a larger scale a Corporation for Public Software entity has recently been proposed that would help ensure that public software, especially deliberative systems, would find a secure place in the public sphere.82 Civic hacking events develop public data and digital applications for civic uses. The Ideas for Change consultancy has developed large EU projects that use participatory design and digital technology such as sensing technology to help people take an active role in improving their city. Barcelona, Spain, is home to a wide variety of innovative community and civic tech projects including Barcelona Ciutat Refugi (Barcelona Refugee City) to help address the humanitarian crisis of millions of displaced people.
At the same time, grand initiatives by Big Tech players to make cities or regions ‘smart’ deserve critical scrutiny, especially proposals that sideline residents. Some of these efforts attempt to shift important public responsibilities into private hands. Many make impossibly confident claims, provide minimal transparency, and hoard public data for their private gain. Local resident organizing has in some cases been effective in halting such projects and opening up possibilities for more genuinely participatory urban planning that takes advantage of digital technologies in ways that reflect local resident needs and aspirations.83
One notable effort offering freedom from Big Tech domination is DECIDIM, a free and open source system for a variety of participatory governance approaches, which is now being used or tested in cities around the world including Barcelona, Milan, Helsinki, and Mexico City.84 Moreover, groups and governments around the world such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies85 are working to share data to help implement smart systems for the common good.86 Recent proposals on the development of data cooperatives, trusts and stewardship models87 are paving the way to community-first data paradigms. Some have recently developed technology in ways that benefit communities, such as Sentilo and DECODE in Barcelona, which focus on urban sensors and making data generated available for public benefit,88 or Telecomunicaciones Indigenas Comunitarias focused on public communications infrastructure in México.89 Others such as Free Geek and Reboot Canada focus on recycling hardware to help provide affordable computing in communities promoting a range of social equity goals.90We Don’t Have Time is a movement and a tech startup that leverages the power of social media to hold leaders and companies accountable for climate change. Many other community tech initiatives worthy of support could be mentioned.
Where conventional forms of democratic decision-making are found inadequate for tackling thorny policy challenges, such as the climate crisis and electoral reform, people have turned to citizens’ assemblies91 as a more popular form of collective deliberation around controversial issues. Citizens’ assemblies may also be suitable for proposing, assessing and recommending strategies for technology development that can be relatively free of the Influence of Big Tech interests and technological solutionism more generally.92 Even more modest public forums, such as debates between contending advocates and questioning of experts, can help people to understand the technological options and limitations of technological solutions for issues of concern, otherwise obscured by Big Tech promotions.
IV Another Tech is Possible
The current mobilization around police violence and systemic racism in the United States reminds us of the deep oppression that has been woven into the social and technological fabric of regions and countries worldwide. Refunding communities will help to strengthen organizations that deploy technologies to acknowledge, support and assist individuals and communities who live with systemic discrimination, oppression or violence. At the same time we know that humankind faces other profoundly serious problems including climate change, pandemics, authoritarianism, and war. For that reason, one critical objective of refunding communities is to support organizing around shared issues. It is vital that we develop coalitions that sustain widely used essential digital infrastructures and foster cooperation among communities, throughout not only the United States but the world.
By allowing corporations and governments to establish the rules regarding technology we have neglected the possibilities for expanding our own agencies, while many using these technologies are adversely affected by them. Resisting the capture of our information and communication infrastructures and redirecting resources to community-oriented and community-based initiatives becomes both more critical, and increasingly difficult, as technology is embedded more deeply, more thoroughly, and less transparently into our minds and bodies, our homes and cities, and the living environment. Now is the time to radically redirect the future of tech, by reclaiming the purposes of technology development, and redistributing the associated responsibilities and benefits, in the service of our collective and sustainable well being.
About the Authors
This article was conceived at a workshop at the 2020 Participatory Design Conference (PDC) entitled "Computing Professionals for Social Responsibility: The Past, Present and Future Values of Participatory Design." One of the contested topics there was whether a new Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), which helped to provide a big tent for issues related to computing in society from 1983 to 2013, should be re-established, or whether working for a coalition with existing efforts was now a better choice. The verdict is still out on that. In the meantime, the authors undertook this statement as a step toward the larger goal of critically addressing the significant computing challenges facing contemporary society.
Wolmet Barendregt Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology
We are grateful for the invaluable feedback that reviewers provided during the drafting process. These include Kade Crockford, Alessandro Delfanti, Paul Dourish, Hamid Ekbia, Shion Guha, Bonnie Nardi, Neve Peric, Srinivas Pillai, Leslie Regan Shade, Karen Louise Smith, Wijnand IJsselsteijn, Ethan Zuckerman, among others. We especially want to thank the Coalition for Critical Technology (CCT) for inspiring us with their recent call to Abolish the #TechToPrisonPipeline, and have modeled our effort on theirs. They also made extensive helpful suggestions for better aligning our statement with the wider Defund movement for racial justice. Needless to say, any shortcomings are the exclusive responsibility of the listed authors.
Buolamwini, Joy and Gebru, Timnit (2018) Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification. Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, Proceedings of Machine Learning Research. 81: 1-15.
Clement, Andrew, Gurstein, Michael, Longford, Graham, Moll, Marita and Shade, Leslie (editors), Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics, Athabasca University Press. 507 pp. Available for free, open access download at: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120193
Costanza-Chock, Sasha (2020) Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.
