Can we imagine a better Internet?

The convenience of thinking together

by Alina Utrata and Julia Rone

Reflecting on our recent tech and environment workshop, two of our workshop hosts, Alina Utrata and Julia Rone, explore the questions from the event that are still making them think.

On June 17, over 40 participants from all over the world joined our workshop exploring “the cost of convenience” and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Instead of having academics presenting long papers in front of Zoom screens with switched-off cameras, we opted for a more dialogic, interactive and (conveniently) short format.

We invited each participant (or team of participants) to share a provocation across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus and discussed in small groups. Then, in panel sessions we discussed the provocations (what we know already), the known unknowns (what we don’t know yet), and ideas for an action plan (what could we be doing). 

Below are our reflections on the workshop.

A visual representation of the workshop, produced by artist Tom Mclean.

There is no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis

By Alina Utrata

I am currently working on the relationships between technology corporations and states.

For me, what stood out about the discussions was the sense among all participants that there was no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis.

Instead, the conversations often revolved around globally embedded systems and structures of power—and asking why a certain technology is being deployed, by whom, for whom and how, rather than whether they could “fix” anything.

“I was inspired by how participants immediately recognised the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.”

Alina Utrata

In fact, it was pointed out that often the creators of these technological innovations deliberately promoted certain kinds of narratives about how they wanted the technology to be thought of—for example, the “cloud” as a kind of abstract, other place in the sky, rather than a real, tangible infrastructure with real costs.

The same could be said of the metaphors of “carbon footprint” or “carbon neutral”—the idea that as long as discrete, individual corporate entities were not personally responsible for a certain amount of emissions, then they could not be held culpable for a system that was failing the planet. 

Credit: Alex Machado for Unsplash

I was inspired by how participants immediately recognized the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.

Although many political concepts today are so commonplace that they seem ordinary, we discussed how they are often really quite modern or Western in origin.

For example, the idea of the shared, communal commons is an ancient one, and can be used as a political framework to tackle some of the harmful systems humans have put in place on our earth. 

Finally, we acknowledged that we all have a role to play in this fight for our future—but not all of us have or need to play the same role.

Some of us will be activists outside these systems of power, and some of us will be sympathetic voices from within.

The participants reaffirmed the need to both communicate and coordinate across disciplines within academia, and more broadly in sectors across the wider earth.


Should we abolish the Internet?

By Julia Rone

 Credit: Denny Müller for Unsplash

I am currently working on the democratic contestation of data centre construction.

John Naughton often says during our weekly meetings that the most interesting conversations are those that finish before you want them to end. That was definitely the case for me at the workshop since of each the sessions I hosted ended with a question that could be discussed for hours and that still lingers in my mind.

Concepts and conceptual problems

If I have to identify the key common threads running through the three sessions I hosted, the first one has to with concepts and conceptual problems. 

Several participants posed the crucial question how do we think of “progress”.

Is progress necessarily synonymous with growth, increased efficiency, better performance?

What are we sacrificing in the name of “progress”?

One participant asked the painfully straight-to-the-point question: “Should we abolish the Internet?” (considering the massive toll of tech companies on the environment, the rise of hate speech, cyber-bullying, polarization, etc.)

Do we feel loss at the thought? 

“Yes!” – I immediately said to myself.- “How could I talk to my family and to my friends”.

This question really provoked me to think further.

If I can’t live in a world without the Internet, can we think of a different Internet?

How can we re-invent the Internet to become more caring, accessible, more Earth-based and less extractive (as one of the provocations suggested).

Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona for Unsplash

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Another, similarly important conceptual question was posed at the very end of the second session by a collegue who asked “What does it mean to be sustainable?” Why do we want to be sustainable? What and whom are we sustaining?

Should we not rather think of ways to radically change the system?

Our time ran out before discussing this in depth and therefore this question has also been bothering me since then. 

Ultimately, as another participant emphasised, research on the environmental impact of tech is most problematic and underdeveloped at two levels – the levels of concepts (how do we think of abstraction and extraction, for example?), but also at the lowest level of what individuals and communities do.

This latter question about on-the-ground labor, work and action is actually the second common thread between several of the contributions in the sessions I attended.

“It is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones.” 

A colleague studying workers who do repair for their livelihood (not as a hipster exercise) rightly pointed out that when discussing the environmental consequences of tech, and practices such as repair in particular, it is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones. 

Indeed, in a different context, scholars of the environmental impact of tech have clearly shown how tech companies’ extractive practices towards nature go hand-in-hand with dispossession, economic exploitation and extraction of value and profit from marginalised communities.

“In order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research.”

Julia Rone

Another colleague had studied the ways in which local leaders participate in decision-making about data centres in Thailand and controversies around water use – a topic very relevant to my own current project on data centres in the Netherlands.

Another participant yet had studied how participatory map-making not only consumes electricity but also changes the very way we see nature.

The reason why I found all these contributions so fascinating is that they challenged simplistic narratives of Big Tech Vs the Environment and showed how many players (with how many different intentions, principles and economic interests) are actually involved in the increasingly complex assemblage of humans-nature and tech. 

So to sum up – in order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more clear about the concepts we use as researchers but also to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research. 

To summarise…

Ultimately, each of us who attended (and hosted) the sessions of the workshop have a rich but still incomplete overview of the workshop.

By attending different sessions, there were provocations that individually we missed as sessions intertwined and overlapped (a bit like tectonic plates readjusting meaning, ideas and new perspectives for research).

We would love to hear from other attendees from the workshop, the ideas that struck them most during the sessions.

Luckily, some participants have submitted their provocation to our Zine, a unique document that we will share soon to help guide us forward in our thinking.

We can’t wait to share the Zine with you… stay tuned.

In Review: The Cloud and the Ground

By Julia Rone

In this literature review, Julia Rone outlines the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

The cloud – this fundamental building block of digital capitalism – has been so far defined mainly by the PR of big tech companies.

The very metaphor of the “cloud” presupposes an ethereal, supposedly immaterial collection of bits gliding in the sky, safely removed from the corrupt organic and inorganic matter that surrounds us. This, of course, can’t be further from the truth.

But even when they acknowledge the materiality of the “cloud” and the way it is grounded in a very physical infrastructure of cables, data centres, etc., tech giants still present it in a neat and glamorous way. Data centres, for example, provide carefully curated tours and are presented as sites of harmoniously humming servers, surrounded by wild forests and sea. Some data centres even boast with saunas.  

Instead of accepting blindly the PR of tech companies and seeing “the cloud” as whatever they present it (similarly to the way Polonius accepts Hamlet’s interpretations of the cloud), we should be attuned to the multiplicity of existing perspectives on “the cloud”, coming from researchers, rural and urban communities, and environmentalists, among others.

