Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Disrupt, For Real: Richard Eskow Makes A Case for Nationalizing Big Tech

[L]aw professor Susan Crawford argues that “high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.” Broadband as a public utility? If not for corporate corruption of our political process, that would seem like an obvious solution. Instead, our nation’s wireless access is the slowest and costliest in the world. But why stop there? Policymakers have traditionally considered three elements when evaluating the need for a public utility: production, transmission, and distribution. Broadband is transmission. What about production and distribution? The Big Tech mega-corporations... were created with publicly-funded technologies, and prospered as the result of indulgent policies and lax oversight. They’ve achieved monopoly or near-monopoly status, are spying on us to an extent that’s unprecedented in human history, and have the potential to alter each and every one of our economic, political, social and cultural transactions... No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly-funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes. Big Tech... operates in a technological “commons” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them... Big Tech’s services have become a necessity in modern society. Businesses would be unable to participate in modern society without access... For individuals, these entities have become the public square... The bluntness with which Big Tech firms abuse their monopoly power is striking. Google has said that it will soon begin blocking YouTube videos... unless independent record labels sign deals with it... Amazon’s war on publishers... is another sign of Big Tech arrogance. But what is equally striking about these moves is the corporations’ disregard for basic customer service... Google is confident that even frustrated music fans have nowhere to go. Amazon is so confident of its dominance that it retaliated against Hachette by removing order buttons... and lied about the availability of Hachette books when a customer attempts to order one... Internet companies are using taxpayer-funded technology to make billions of dollars from the taxpayers –- without paying a licensing fee... Amazon was the beneficiary of tax exemptions which allowed it to reach its current monopolistic size. Google and the other technology companies have also benefited from tax policies and other forms of government indulgence. Contrary to popular misconception, Big Tech corporations aren’t solely the products of ingenuity and grit. Each has received, and continues to receive, a lot of government largesse... Most of Big Tech’s revenues come from the use of our personal information... Social media entries, web-surfing patterns, purchases, even our private and personal communications add value to these corporations. They don’t make money by selling us a product. We are the product, and we are sold to third parties for profit. Public utilities are often created when the resource being consumed isn’t a “commodity” in the traditional sense. “We” aren’t an ordinary resource. Like air and water, the value of our information is something that should be... at a minimum, publicly managed.... Privacy, like water or energy, is a public resource. As the Snowden revelations have taught us, all such resources are at constant risk of government abuse. The Supreme Court just banned warrantless searches of smartphones –- by law enforcement. Will we be granted similar protections from Big Tech corporations? ... Google tracks your activity and customizes search results, a process which can filter or distort your perception of the world around you. What’s more, this “personalized search results” feature leads you back to information sources you’ve used before... Over time this creates an increasingly narrow view of the world... Google has photographically mapped the entire world. It intends to put the world’s books into a privately-owned online library. It's launching balloons around the globe which will bring Internet access to remote areas –- on its terms... [T]hings are likely to get worse -- perhaps a lot worse -- unless something is done. The solution may lie with an old concept. It may be time to declare Big Tech a public utility.
I think these are strong arguments that should have a prominent place in public arguments about Big Tech. There are comparatively recent precedents for their applications in related fields, for the naysayers out there. Even if you judge the practical prospects for such policy outcomes unlikely, these arguments re-frame a host of "technology" issues in what seem to me incomparably more clarifying ways than the usual terms provide at present. And even our failure to nationalize equitable access to bandwidth, search and socializing tools as public utilities accountably administered for the common good need not be deemed a complete failure even on the terms of these arguments themselves, if instead they manage only to scare the shit out of enough greedy short-sighted self-congratulatory techbro skim-and-scam artists to make them actually behave themselves.

1 comment:

RJ Eskow said...

Dale, you absolutely get my intentions and ambitions for writing this. Pleased you see it that way.