Earlier this week, several hundred anonymous workers at Google and Amazon said in an open letter in the Guardian that they did not support the Nimbus project, which they claim sell dangerous technology to the Israeli military and government. They protested against their employers’ decision to build and provide cloud-based regional data centers and services to Israel.
Is this employee activism perhaps something we will see more of in the future? Will such protests from within contribute to finally put an end to the ever increasing power gained by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and a couple of other platform capitalists?
The Internet may appear free and democratic, but is far from it. The Internet is in the hands of these powerful, global platform capitalists that serve the mainstream and most popular. They may facilitate social cooperation and contact, but simultaneously they reinforce hegemonic narratives and exploit their users, creating divides. Their algorithms are used to optimize our website experiences, most often through lists of the ”most popular” purchases or searches, or through behavior-based personalization. Both are truly harmful since they are naturalizing and preserving existing power structures, confirming socially and culturally held stereotypes and injustices, both locally and globally.
By personalizing, the platform capitalists also extract, simplify and organize human experience for capitalist ends. According to Abeba Birhane, people are treated as nothing but raw data, and mining people for data in this way resembles the colonizer attitude that humans are raw material free to take. Taking our data to increase their profit can thus be interpreted as a form of digital colonization and digital slavery, as I wrote in a previous post.
The platform capitalists, with their digital technologies, have the power to structure our social and economic lives. They are emerging as new superpowers in the world, owning, copying, or destroying competing platforms, which has extremely destructive effects on democracy. We should never forget that WhatsApp and Instagram were own independent successes before Facebook annexed them on their path to build a digital empire, or should I call it an “Online Reich 3.0″…
Well, yes that last reference may seem a bit harsh, but I used it in order to emphasize the seemingly high degree of authoritarianism in these companies. Even though most of them are based in democratic, Western countries, they don’t seem to value democracy and free speech. In the protest letter the Google and Amazon employees write that ”we are anonymous because we fear retaliation”. Protesting the decisions of Western, democratic governments is not compatible with anonymity and fear of retaliation, but protesting the decisions of these companies obviously is.
We need to stop the platform capitalists from creating more divides and more inequality in the world. And we need to attack them on multiple fronts, one important front being from the inside, through employee activism.
The workers end their letter of protest with a ”call on global technology workers and the international community to join with us in building a world where technology promotes safety and dignity for all”.
What do you think? Is this the beginning of a transnational and ”trans-corporational” protest movement?
Want to read more about this? Much of these thoughts are inspired by Abeba Birhane’s The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa, Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, and Mark Graham’s Digital Economies at Global Margins.