In this lit review, I outline the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe. I base the discussion on several papers from two special issues. The first one is The Nature of Data Centres, edited by Mél Hogan and Asta Vonderau for Culture Machine. The second: Location and Dislocation: Global Geographies of Digital Data, edited by Alix Johnson and Mél Hogan for Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. I really recommend reading both issues – the contributions read like short stories and go straight to the core of the most pressing political economy problems of our times.

Credit: Zbynek Burival for Unsplash

The “nature” of data centres

Data centres as key units of the cloud are very material: noisy, hot, giant storage boxes containing thousands of servers, they occupy factories from the past or spring up on farm land all over the globe. Data centres are grounded in particular locations and depend on a number of “natural” factors for their work, including temperature, humidity, or air pollution. In order for data centres to function, they not only use up electricity (produced by burning coal or using wind energy, for example). They also employ technologies to circulate air and water to cool down and emit heat as a waste product.

But data centres are not only assemblages of technology and nature. Their very appearance, endurance and disappearance is defined by complex institutional and non-institutional social relations: regions and countries compete with each other to cut taxes for tech corporations that promise to bring jobs and development. Some states (e.g. Scandinavian states) are preferred over others because of their stable institutions and political “climate”.

No blank slate

To illustrate, the fact that data centres are built in the Sweden’s Norrbotten region has to do a lot with the “nature” of the region conceptualized reductively by tech companies as cheap energy, cheap water, cheap land and green imagery (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019, 2). But it also has to do a lot with the fact that Norrbotten is filled with the “ruins of infrastructural promises” (Vonderau, 2019, 3) – “a scarcely populated and resource-rich region, historically inhabited by native Sami people, the region was for a long-time regarded as no-man’s land” (ibid). Not only is Norrbotten scarcely populated but it also has an “extremely stable and redundant electricity grid which was originally designed for […]‘old’ industries” (ibid, 7).

A similar logic of operation could be discerned in the establishment of a data centre in the Midway Technology Centre in Chicago, where the Schulze Bakery was repurposed as a data centre (Pickren, 2017) Pickren was told in an interview with a developer working on the Schulze redevelopment project that “because the surrounding area had been deindustrialized, and because a large public housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes had closed down in recent decades, the nearby power substations actually had plenty of idle capacity to meet the new data centre needs” (Pickren, 2017). As Pickern observes, “there is no blank slate upon which the world of data simply emerges”(ibid.) There are multiple “continuities between an (always temporary) industrial period and the (similarly temporary) ascendancy of digital capitalism” (ibid).

Extraction and the third wave of urbanization

What the examples of Norrbotten in Sweden and the redevelopment of Chicago by the data industry show is that despite a carefully constructed PR around “being close to nature” and “being green”, decisions on data centre construction actually depend on availability of electricity for which depopulation is only a plus. Instead of “untouched” regions, what companies often go for are rather abandoned or scarcely populated regions with infrastructure left behind. Data centres use resources – industrial capacity or Green energy – that are already there, left from previous booms and busts of capitalism or from conscious state investment that is now used to the benefit of private companies.

“Urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.”

Both urban and rural communities are in fact all embedded within a common process of a “third wave of urbanization” that goes hand in hand with an increase in the commodification and extraction of both data and “natural” resources (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019). What this means is that urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.

Credit: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash

This urban data is then stored and analysed in predominantly rural settings: “[T]he restructuring of Seattle leads to agglomerations in urban data production, which rely on rural data storage and analysis” (ibid, 9). Put simply, “[J]ust as Facebook and Google use rural Oregon for their ‘natural’ resources, they use cities and agglomerations of ‘users’ to extract data”.

Ultimately, data centres manifest themselves as assemblages for the extraction of value from both people and nature.

As if in a perverse rendition of Captain Planet, all elements – water, air, earth, human beings and technology – unite forces so that data centres can function and you can upload a cat photo on Facebook. In this real life data-centre version of Captain Planet, however, all elements are used up, extracted, exhausted. Water is polluted.

People live with the humming noise of thousands of servers.

Taxes are not collected and therefore not invested in communities that are already deprived.

What is more, data centres often arrive in rural regions with the promise to create jobs and drive development. But as numerous authors have shown, actual jobs created by data centres are less than what was originally promised, with most jobs being precarious subcontracting (Mayer, 2019). As Pickren notes, “If the data centre is the ‘factory of the 21st century,’ whither the working class?”

Abstraction

Data centres do create jobs but predominantly in urban areas. “[W]here jobs are created, where they are destroyed and who is affected are socially and geographically uneven” (Pickern, 2017). Where value is extracted from and where value is allocated rarely coincide.

And if from a birds view perspective, what matters is the total number of jobs created, what matters in Sweden’s Norrbotten or The Netherlands’ Groningen, where data centres are built, is how many jobs are created there and furthermore, what types of jobs (Mayer, 2019). In the same way, while from an abstract point of view tech companies such as Microsoft might be “carbon neutral”, this does not change their questionable practices and dependence on coal in particular places.

The Introduction to the “Location and Dislocation” Special Issue quotes a classic formulation by Yi-Fu Tuan according to whom “place is space made meaningful”(Johnson and Hogan, 2017, 4).

“Whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract””.

One of the key issues with tech companies building data centres is the way they privilege space over place – an abstract logic of calculation and global flows over the very particular local relations of belonging and accountability.

In a great piece on “fungible forms of mediation in the cloud”, Pasek explores how the practice of big tech companies to buy renewable energy certificates does more harm than good, since it allows “data centre companies to symbolically negate their local impacts in coal-powered regions on papers, while still materially driving up local grid demand and thereby incentivizing the maintenance or expansion of fossil energy generation” (ibid, 7).

The impact for local communities can be disastrous: “In communities located near power plants, disproportionately black, brown and low-income, this has direct consequences for public health, including greater rates of asthma and infant mortality” (ibid).

So whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract”, at the global level, paying little attention to their effect in any particular locality.

As Pasek notes, this logic of abstraction subordinates the “urgencies of place” to the “logics of circulation”.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the places that have already lost the most from previous industrial transformations that are the ones who suffer most during the current digital transformations.

Invisibility and Hypervisibility

What makes possible the extraction practices of tech companies is a mix between how little we know about them and how much we believe in their promise of doing good (or well, not doing evil at least).

In her fascinating essay “The Second Coming: Google and Internet infrastructure”, Mayer (2019) explores the rumours around a new Google data centre in Groningen. Mayer explores how Google’s reputation as a leading company combined with a the total lack of concrete information about the new data centre create a mystical aura around the whole enterprise: “Google’s curation of aura harkens back to the early eras of Western sacred art, during which priests gave sacred objects their magical value by keeping them ‘invisible to the spectator’” (Mayer, 2019, 4).

