Law in the Internet Society

Eliminating Data Abuse: Moving Towards a Digital Socialism

-- By IrisAikateriniFrangou - 22 Oct 2021

Though initially founded on a vision of democratic power, the internet has morphed into surveillance capitalism. Big tech extracts behavioral information (for prognostic profit) in exchange for free services, while the software’s maximization of engagement undermines consumers’ autonomous thinking. Thus, surveillance capitalism erodes equality (privileging shareholders) and freedom of thought (by eliminating privacy). Assuming that the status quo is not inevitable, the essay explores how the political economy of the internet can be reconfigured to restore privacy and democracy.

(1) Public Ownership of Digital Platforms

Antitrust legislation assumes that competition will decrease consumer data abuse. This erroneously ignores that big tech’s business model is premised on the exploitation of user data: without that, there is no profit, and no firm. Thus, even under competition, surveillance capitalism would persist. We thereby need a more disruptive reorganization that shifts power over data back to the people. One alternative is publicly owned digital platforms.

(1)(A) Public Ownership through a Universal Digital Provider (UDP)

An intergovernmental organization, comprised of national delegations (of governmental, public, and policy expert representatives) electing a board and platform operators, could provide basic internet services to all. An obvious concern is cybersecurity attacks, that could be countered by the “data embassy” model Bahrain has embraced - a public cloud run in another country, subject to Bahrain’s law (https://www.tamimi.com/law-update-articles/diplomatic-immunity-for-data-bahrains-data-embassy-law/). In evaluation however, (1) poorer countries would be unable to afford protection of their datacenters; and (2) there is still a risk of data misuse, by less democratic countries e.g. Russia selling U.S. data to China. Since people tend to be more appalled by Putin breaching their data than by Zuckenberg, misuse would drastically intensify governmental mistrust. And even assuming that wealthier countries would pay the higher risk “Russias” more to maintain safety, poorer countries couldn’t without taxing their citizens– rendering the UDP politically unpopular.

(1)(B)(i) Public Ownership through Local Digital Cooperatives

Another possibility is to create local digital cooperatives benefitting the community (not the shareholders) pursuant to: (a) shared ownership i.e. worker control of the platform (over its production, algorithms, etc.); and (b) collective governance, with all stakeholders ensuring the software remains consistent with their preferences. Current platform cooperatives (https://platform.coop) can be found in urban recycling, or childcare. They can be expanded to include big tech areas such as e-commerce, home services, or online mapping/navigation.

Even though digital co-ops would restore consumer agency by making the users its simultaneous owners, they are plagued by capital-raising difficulties due to lower returns and diffused control disincentivizing investors. “Open protocols” could facilitate quick scaling (and variations have been explored). Additionally, the literature points to the success of NESTA’s alternative funding model of “community shares” - shares withdrawable with the co-op board’s approval (https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/Nesta_Platform_Report_FINAL-WEB_b1qZGj7.pdf). Even so, the capital-raising problem begs the question: would digital co-ops fair better with government investment, albeit in a decentralized municipal-oriented fashion?

(1)(B)(ii) Public Ownership through Municipally-Governed Digital Cooperatives

Government resources would render investors superfluous while facilitating a larger collaborative economy- harmonizing inter-city services and addressing social issues the co-op cares about. DECODE - a project developing tools to restore individual control over information, provides a possible template. In one trial, Barcelona residents attached data-collecting sensors to their neighborhoods, supplied by their city council, that were connected to the city’s sensor system. Through Chainspace’s decentralized infrastructure, DECODE produced valuable information from anonymized data sharing (https://decodeproject.eu/publications/final-report-barcelona-pilots-evaluations-barcelonanow-and-sustainability-plans.html), enabling individuals to control what data they made public.

Even so, municipal cooperatives would, arguably, face: (1) a lack of governmental accountability for platform operators; and (2) the need to expand internet access. The first could be tackled through representation by government-appointed technocrats and elected co-op workers. The latter could be facilitated through federal grants to struggling municipalities.

(1)(C) A Comparative Evaluation of Public Ownership Proposals

Even assuming that there existed political will for public ownership, the UDP is crippled by inequities in countries’ abilities to pay for datacenter protection, and by the risk of gross governmental mistrust from a data breach. Digital cooperatives are undermined by their small user base, which is insufficient to create network effects. A digital co-op might not be able to meet the needs of a global Whatsapp, although open protocols might enable communication within a country, connecting for instance, Whatsapp NY to Whatsapp Chicago.

(2) Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism

Mason observes that information technology is corroding capitalism’s price mechanism. Information is abundant but markets are scarce, so tech giants (through IP) underutilize information to artificially price data. He argues that if the government encourages massive innovation, it will lead to more digitalized information, which is incompatible with private property because it is abundant and free. Thus, if tech giants innovate to the extent where prices can no longer form – even artificially, then they will collapse because they won’t be able to profitably operate (meeting Blackberry’s fate).

Mason, alternatively, suggests massive innovation through: (1) antitrust legislation; but also (2) government-led automation, through a universal basic income, a higher minimum wage, and worker relocation to disrupt reliance on cheap labor; and (3) shorter-term patents with “spikier” rewards. If the free-market with absolute IP rights underutilizes information (creates tech monopolies), an economy based on fully-utilized information would be incompatible with the free-market and absolute IP rights resulting in collectivization (an economy based on abundant, socially-held information) (https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374536732).

In evaluation, Mason’s post-capitalism is weakened by the political will it requires. However, if we appreciate the emergence of the networked citizen, we can mobilize her through awareness-raising. The ingredients are all there: many proposed policies such as universal basic income are already individually advocated– just not in Mason’s “packaged” way. Moreover, billions of people have already been disillusioned by capitalism; we can channel this disappointment into post-capitalist support using recent recessions and the exogenous shock of climate change to demonstrate capitalism’s impending doom. Granted, the postcapitalist open-source sector (exemplified by Wikipedia) will probably operate alongside the market sector for years. Whether it replaces capitalism (like capitalism replaced feudalism) is up to us – the people.

This draft is a loose collection of interesting ideas. The structure does not help readers evaluate these ideas closely, so unless they have themselves previously worked with these ideas, they are likely to be overwhelmed with concepts they haven't been helped to think critically about,

It would be helpful to over a layer-oriented mapping of these concepts. What happens at hardware or telecomm layers differs widely from what can happen in the socialization of infrastructure software (the core of the free software movement's orogins) or how one then uses inexpensive hardware and free software to co-operatize web application services in s small user-owned servers instead of the surveillance capitalist platforms.


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r2 - 30 Nov 2021 - 17:25:40 - EbenMoglen
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