Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies? We will boycott them, demand transparency measures, and even build entire alternative networks based on volunteer labor but no one ever seems to consider taking all the servers and data sets away from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and putting it all in the hands of the users. Even if a company was doing a bang-up job making their products easier to use, freer from harassment, and more productive in creating a better society, there’s still something fundamentally creepy about users having no democratic control over such an important aspect of their lives. Why is there no insistence that such important technologies have democratic accountability? Why are we so reticent to demand direct control over the digital aspects of our lives?
History is full of examples where customers revolted against companies that abused their customers’ trust. One of the more colorful examples comes from turn-of-the-century Chicago where a fairly strong network of anarchists, socialists, labor activists, and other like-minded people were busy formulating the demands to their employers that would later be picked up by the federal government as the basics for the New Deal. Other than wages and guaranteed time off, meat packers and steel workers had something in common: they all took the train. The owner of just about every train in the city was Charles Yerkes and in 1897 he sought to keep it that way by buying off the relevant city officials. When word got out that Yerkes was in city hall sealing the deal a mob of commuters surrounded the building and demanded Yerkes’ head and a change in administrative control over the network. He ended up fleeing the city shortly thereafter and the streetcar system went into receivership for several decades before it was eventually made public in the 1940s.
Some may feel that the resignation of Ellen Pao earlier this year as the interim CEO of Reddit amidst outrage over the banning of some hateful subreddits and the firing of beloved employees, is our modern day Yerkes but that’s only partially true. While the Chicago activists were fighting against an unfair system Redditors didn’t achieve anything more than a palace coup: removing one leader in favor of another who may make some minor changes to quell the organizers of dissent. The Reddit revolt was also extremely conservative: it reasserted a brand of extreme free speech that alienates more people than it attracts. The revolt has also instigated an exodus to a rival service that as far as anyone can tell, does not have any more democratic control mechanisms than Reddit ever did. In short, the #redditrevolt was never interested in demanding control over value production, they merely wanted to renegotiate the terms of their labor extraction.
What if users really did want to revolt and take over the networks that sell their attention? The coordination needed to take over every office and find every server would require the sort of decentralized collaboration that these companies’ services provide. And while a factory can still be easily run by its workers alone (such a thing has happened hundreds of times with great success), part of the business model of tech companies is keeping their means of profit production a secret. Even if thirty percent of Google’s employees (the amount needed to call for a union election in the United States) were to join some sort of user revolt and depose the top leadership, they are not likely to have the requisite information to keep all of Google’s services running. Or maybe they would? The point is that too few people know how any of this works.
It is precisely this organized lack of knowledge that, according to legal scholar Frank Pasquale in his book The Black Box Society, allows technology and finance companies to get away with as much as they do. Not only are market forces too complicated to be regulated, so the argument goes, but the proprietary databases and algorithms used to make money only provide a competitive advantage if they remain secret. This leaves both would-be regulators and disgruntled users in an impossible, position: the really useful technologies only seem economically or technically plausible if everything stays just the way that it is. No one outside of the owners of the technology know enough about it to impose democratic control.
Even if a user revolt were to successfully topple the leadership, and enough employees stayed on to keep everything running, our aspiring revolutionaries are still stuck with the fact that serving billions of page views a day is not cheap and the only thing that makes money is the very thing that caused the revolution in the first place: the accumulation and selling of proprietary (and secret) troves of data. It won’t be enough to seize the servers and the code. We will have to come up with a new business plan.
Sites like Ello, commercial ventures that make money through the sale of new features to users rather than selling users’ attention to advertisers, are enticing but rarely bare fruit. One could argue that switching an already popular platform to this new business model has a better chance of succeeding than a new startup, but even if that were the case, is that really what revolutions are fought over? Are our sights set so low that we will fight only to gain the dignity of a customer? There has to be a better alternative.
The CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine built around privacy and an explicit promise to not track its users, says that his company is already profitable without tracking. This is promising but DuckDuckGo is a fairly small company compared to Google. There are more servers and more branches of Google (even after the Alphabet reorganization) that are capital intensive and rely on search ad revenue.
Again, it is important to remember that we have been here before. Postal, railroad, telegraph, and telephone companies all have three things in common: 1) they help people overcome the separations of space and time and communicate with one-another, 2) their utility was deemed so important that laws were enacted to make sure everyone had reasonably easy access to them, and 3) they all eventually turned into either wholly owned subsidiaries of governments or are heavily regulated private monopolies. Social networks (and the internet providers they rely on) have been remarkably good at convincing us they do the first thing better than anyone and that the other two are unnecessary precisely because they are in stiff competition from competing technologies. It is the kind of doublespeak that can only come from the most powerful.
While I am not interested in having a government-controlled Facebook, I do think we should take some cues from the railroad commissions that were set up to bring a bit of democratic control to private railroad companies. These were appointed officials that would field requests for service or general complaints from the public and have the lawful authority to impose fines or require railroads to build new lines within certain realistic constraints. These commissions made it possible for smaller towns to petition for a stop on the railroad (incidentally this was the first time people would start to refer to themselves as “online”), or even require trains to stop all-together for such a time that passengers would disembark, eat and shop in the town, and get back on for the rest of their journey.
There are lots of ways we could choose to go about building public oversight commissions but here is one of my favorites: Set up a lottery system where active users are selected to serve for six months on a committee. Pay them for their part time labor, give them some basic tools to communicate with each-other from wherever they live, and put them to work collecting user complaints and requests for features and put those into some sort of standardized document that the company must comply with in another six months. This will probably send shivers down the spines of designers and venture capitalists alike, since it means giving up a fair amount of control to laypeople with no financial exposure to the company. This should not surprise anyone since democracy has always posed a threat people that feel like they are better than everyone else.