Mayer contrasts a sleek Google PR video (with a lone windmill and blond girls looking at computer screens) with the reality brought about by a centre that offered only a few temporary subcontracting jobs. The narrative of regional growth presented by Google unfortunately turned out to be PR rather than a coherent development strategy.

Impermanence

Furthermore, in a fascinating essay on data centres as “impertinent infrastructures”, Velkova (2019) explores the temporality and impermanence of data centres that can be moved or abandoned easily. 

How could such impertinent structures provide regional development?

What is more, even if data centres do not move, they do reorganize global territories and connectivity speeds through the threat of moving: “data center companies are constantly reevaluating the economic profitability of  particular locations in synchrony with server replacement cycles and new legislative frameworks that come into force.

Data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”

Should tax regulations, electricity prices, legislation or geopolitical dynamics shift, even a hyper-sized data center like Google’s in Finland or Facebook’s in Sweden could make a corresponding move to a place with more economically favourable conditions within three years” (Velkova, 2019, 5).

So data centres are on the one hand, hypervisible through corporate PR. On the other hand, they are invisible for local communities that are left guessing about construction permits, the conditions of data centres arrival, their impact on the environment and the economy.

But ultimately, and this is the crucial part, data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”.

Holding each node accountable

Big tech’s logics of extraction, abstraction, invisibility, hypervisibility and impermanence are driving the current third wave of urbanization and unequal development under digital capitalism.

But it is possible to imagine another politics that would “hold each node accountable to the communities in which they are located” (Pasek, 9).

The papers from the two special issues I review here provide an exhaustive and inspiring overview of the “nature” and imaginaries of data centres.

Yet, with few exceptions (such as the work of Asta Vonderau), we know little about the politics of resistance to data centres and the local social movements that are appearing and demanding more democratic participation in decision making.

Would it be possible for us – citizens – to define what the cloud should look like? Not sure. But this is a crucial element of any project for democratizing digital sovereignty. And this is what I work on now.

In Review: Is more state ownership the panacea that will save us from the big tech giants?

By Julia Rone

Living in a world with an increasingly uncontrolled accumulation of power by big tech, what alternatives are there to privately owned enterprises that could ensure the tech sector better serves democratic society? Julia Rone reviews Andrew Cumbers’ new book ‘Reclaiming Public Ownership. Making Space for Economic Democracy’ and starts a conversation on how to apply his writing to the tech sector.

Every discussion we’ve had so far on regulating tech giants ends up with discussing whether regulation (be it anti-trust/regulating ‘recommending’ algorithms/treating big tech as public utilities) is enough.

As a colleague smartly noted last time, we have reduced our expectations of the state to a form of (light-touch) regulation to take place only in case markets fail. But as Mariana Mazucatto has famously shown in her spectacular book “The Value of Everything”, “the state” has in fact funded the fundamental science and tech development behind not only the Internet but also the technologies used in purportedly private companies’ successes such as the iPhone. The state has been a key driver of innovation rather than some clumsy behemoth lagging behind technology and poking its nose in people’s business.

The sad thing, of course, is that the value created with public funding has been subsequently privatized/appropriated by private companies – not only in monetary terms but also in symbolic terms. I’ve never had random strangers at parties telling me about publicly funded researchers, yet I have endured hours of men (it’s usually men) praising Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

Now, we might think that this “forgetting” of the role of the state is innocent, a childish fascination with mythical entrepreneurial figures. But that’s not the case. The bad-mouthing of the state we see in tech industry is part of a much broader trend (neoliberalism?) of framing the state as incompetent, wasteful, bureaucratic and incapable of innovation.

This is why, when, as a reaction to the 2008 economic crisis, the British government nationalized (fully or partially) large parts of UK’s retail or banking sector, they were quick to appoint private executives, often from the very banks that had caused the crisis to begin with.

What nationalization amounted to, in this case, was the public sector absorbing bad debts to allow private capital to restructure and start accumulating profits again. Andrew Cumbers begins his brilliant book on public ownership with this example and dedicates the rest of the book to 1) explaining why even amidst the biggest crisis of capitalism private executives were considered more competent; 2) what alternatives are there to privately owned enterprises.

While the neoliberal bad-mouthing of the state and its reduction to light-touch regulator have been undoubtedly super influential, the question I would like to bring to the table, drawing extensively on Cumbers, is: should we uncritically rehabilitate the state? Is more state the panacea that will save us from the big bad tech giants? Or should we try to think of new forms of ownership and democratic management, in our case, of digital platforms? In the following paragraphs I will present Cumbers’ book in detail (maybe too much detail but it’s really a great book) before returning to these key questions at the end.

Historic experiences with nationalization in the UK – “neither socialization nor modernization”

What makes Cumbers’ book so brilliant is that he engages in depth with existing theories, empirical examples and critiques of public ownership but then he moves beyond this purely analytical exercise of discussing ‘who is right and who is wrong’.

Instead, he puts forward an alternative – a vision of public ownership that goes beyond the state, embraces diversity and heterodoxy, and puts at its center the core principle of economic democracy.

To begin with, Cumbers argues that nationalization and state planning have such a bad name partially because of the way they were instituted in practice. Talking about the British post 1945 experience with nationalization, Cumebrs argues it was “neither socialization, nor modernization” (p. 14). More radical agendas never penetrated the upper echelons of the Labour establishment: referring to the nationalization programme as “socialization” was mainly PR and the government “was deeply suspicious of anything remotely ‘syndicalist’ that might provide more grass-roots or shop-floor representation and influence on the councils of nationalized industries” (p. 15).

Management was top-down and the large bureaucratic structures produced “an alienating environment for the average worker”, creating a “significant democratic deficit” in industries that were owned and managed supposedly on behalf of the people. Nationalization in the UK played out as centralization significantly weakening the power and authority of local governments vis-a-vis the national government (p.21)

What is more, “nationalized industries, in their varying ways. provided large and continuous subsidies to the private sector, while being severely constrained in their own operations!” (p.20). In the socialist USSR, nationalization was similarly not a synonym of economic democracy, with workers councils in Yugoslavia being the exception rather than the common practice. So nationalization in these and other cases analysed by Cumbers basically meant making the state the capitalist-in-chief. Now, this turned out not to be particularly efficient (even though there is a big difference between industries in this respect). There were plenty of thinkers eager to explain why this was the case.

Hayek’s critique of nationalization and central planning

The centralization of economic power and decision-making, according to thinkers such as Hayek, led to the crushing of individual freedoms and democracy. Central planning, Hayek and other critics emphasized, furthermore creates several knowledge problems – how could central planners “have all the knowledge needed about the individualized demands of millions of consumers in advanced economies?” (p.64). What is more, knowledge is dispersed in society and not easily appropriated by central managers, especially considering that economies are dynamic and evolutionary, and therefore ever changing and unpredictable (p. 65). According to Hayek, “markets and private ownership can solve such knowledge problems, because they involve dispersed decision-making and experimentation […] It is precisely the anarchy of market order, which is the key both to innovation and to the preservation of more democratic societies” (p. 64). So far so good. But we’ve all heard this before – socialism failed because it was too centralized and incapable of innovating.