Dryzek, John S., Nicol, Dianne, Niemeyer, Simon, Pemberton, Sonya, Curato, Nicole, Bächtiger, André, and Vergne, Antoine G. (2020) Global citizen deliberation on genome editing. Science, 369 (6510), 1435-1437.
Dubal, Veena B. (2017) Wage Slave or Entrepreneur: Contesting the Dualism of Legal Worker Identities. Calif. L. Rev., 105, 65.
Ekbia, Hamid. R., & Nardi, Bonnie A. (2017) Heteromation, and other stories of computing and capitalism. MIT Press.
Xiang, Biao (2007) Global "body shopping": an Indian labor system in the information technology industry. Princeton University Press.
Zuboff, Shoshana (2018) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Public Affairs/Perseus.
Appendix - Big Tech’s Financial Power
Market cap 2020
Market cap 2019
Increase in 2020
Founders net worth and world rank 2020
Jeff Bezos $184B (#1)
Steve Jobs (d. 2011)
Mark Zuckerberg $98B (#4)
Larry Page $68B (#10) Sergey Brin $66B (#12)
Bill Gates $115B (#3) Paul Allen (d. 2018)
Market capitalization, sometimes referred to as Market cap, is the value of a publicly listed company. Figures for Revenues and Earnings are based on the latest reports for the trailing twelve months (TTM). Revenues are the total amount of income that a company generates by the sale of goods or services. Earnings are revenues less expenses, before interest and taxes (EBIT).93
Would "Defund police" include a call for "reduce police officers"? Then, would "Defund Big Tech" include calling for the Tech professionals/workers, researchers and their organizations to leave their corporate research jobs for public-good side tech jobs or civil-engagement tech jobs (probably paying less)?
The Washington Climate Assembly is the first of its kind in the United States. The “Assembly is an independently run, non-partisan direct democracy initiative, bringing together roughly 80 state residents, demographically representative in terms of age, race/ethnicity, education, geography, and other socio-economic indicators.” The first statewide citizens’ assembly on climate change is now wrapping up its findings and will soon be presenting them to the Washington State legislature.
As mentioned in this footnote, Australia is one of the countries pushing for Google and Facebook to pay for the content that they scrape from news media sites and pass on to their users. While this represents a promising step in defunding Big Tech, as media scholar Dwayne Winseck points out, just how this is done and who benefits is a matter of public concern.
Thanks for inviting my comments on this! It’s a great piece. Here are some initial thoughts:
* "– Consider alternatives to Big Tech platforms for communicating with supporters, organizing events, and publicizing issues.62"
I think this is easier said than done. Organizations that want to reach people need to go where the people are. They can offer syndication, federation, surveillance-free alternatives, etc, but boycotting a popular medium is no way to build a popular movement.
* "Recognize that no computing comes without cost, even when offered ‘for free’. We pay collectively for advertising supported services through higher consumer prices."
I'm no market trufan, but I think that advertising isn't the culprit here -- rather, monopoly is. Yes, the Google tax means that ad-supported services need to earn supernormal profits to break even, but there are also lots of examples where non-ad-supported businesses (like app stores) also extract a punitive tax. We had ads for a long time - the thing that changed was the consolidation of ads into a few hands (and likewise, the consolidation of other key elements of media and service supply chains, often into the same hands). If paying for a service guaranteed that you weren't treated as a product, then we wouldn't see abusive use of app stores, repair/consumables/parts markets, etc.
* "– Subscribe to, and when feasible pay for, high quality journalism and other informational resources, rather than simply accessing them through platforms that redistribute content for free without fairly compensating the source."
I think this is far too uncritical of the media companies, which are overwhelmingly owned by billionaires and private equity funds - and whose message has been that access to information should be conditioned on your ability to pay and/or surrender your anonymity. Not only does this set up a "the lies are free and the truth is paywalled" dynamic, but allowing media companies to claim excessive control over their reporting gives them a veto over their critics - for example, if I want to criticize the NYT's complicity in the Iraq War (a war that has gone on so long that the children of the soldiers from the first deployment are now fighting in it) I must either link to paywalled sources or quote them, without permission. Given that the NYT just had to return two Peabodies for publishing yet another false account of jihadi activity in the region, I don't think we want to paint giant media companies as victims here.
* One overarching note is that which tech's sins are specific to the capabilities and constraints of tech, the conditions that allow those sins to continue so profitably are universal. We are in the midst of a monopoly pandemic in which EVERY industry (petro, accounting, beer, wrestling, eyeglasses, pharma, pulp and paper, aviation, aerospace, defense, athletic shoes, publishing, cable, spirits, etc etc etc) is monopolized - and is able to mobilize its monopoly rents to suborn its regulators.
This creates the possibility of broad antimonopoly, pro-self-determination, pro-pluralism coalitions between Big Tech fighters, pro wrestling fans, eyeglass wearers, people cheated on tax-preparation services, survivors of the opioid epidemic and the 737 Max scandal, etc - just as the term "ecology" welded thousands of different issues (owls, ozone, whales, fresh water, acid rain, etc etc) into a single movement with thousands of paths to engagement.
The potential political power represented by such a coalition is unimaginably vast - and may still be inadequate to challenging our modern plutocracy, so great is its power. I think that every substantial work about Big Tech needs to note that its bigness did not occur in a vacuum, nor is it sui generis to tech - rather, it's a facet of a contemporary malaise that reaches into every life, even the lives of people who don't care about Big Tech.
As suggested by Richard Hill: “add a reference to McChesney’s 2014 book Digital Disconnect [How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy], which documents the statement in detail.” See also Hill’s review of McChesney’s book