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.
Hi Viktor, what a timely topic – have you seen the news from Netflix this week about the firing of an employee who organized the trans employee walkout? https://www.theverge.com/2021/10/15/22728337/netflix-fires-organizer-trans-employee-walkout-dave-chappelle
While I think that these internal employee activists have played a huge role in exposing issues within the huge companies that, to the average person, ARE the internet, many do so at great personal risk to their jobs and safety with very little recourse. I think that more and more people are starting to realize that the self-regulation approach isn’t working but watching senior government people asking about “Finsta” without having any idea of what they’re talking about leaves me feeling pretty skeptical about the possibility of government regulation that doesn’t also then end up creating new problems and opportunities for surveillance.
Thanks for sharing that, Kasia, I hadn’t read that! Interesting! I guess the internal employee activists need to be more in numbers, and unite over boundaries of countries and companies… But still, these companies are really powerful and the personal risk for the individual employee is too high… Not sure if would sacrifice all that if I had a family tp provide for, for example…
But what do you think, no self-regulation, no governmental regulation…. totally unregulated? How are we going to stop their ever increasing power? Guess you don’t have the answer… :-), but I really want to hear your suggestions?
Hi Viktor, I am definitely pro some form of regulation but in the case of the Internet, in most countries (not even authoritarian regimes), the governments haven’t exactly proved themselves to be good “custodians” of the internet…and I am deeply concerned about Governments surveilling people or using big data without transparency. So I don’t know, could there be some sort of ‘other’ regulatory system? by the people for the people? Independent bodies made up of civilians, academics and human rights NGOs? Probably this would not be a perfect solution either but perhaps a better one than what we have?
I also think there should be limits placed on the size of tech companies – why does FB also have to own IG and Whatsapp and who knows what other tech companies which are not so consumer-facing.
Thank you, Kasia, very good points!
I was thinking about your last thought. To stop tech companies from monopolizing is something government actually could regulate. And should.
Also, I’ve been reading a lot about the pluriverse, a world where many worlds fit. I think we need an internet where many worlds fit as well, a pluriweb, and such a future have no room for universalist monopolistic platform capitalistic superpowers…
Hi Viktor, and thanks for another great post. Also, thanks to Kasia for taking the discussion forward by digging deeper into some of the problematic issues in the ‘big tech’ – government duo. As both of you have already commented on the need for government to rein in the big tech, I will not expand on that but will add what is missing – that the reason we are not and will NOT be seeing this happening anytime in near future IS that the government, at least some, have facilitated the growth of the big tech, because they wanted them to do their job of citizen surveillance. And don’t take my word for it, we’ve seen plenty of evidence so far, from Assange to Snowden.
I understand that you drew much inspiration from The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa, which I haven’t read, but I would suggest you look at least at the Digital Colonialism: the Evolution of American Empire, ROAR Magazine (or remember Snowden’s revelations from unpopular reports of a few years ago) – and I’ll quote ROAR article here,
“The economic power of US tech giants goes hand-in-hand with their influence in the political and social spheres. As with other industries, there is a revolving door between tech executives and the US government, and tech corporations and business alliances spend a great deal lobbying regulators for policies favorable to their specific interests — and digital capitalism in general.
Governments and law enforcement agencies, in turn, form partnerships with tech giants to do their dirty work. In 2013, Edward Snowden famously revealed that Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple all shared information with the National Security Agency via the PRISM program.”
To me, unless WE – the citizens of the West (and the rest), or should I say, Workers of the World don’t unite (this Marxism is creeping in again ;)) – none of the activism of any kind will make any lasting difference. IMO.
PS. I was too fast on the keyboard, so I didn’t finish that last thought – if we do not unite against the governments’ abuse of our freedoms unless we go back to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and start with a Marshall Plan for the South, plus the reparations to the former colonies across meridians – there would be no real change.
What we seem not to yet understand is that our so-called freedoms, as you say, in the free democracies, our free internet, is just another form of slavery, and ours is worse – we are made to believe we are free, but we are the conduit to the slavery of the rest because we allow our governments to get away with all this with impunity. I shouldn’t even mention some of the ‘civil movements’ in Europe of recent years that were brutally suppressed, and both the academia and the media were complicit. I haven’t heard any professor in any lecture question the suppression of Yellow Vests, for example, or the freedom of Julian Assange. Somehow, their lives don’t matter, because we are busy saving ‘the South,’ even though we can’t save ourselves.
Thanks Stana for adding so many great perspectives on this topic! The individualism preached by neoliberalism is really convenient for capitalism to naturalize its power. Competition against each other is preventing the workers of the world from uniting.
And about our so-called freedom: Arturo Escobar writes brilliantly regarding what he claims to be the paradox of freedom:
“We are so striving to be free that we are most programmed, most effectively compelled to be and act in particular ways to conform to the norm of being free (Designs for the Pluriverse, p.106-107).
And finally, Freudian slips are well-known and appreciated, but I always prefer your Marxian slips… 🙂