The market is the solution to all evils, seriously?

What makes the book “Reclaiming public ownership” interesting is that Cumbers doesn’t stop here. Instead, he moves the argument forward by, first of all, explaining why Hayek’s solution is not so appealing as it seems. To begin with, he notes some spheres of life should just not be marketized – think of romantic love, health or education. The absurdity of the marketization of education in contexts such as the US and the UK becomes painfully obvious when compared to the fully free public education in countries such as Austria. Competition and profit are not and should not be the only drivers of economic decision-making (p. 80):

“It is precisely the incursion and spread of ‘free market values’ and norms – through heightened commodification processes – into all areas of economic life that needs to be resisted and rolled back if wider social goals, such as environmental sustainability, decent and ‘choiceworthy’ lives and social justice, are to be achieved” (p. 75).

But beyond such normative discussions, the binaries markets/democracy and planning/authoritarianism just don’t hold empirically. Market economies exist both under democratic and authoritarian regimes, as do forms of central planning (p.76)- just think of how much central planning goes on in private corporations such as Amazon.

Capitalist exploitation rests upon three pillars: “the employment relation, private property and the market” (p. 77).

Real-existing socialism or nationalization attempts in the UK achieved state ownership but they were associated with highly unequal, top-down managerial decision-making and power structures. They were also inefficient.

Markets, purportedly solve efficiency and innovation problems, but they also come with horrible employment relations (think again of Amazon workers peeing in bottles or workplace bullying as seen in *every single TV series about the US corporate world”). What is more, markets can’t and should not govern every aspect of human relations. And finally, they often lead to situations of mass concentration of private property in which a few own a lot and the majority owns nothing but their ability and time to work.

So rather than replacing the state with the market, or vice-versa, what we need to do is to think of alternatives that address all three pillars of exploitation – “the employment relation, private property and the market”.

The alternatives

When thinking of alternatives, Cumbers is careful to urge us not to search for a “one-size fits all solutions” or an all-encompassing model or vision (p. 81). One of the most interesting authors quoted in the book is the associational socialist Otto Neurath, who “used the phrase ‘pseudo-rationalism’ to refer to scientists and philosophers who believed that there is always a possibility of discovering one theory or solution to any problem through rational inquiry” (p. 79). The real world is messy, solutions are always provisional and there are a lot of diverse cultural traditions in the world that should be explored.

Going back to the three pillars (the employment relation, private property and the market), at the core of Cumbers’ alternative vision is the idea that 1) not only should we go beyond marketizing everything, but also 2) the workers should be able to take part in decision-making about companies, that is the employment relations should be democratic and participative. 3) Third, when it comes to property, there is a strong case to be made for “reclaiming public ownership” conceived much more broadly than simply “state ownerhsip”, i.e. nationalization. .

Forms of ownership and the principles behind them:

Cumbers puts forward at least six different forms of ownership, all of which can and should exist together: full state ownership, partial state ownership, local or municipal ownership, employee-owned firms, producer-cooperatives, and consumer cooperatives (p.165). In promoting these diverse forms of ownersip, Cumbers is led by several key principles, among which:

  • taking social justice as class justice: that is, essentially going beyond redistributive justice. i.e. distributing the surplus – or profit- that comes from the labour process through income taxation (not that we are scoring particularly well in this respect currently, anyway…). What is needed instead is to challenge the way the owners of capital control the labour process or “the wider decisions that make and shape economies” (p.146).
  • a commitment to distributed economic power, but not necessarily in decentralized forms: combining diverse forms of public ownership should allow “different groups of citizens to have some level of participation and a stake in the economy, compared to the situation at present, where a small minority globally (the 1 per cent!) hold most of the key decision-making power” (p. 150). In short, there should be different institutional arrangements that “foster distributed and dispersed powers of economic decision-making against tendencies towards hierarchy and centralization” (p 150).
  • tolerance, tradition and heterodox thinking: Traditional forms of collective ownership in fact can be crucial for articulating alternative ownership model. I am thinking here of indigenous communities fighting against corporations “patenting” uses of plants, etc. Another great example, that I encountered actually not in Cumbers’s book but in Xiaowei Wang’ Blockchain Chicken Farm, are Chinese Township and Village enterprises, a large share of which have been owned collectively and about which I will write soon. TVEs were among the key protagonists of China’s explosive growth, outperforming state-owned enterprises).

Not a utopia

The book then moves on from these more abstract principles to a situated analysis of different experiments with diverse forms of public ownership. Rather than being some utopian, never-tried out experiment, most of these forms of ownership are already present. Municipal-cooperative partnerships, for example, have been crucial for the boom of green energy in Denmark (Chapter 9). The state owned Norwegian Oil company has had a long period of intense parliamentary debates on its key decisions (Chapter 8). (This has changed showing that power battles over ownership and decision-making are ongoing and never settled completely.)

Finally, following strong contestation and opposition to water privatization in Latin America, multinational corporations have retreated with varying implications for ownership – in Bolivia, Venezuela and Uruguay operations have returned to the public sector; in Brazil and Chile a mix of private local and foreign capital remains (Chapter 5). But there have also been attempts to return water companies to municipal control – in Argentina, the Aguas Bonaerense (ABSA) public organization was created as a pubic-private partnership between the local authority and a workers’ cooperative (p.113).

So rather than inventing the hot water (or non-privatized water), we can learn from a number of best practices and try to think how different forms of public ownership can transform and democratize different types of economic activity, depending also on the scale of these activities: finance, utilities industries, public transportation, public services, consumer products, private services, consumer services clearly all operate on different scales.

Private ownership might actually be the best option for a small local hairdresser, state, local cooperatives or municipal ownership – for the management of water, and state or municipal ownership – for the management of railways or gas, etc. (p. 168).

Rather than a one-size fit all solution (“nationalize everything!”), thinking of alternatives should be open to combining different forms of ownership at different levels, with the ultimate goal of increasing participation – not of everyone in everything but of everyone at least in some respects and in what matters to them.

So what?

In short, Cumbers’ book is really interesting. Despite the long quotes I don’t think I have given it justice so just read it (there is also some fascinating critique of the concept of the commons inside). But why on Earth am I writing on this book in a blog for our very techie group?

Well, because I think when we criticize regulation as too light touch and want to rehabilitate the state, we should not forget that state ownership (or enterpreneurship) is not always the panacea. To be honest, I have no idea how exactly the argument in Cumbers’ book can be relevant for finding alternatives to the big tech giants.

