We Are the Data: the Case for Democratic Ownership of Tech
by Alyxandra Goodwin, Jessica Quiason, and Tracey Corder
With each new crisis we face, we see more and more how Big Tech’s influence endangers our communities. From spreading misinformation around the COVID-19 epidemic, to amplifying white supremacy online in the lead up to the Capitol insurrection earlier in January, while at the same time silencing anti-racist voices. The chief strategy of any business is to maximize profits, but because of the ubiquity and scale of Big Tech, the harmful effects of monetization are stronger and more durable than many other industries.
Much of Big Tech is driven by profits from ads, so to keep us clicking, extreme and bigoted viewpoints are bumped up in algorithms. Big Tech also makes billions from contracting with the military and law enforcement, building and expanding on centuries of mass incarceration and US imperialism. And because of how Big Tech can also connect us in ways like never before, engaging in Big Tech like using the internet is no longer a convenient option, but in many cases the only reasonable one particularly in a pandemic.
How do we break free from the way that Big Tech monetizes the destruction of our communities, particularly communities of color? How do we use our participation in tech infrastructure to fight more for our needs? Big Tech is nothing without data, and we are the data. So how do we build the world we want with tech but without the profits and tech execs?
Because Big Tech corporations have grown so quickly, they’ve moved faster than we can regulate them or even imagine a different way of achieving the same ends through different models. What if we owned the tech that we used? What if we made the decisions on how our data (where we went, who we spoke to, what we bought, etc) gets used to simply make our lives easier and better, rather than sold to advertisers so that Big Tech execs could become some of the richest people in the world? Or sold to the police and ICE so we can get arrested and imprisoned?
Check out the readings below to learn more about the harms of a profit-driven tech industry and how we can build a better, more equitable future with tech on our terms by owning it.
References + relevant readings
Tax breaks for tech
- US cities and states give big tech $9.3bn in subsidies in five years (The Guardian, July 2018. Dominic Rushe)
Tech worsening inequality at our jobs, in our hospitals, in our housing and schools
- Mitigating Bias in Algorithmic Hiring: Evaluating Claims and Practices (ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2019. Manish Raghavan, Solon Barocas, Jon Kleinberg, Karen Levy)
- Hidden in Plain Sight — Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms (The New England Journal of Medicine. Aug 2020. Darshali A. Vyas, M.D., Leo G. Eisenstein, M.D., and David S. Jones, M.D., Ph.D.)
- How We Investigated the Tenant Screening Industry (The Markup. May 2020. Lauren Kirchner)
- https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/opinion/international-baccalaureate-algorithm-grades.html (paywall)
Tech and bigoted violence
- Police and Big Tech Are Partners in Crime. We Need to Abolish Them Both. (Vice. June 2020. Edward Ongweso Jr.)
- Amazon is the invisible backbone of ICE’s immigration crackdown. (MIT Technology Review. October 2018. Karen Hao.)
- After New Zealand Massacre, YouTube’s Algorithm Still Promotes Islamophobic Videos. (Huffington Post. March 2019. Jesselyn Cook.)
Regulating tech is not enough
- Lawmakers keen to break up ‘big tech’ like Amazon and Google need to realize the world has changed a lot since Microsoft and Standard Oil (The Conversation. July 2020. Bhaskar Chakravorti.)
- Major tech companies unite to call for new limits on surveillance (The Washington Post. December 2013. Craig Timberg.)
History of municipalization/nationalization
- A History of Nationalization in the United State: 1917–2009 (The Next System Project, November 2019. Thomas Hanna)
- U.S. not always averse to nationalization, despite its free-market image (New York Times, October 2008. Steve Lohr.)
- A History of Corporate Nationalization (CBS News, July 2009. Associated Press.)
- Atlanta: Water Municipalization Tracker
- The Public Ownership Solution (Jacobin, December 2018. Thomas Hanna.)
Black and Brown-led organizations working towards collective ownership
- Our Data Bodies
- Detroit Community Technology Project
- Data 4 Black Lives
- Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice
Discussions on collective ownership models for tech
- Ours to Hack and to Own (OR Books, 2016. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider.)
- Digital socialism (Eurozine, February 2020. Evgeny Morozov)
- Big tech’s COVID-19 opportunity (The Economist, April 2020). PAYWALL
- A Common Platform: Reimagining Data and Platforms (Common Wealth, February 2020. Thomas Hanna, Mathew Lawrence, Nils Peters.)
Other reading lists
- Labor & Tech Reading List (Data & Society, August 2020. Alexandra Mateescu and Eve Zelickson.)