In a previous post, I had argued that maybe what we need instead of Facebook, are public networks along national lines, with states owning the data of their citizens, using it for research and machine learning, instead of private companies doing this.

But could we instead think of citizens collectively owning their data? Or having citizen cooperatives managing interoperable networks?

Furthermore, what type of public ownership might be an adequate model for an alternative to Amazon? These are not easy questions. And I would love to discuss them with you.

The reason why I made such an extensive review of this book is because I think it might be relevant but it remains for us to explore how exactly. One thing I am certain of is that few things are worse than the current ownership model of big tech, with a few private corporations owning and exploiting all our data.

Going back to the three pillars outlined by Cumbers, when we think of how to reform big tech/find alternatives, we need to think of how to 1) change employment relations within tech firms allowing more participation in decision-making 2) change property relations – who owns the companies that own us? what forms of ownership might be adequate? 3) change the marketization of ourselves and our data – is this reversible in a world where we rent even our homes to strangers?

Each one of these three aspects should be considered and can be changed.

We just rarely frame the debate in these terms, and even more rarely think of all three aspects together. But this is precisely what we should do.

Social Media Disinformation and Vaccine Hesitancy: It’s more complicated than that

Julia Rone:

So I got my Astra Zeneca jab on Thursday morning. After a tough Thursday evening with 38.8 fever and a headache, a missed flight and feeling tired on Friday, I feel much better today even though I still try to be careful. The possibility for a fever was explained in the information sheet I got together with the vaccine and it’s an indication my immune system has responded to the vaccine. So no big surprises there even though of course I would have preferred not to feel the vaccine at all, which has been the case with many people I talked to.

In fact, it was the night before taking the vaccine that was tough for me. I didn’t sleep at all and it is this night that I want to reflect on in the current post which is to some extent auto-ethnography but is also the result of my long interest in disinformation, which I have studied mostly when it comes to politics. Of course, I had followed publications discussing the role of social media in spreading disinformation that in turn fuels vaccine hesitancy. A big N-study recently came out that analysed “the effect of social media and online foreign disinformation campaigns on vaccination rates and attitudes towards vaccine safety”. To do that the study used among others geolocated Tweets, polling data on whether people find vaccines unsafe, actual vaccination rates, as well as own survey data on foreign disinfo and extent of using online media to mobilize.

Yet, being familiar with these studies is one thing, and taking the personal decision to get vaccinated is a completely different thing. All the discussions after I took this decision (I immediately agreed when it was offered to me) convinced me that vaccine hesitancy cannot be explained away with online disinfo alone. I want to discuss in this post four key points that I think are often overlooked: 1) differences in national media discourses 2) the still existing lack of sufficient empirical information 3) the importance of general trust in fellow citizens and in the government; 4) geopolitical games.

The importance of national media discourses

Several caveats before I begin: I am Bulgarian, I had taught a short elective course in Sofia University last year and I was in Sofia now to deal with an insurance I could not postpone anymore. Two days before I had to leave, I got a call from the University that I was eligible for vaccination and I could get the vaccine the next day – it was a ‘now or never’ choice. It was amazing luck so I quickly said yes. And that’s when the drama began. In the evening before I got vaccinated I received 2 phone calls – one from my aunt whom I deeply respect (I am named after her), the second – from a doctor friend who has a PhD in neuroscience. The doctor was very skeptical and my aunt directly urged me not to vaccinate. Both calls made me so worried I couldn’t sleep. So what was going on there?

Taking the vaccine seemed completely obvious to me when I agreed. My Dutch biologist boyfriend told me I am extremely lucky and so did a German and a Czech friend, one of whom even suggested I should reject the vaccine out of generational solidarity. Yet the only reason why I and other younger people were offered the vaccine was because a lot of elderly professors had refused to get it. No wonder. The media discourse in Bulgaria when it comes to vaccination has been highly contradictory. Rather than contributing to a coordinated push for vaccination, most mainstream media have emphasized doubts and uncertainties about the vaccine. Just before I started writing this piece, the Bulgarian National Television BNT (the Bulgarian equivalent to the BBC) organized a debate on whether to get the vaccine, with one of the participants insisting a person gets much better immunity if they actually get sick.

Bulgarian media’s obsession with ‘balanced reporting’ and listening to all possible opinions explains also why for months after the start of the pandemic all key Bulgarian mainstream media invited doctors who insisted that the virus is a simple flu, masks don’t help, we need to reach herd immunity, etc. This was further made possible by the fact that the government established two competing expert bodies in the beginning of the pandemic. As we argued with my journalist colleague Georgi Hristov in a piece for Euractiv, it has been Bulgarian mainstream media and the government itself that were the key to blame for disinfo in the first months of the pandemic. Of course, social media matters. But my aunt Julia (who due to her job had to deal with the earliest computers in the late 1980s) hates computers and never goes online. Instead, she follows extremely carefully all debates on national TV and in print media. That is why when she learned I am going to get vaccinated, she called me to actively discourage me claiming that the long term consequences of this new vaccine are unknown, the Covid risk for a younger person like me is small, and that the vaccine had been developed extremely quickly.

Of course, all this is to some extent true. But in countries such as Britain the media coverage does emphasize not uncertainties but the big benefits of vaccinating as many people as possible, starting from the most vulnerable groups. This is being emphasized by mainstream media and crucially also in the tabloid press. It is unclear whether the tabloids with their huge reach would have been so supportive of the campaign had their been a Labour government. But dealing with counter-factuals is never productive. The fact now is that the main discussions in the UK context have to do with how quickly the vaccines are administered, who can get a vaccine, etc. For people coming from such a context the very doubt whether one should take the vaccine sounds ridiculous. But in a media context such as the Bulgarian one where the uncertainties surrounding these new vaccines are consistently discussed, skepticism (rather than outright disinfo such as conspiracy theories) is prevalent and contributes significantly to vaccine hesitancy. As of February 2nd, 43 % of Bulgarians didn’t want to get vaccinated. Which brings us to the second important factor contributing to vaccine hesitancy. The fact that indeed we lack some empirical data.

Lack of Empirical Data

Lack of empirical data is particularly important when it comes to people above 65 but also when it comes to pregnant women and people with autoimmune diseases. The uncertainty about people above 65 is not the case for all vaccines. Notoriously, the data was not sufficient to make a certain assessment of the efficacy of Astra Zeneca vaccine. This does not mean the vaccine does not provide immunity for people above 65 but simply that we don’t know whether it does. Still, the insufficient data so far was a reason enough for several countries to adopt a cautious approach:  Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and Poland only recommend it for people under 65, and Italy and Belgium for those under 55. And in an unexpected recent development French President Emanuel Macron – European liberals’ sweetheart – caused a stir with his claim the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for people above 65.

This wrong claim was rebuffed by Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK, where more than 10 million people have been vaccinated with Astra Zeneca. The World Health Organization also defended Astra Zeneca claiming it can be used for people above 65. Furthermore the WHO argued that the recent study showing that Astra Zeneca was not effective against the South African strain had a very small sample and was not peer reviewed. Still, the reputation of the vaccine has suffered a strong blow. Italy’s main teachers union even protested against receiving Astra Zeneca. Rather than online disinfo what we have here is insufficient (yet) empirical information which was misinterpreted by Macron. The lack of information can be approached with caution, as in the German case, or, with some good faith, considered non-problematic, as we see in the UK. In fact, there have been voices that not recommending Astra Zeneca for the elderly is unethical and risks the lives of the most vulnerable.

The situation is even more complicated when it comes to the long-term consequences of mRNA vaccines where we simply need to wait and see. One does not receive much comfort from reading Moderna’s press releases on their vaccine containing sentences such as the following: “The forward-looking statements in this press release are neither promises nor guarantees, and you should not place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements because they involve known and unknown risks, uncertainties, and other factors, many of which are beyond Moderna’s control and which could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements.”

Ultimately, science is based on empirical data and when there is not enough data, science cannot say things with certainty. When new data is available, scientists are ready to correct previous errors thus incrementing knowledge. Science has never been about absolute certainty. Nor has it pretended to be. That is its strength. But this does not sound very reassuring when one needs to take a personal decision affecting one’s own health. ‘Do you want to become a lab mouse?’ – my aunt asked me during our phone call that left me so distressed. This is not a nice question to be confronted with. Ultimately, the personal decision about the vaccines in the current stage is a decision based on weighing different personal risks – what is my chance of getting unknown long-term side effects from the vaccine Vs what is my chance of getting Covid soon vs. what is my chance of dying from Covid. But crucially the decision about the vaccine also has a societal dimension: if taking the vaccine can help stop the pandemic, I can also protect other people – thus it also involves weighing risks about society and affecting other people. But do other people also think of their fellow citizens?

Trust

In a country with a well-established immunization cycle such as Bulgaria, a lot of Bulgarians who don’t get currently want to get vaccinated with any vaccine against Covid are not anti-vaxers. They just want to ‘wait and see’. That means they want to wait and see what will happen to other people who do take the vaccine. This is a personally rational choice (provided they don’t get sick with Covid while waiting) — but societally a completely irrational one since the pandemic still rages, people lose their lives and the economy has taken a big hit.

Not trusting the government nor one’s fellow citizens is in fact a final important factor for being hesitant about the vaccine regardless of whether one uses social media or not. A qualitative study from Bradford found that “The more confused, distressed and mistrusting participants felt about their social worlds during the pandemic, the less positive they were about a vaccine“. While my aunt was calling me on the phone, the electricity of the whole region where she was at the moment was cut off due to a storm. This was not the first time this happened. After a year of protests against the government embroiled in a series of corruption and rule of law scandals, it’s not a big surprise Bulgarian citizens are not overly inclined to trust any government campaign or their fellow citizens. Many people also question why Bulgaria has imported much larger quantities of Astra Zeneca compared to the Moderna and Pfizer ones. A potential doubt is related to the fact that the representative of Astra Zeneca for Bulgaria is the mother of an MEP from the ruling party. The Ministry of Health has denied these rumours citing the lower price of the vaccine as a main consideration, which sounds reasonable enough. Still, doubts persist. People could ignore vaccine skepticism and uncertainty if they trusted the government. But those who don’t, have one reason less to put their doubts aside.

Geopolitical games

Lack of trust also plays out on a general more geopolitical level. Ultimately, developing a vaccine has a particular prestige to it. As late as December 10 2020, the Council of Foreign Relations blog published an article claiming that Russian state information promoting the Sputnik vaccine was “foreign disinformation”. The blog contained statements such as “Putin is front-and-center in the disinformation campaign because his cult of personality helps quell dissent from the scientific community.” While at the time of writing the CFR blog, the Russian vaccine had indeed not passed Phase III trials, the problem with such coverage was the complete lack of good faith. Similar Sputnik-skeptical reports could be found in British media, which, unsurprisingly, have been readier to show good faith for Astra Zeneca (and rightly so considering the dimensions of the current pandemic). After the results of the Phase III trials of the Russian vaccine became available, Western media dramatically shifted their discourse with regard to Sputnik: on February 8, Fortune claimed that ‘Countries are lining up for Russia’s once-scorned Sputnik vaccine after strong efficacy results ‘ and the Washington Post asked ‘Did we underestimate Russia’s vaccine’.

What all this comes to show is that vaccines did become politicized by both liberals who first decried supposed Russian disinformation about the vaccine (all too readily) and then by populist provocateurs such as Victor Orban who did order and approve first in the EU the Russian vaccine out of practical concerns but certainly also as a political gesture. In Bulgaria, the far right Alpha TV which stared a campaign against vaccination suspiciously remained silent about the Russian vaccine. Thus, a fraction of the Bulgarian far right seems adamant to wait for Sputnik. What we see here, both on the liberal side ad the far right side, has been a prime example of politicization and involving Cold War rhetoric and fears.

Such politicization has been observed even among close European allies with Macron having to explain “he is not a sore loser on the vaccine race with the UK” and commentators suggesting on the EU Confidential podcast that Brexit might have been a good decision considering the problems the EU Commission has faced in delivering the vaccine. Developing and administering the vaccine has become a game of prestige and international status competition.

**

So what is my conclusion from all this? Despite my sleepless night I took the vaccine and I am happy to have done so even though after one dose I will continue observing all measures since I can still get infected. On a personal level, I realized that digital disinformation on vaccination, as important as it is, should not be overestimated when trying to address vaccine hesitancy. As a scholar of disinfo, I have been particularly careful when encountering online information on vaccines. Yet much of the conflicting information I was faced with and the ensuing hesitancy for one sleepless night can be explained only if we take a more complex approach to hesitancy.

First of all, we need to take into account that digital disinfo thrives or doesn’t thrive depending on how it is embedded in broader media ecologies. Mainstream media play a huge role in all vaccine discussions. Furthermore, it matters whether people have a good understanding of how science works. Ultimately, in the absence of good empirical data (still), we need to weigh personal and societal risks and do what’s best for us and for everyone. This of course is easier if we live in a context where we believe other people will do the same and the government wishes us best. It’s much more difficult to trust the government on vaccines if we don’t trust it on other issues. Finally, in a situation in which the vaccine race has become very political, both mainstream and alternative media, liberal and far right, have to different extent fallen prey to Cold War discourses and nationalist competition narratives. In a situation when there are so few vaccines still, leaders and think tanks pitting ‘our vaccine’ against ‘their vaccine’ unsurprisingly invite considerations about the vaccines different form the purely scientific ones.

Ultimately, I had all these considerations only after I was vaccinated. I will not pretend I rationally went through the whole thought process recorded in this blog. When I was called, I made a quick emotional decision and stuck to it despite my ensuing sleepless night. Still, I am amazed to know there are contexts in which people don’t even think for a second whether to get vaccinated and no one tries to dissuade them after they have decided. For other contexts, such as mine, we need more complex models to explain what’s going on rather than simply blaming social media disinfo. It’s not simply a matter of ‘the rational us’ Vs ‘the irrational them – the conspiracy theory anti-vaxers from Q-Anon’. Understanding better what drives vaccines hesitancy is crucial. I hope this post helps at least a bit for this.

 

With the risk of sounding stylistically like a certain company’s press releases, I must note that everything I wrote here is my own personal opinion and has nothing to do with any official position or the position of anyone else associated with the blog. I was just thinking aloud on a matter that is very important to me and many other people and would love to hear your opinion as well.

Public networks instead of social networks?

We need state-owned, interoperable, democratically governed online public networks. From the people for the people.

posted by Julia Rone

The conversation so far

The following comments on Trump being banned from Twitter/ the removal of Parler from Android and iOS stores were, somewhat aptly, inspired by two threads on Twitter itself: the first by the British-Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow and the other by Canadian scholar Blayne Haggart. The point of this post ideally is to start the conversation from where Doctorow and Haggart have left it and involve more people from our team. Ideally, nobody will be censored in the process :p

Doctorow insists that the big problem with Apple and Android removing Parler is not so much censorship – ultimately different app stores can have different rules and this should be the case – but rather the fact that there are no alternative app stores. Thus, the core of his argument is that the US needs to enforce anti-trust laws that would allow for a fair competition between a number of competitors. The same argument can be extended to breaking up social media monopolists such as Facebook and Twitter. What we need is more competition.

Haggart attacks this argument in three ways:

First, he reminds that “market regulation of the type that @doctorow wants requires perfect competition. This is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons (e.g, low consumer understanding of platform issues, tendency to natural monopoly)”. Thus, the most likely outcome becomes the establishment of “a few more corporate oligarchs”. This basically leaves the state as a key regulator – much to the disappointment of cyber-libertarians who have argued against state regulation for decades.

The problem is, and this is Haggart’s second key point, that “as a non-American, it’s beyond frustrating that this debate (like so many internet policy debates) basically amounts to Americans arguing with other Americans about how to run the world. Other countries need to assert their standing in this debate” . This point had been made years ago also in Martin Hardie’s great paper “Foreigner in a free land” in which he noticed how most debates about copyright law focused on the US. Even progressive people such as Larry Lessig built their whole argumentation on the basis of references to the US constitution. But what about all of us – the poor souls from the rest of the world who don’t live in the US?

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Amazon, etc. are all US tech companies. But they do operate globally. So even if the US states interferes in regulating them, the regulation it imposes might not chime well with people in France or Germany, let’s say. The famous American prudence with nudity is the oft quoted example of different standards when it comes to content regulation. No French person would be horrified by the sight of a bare breast (at least if we believe stereotypes) so why should nude photos be removed from the French social media. If we want platform governance to be truly democratic, the people affected by it should “have a say in that decision”. But as Haggart notes “This cannot happen so long as platforms are global, or decisions about them are made only in DC”.

So what does Haggart offer? Simple: break social media giants not along market lines but along national lines. Well, maybe not that simple…

If we take the idea of breaking up monopolies along national lines seriously…

This post starts from Haggart’s proposal to break up social media along national lines, assuming it is a good proposal. In fact I do this not for rhetorical purposes or for the sake of setting a straw man but because I actually think it is a good proposal. So the following lines aim to take the proposal seriously and consider different aspects of it discussing what potential drawbacks/problems should we keep in mind.

How to do this??

The first key problem is: who on Earth, can convince companies such as Facebook/Twitter to “break along national lines”. These companies spend fortunes on lobbying the US government and they are US national champions. Why would the US support breaking them up along national lines? (As a matter of fact, the question of how is also a notable problem in Deibert’s “Reset” – his idea that hacktivism, civil disobedience, and whistleblowers’ pressure can make private monopolists exercise restraint is very much wishful thinking). There are historical precedents for nationalization of companies but they seem to have involved either a violent revolution or a massive indebtedness of these companies making it necessary for the state to step in and save them with public money. Are there any precedents for nationalizing a company and then revealing how it operates to other states in order to make these states create their respective national versions of it? Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone in the US would want to do this.

Which leaves us with the rather utopian option two: all big democratic states get together and develop interoperable social media. The project is such a success that people fed up with Facebook and Google decide to join and the undue influence of private monopolists finally comes to an end. But this utopian vision itself opens up a series of new questions.

Okay, assuming we can have state platforms operating along national lines..

Inscribing values in design is not always as straight-forward as it seems, as discussed in the fascinating conversation between Solon Barocas, Seda Gurses, Arvind Narayanan and Vincent Toubiana on decentralized personal data architectures. But, assuming that states can build and maintain (or hire someone to build and maintain) such platforms that don’t crash, are not easy to hack and are user friendly, the next question is: who is going to own the infrastructure and the data?

Who will own the infrastructure and the data?

One option would be for each individual citizen to own their data but this might be too risky and unpractical. Another option would be to treat the data as public data – the same way we treat data from surveys and national statistics. The personal data from current social media platforms is used for online advertising/ training machine learning. If states own their citizens’ data, we might go back to a stage in which the best research was done by state bodies and universities rather than what we have now – the most cutting edge research is done in private companies, often in secret from the public. Mike Savage described this process of increased privatization of research in his brilliant piece The Coming Crisis of Empirical sociology. If anything, the recent case with Google firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru reveals the need to have independent public research that is not in-house research by social media giants or funded by them. It would be naive to think such independent academics can do such research in the current situation when the bulk of interesting data to be analysed is privately owned.

How to prevent authoritarian censorship and surveillance?

Finally, if we assume that states will own their own online public networks – fulfilling the same functions such as Facebook, but without the advertising, the one million dollar question is how to prevent censorship, overreach and surveillance. As Ron Deibert discusses in “Reset”, most states are currently involved in some sort of hacking and surveillance operations of foreign but also domestic citizens. What can be done about this? Here Haggart’s argument about the need for democratic accountability reveals its true importance and relevance. State-owned online public networks would have to abide by standards that have been democratically discussed and to be accountable to the public.

But what Hagart means when discussing democratic accountability should be expanded. Democracy and satisfaction with it have been declining in many Western nations with more and more decision-making power delegated to technocratic bodies. Yet, what the protests from 2010s in the US and the EU clearly showed is that people are dissatisfied with democracy not because they want authoritarianism but because they want more democracy, that is democratic deepening. Or in the words of the Spanish Indignados protesters:

“Real democracy, now”

Thus, to bring to conclusion the utopia of state public networks, the decisions about their governance should be made not by technocratic bodies or with “democratic accountability” used as a form of window-dressing which sadly is often the case now. Instead, policy decisions should be discussed broadly through a combination of public consultations, assemblies and in already existing national and regional assemblies in order to ensure people have ownership of the policies decided. State public networks should be not only democratically accountable but also democratically governed. Such a scenario would be one of what I call “democratic digital sovereignty” that goes beyond the arbitrariness of decisions by private CEOs but also escapes the pitfalls of state censorship and authoritarianism.

To sum up: we need state-owned interoperable online public networks. Citizen data gathered from the use of these media would be owned by the state and would be available for public academic research (which would be open access in order to encourage both transparency and innovation). The moderation policies of these public platforms would be democratically discussed and decided. In short, these will be platforms of the people and for the people. Nothing more, nothing less.

Great expectations: the role of digital media for protest diffusion in the 2010s

The decade after the 2008 economic crisis started with great expectations about the empowering potential of digital media for social movements. The wave of contention that started from Iceland and the MENA countries swept also Europe, where hundreds of thousands Spanish protesters took part in the Indignados protests in 2011 and a smaller but dedicated group organized Occupy London – the British version of the US Occupy movement that shook US politics for years to come. Protesters during the Arab Spring were often carrying posters and placards with the logos and names of Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms or were even spraying them as graffiti on walls.

It was a period of ubiquitous enthusiasm with some scholars even claiming that the Internet is a necessary and sufficient condition for democratizaton. What is more, a number of scholars saw in the rise of digital platforms a great opportunity for the diffusion of protests within nations and transnationally at an unprecedented speed – leading political journalists and researchers noted that digital media had a key role in ‘Occupy protests spreading like wildfire’ and in spreading information during the Arab Spring.

Photo by Essam Sharaf

Already back in the early 2010s, the beginning of this techno-utopian decade, researchers emphasized that in Egypt, protests and information about them in fact spread in more traditional ways – through the interpersonal networks of cab drivers, labour unions, and football hooligans, among others. What is more, protests in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis spread much more slowly than the 1848 Spring of the Peoples protests due to the need of laborious cultural translation from one region to another. Ultimately, in spite of the major promises of social media, most protest mobilization and diffusion still depends on face-to-face interactions and established protest traditions.

Yet, the trend of expecting too much from digital media is countered by an equally dangerous trend – claiming they haven’t changed anything in the world of mobilization. The media ecology approach of Emilano Trere and Alice Mattoni escapes the pitfalls of both approaches by studying how activists use digital media in combination and interaction with a number of other types of media in hybrid media ecologies.

In a book that I just published, I apply the media ecology approach to study the diffusion of Green and left-wing protests against austerity and free trade in the EU after 2008. One of the greatest things about trying to focus on other media beyond Facebook and Twitter is the multiple unexpected angles it gives to events we all thought we knew well. While both activists and researchers alike have been fascinated with the promise of digital media, looking at the empirical material with unbiased eyes revealed so much about the key role of other types of media for protest diffusion.

To begin with: books! The very name of the Indignados protests came from the title of Stéphane Hessel’s book “Indignez-vous!”. But the books by authors such as Joseph Stiglitz, Wolfgang Streeck, Ernesto Laclau and Yannis Varoufakis have been no less important for spreading ideas and informing protesters across the EU. In his recent book “Translating the Crisis”, Spanish scholar Fruela Fernandez notes the boom of publishing houses translating political books in Spain in the period surrounding the birth and eruption into public space of the Indignados movement.

Similarly, mainstream media have been of crucial importance for spreading information on protests, protest ideas and tactics across the EU in the last decade. Mainstream media such as The Guardian, BBC, El País, etc. reported in much detail on the use of digital media by social movements such as Occupy or Indignados, even sharing Twitter and Facebook hashtags, links to Facebook groups and live-streams in articles. Mainstream media thus popularized the message (and media practices) of protesters further than they could have possibly imagined. In fact, mainstream media’s fascination with the digital practices of new social movements goes a long way to explain their largely favourable attitude to the protests of the early 2010s, Such a favorable coverage by mainstream media indeed contradicts most expectations of social movement scholars that media would largely ignore or misrepresent protesters.

Another type of protest diffusion that has remained woefully neglected but played a key role in the spread of progressive economic protests in the EU was face-to-face communication and, as simple as it may sound, walking! During the Spanish Indignados protests hundreds of protesters marched from all parts of Spain to gather in Madrid. A small part of them continued marching to Brussels where they staged theater plays and discussions and then headed to Greece. These marches took weeks and involved protesters stopping in villages and cities on the way and engaging local people in discussions. Sharing a physical space and sharing food have been among the most efficient ways to diffuse a message and reach more people with it. Of course, the marchers kept live blogs and diaries of their journeys (which in themselves constitute rich materials for future research), but it is the combination of diffusion through traveling, meeting people in person, and using digital media which is the truly interesting combination.

In my book, I give many more examples of how progressive protesters used various types of media to spread protest. Beyond providing a richer and more accurate picture of progressive economic protests in the 2010s, the book can hopefully serve also as a useful reminder for researchers of the radical right. The 2010s that started with research on social movements and democratization end with a major academic trend for studying the far right, and especially the way the far right has blossomed in the digital sphere.

If there is one thing to be learned from my book, it is that digital media are not the only tool activists use to spread protest. Thus, if one needs to understand the diffusion of far right campaigns and ideas, one needs to focus also on the blossoming of far right publishing houses, the increasing mainstreaming of far right ideas in mainstream press, and last but not least, the ways in which far right activists make inroads into civil society organizations and travel to share experiences – it is well-known, for example, that during the refugee crisis far right activists from Western Europe made several joint actions with activists from Eastern Europe to patrol borders together.

Understanding how protests, protest ideas and repertoires diffuse is crucial for activists who want to help spread progressive causes, but also for those who are worried about the spread of dangerous and anti-democratic ideas. After a decade of great expectations about the potential of digital media to democratize our societies, we find ourselves politically in an era of backlash. Yet, at least analytically we are now past the naive enthusiasm of the early 2010s and have a much better instrumentarium to understand how protest diffusion works. To rephrase Gramsci, we are now entering a period of pessimism of the will and optimism of the intellect.

It is not what we wished for. But shedding our illusions and utopian expectations about the potential of digital media is an important step for moving beyond techno-fetishism and understanding better the processes of mobilization that currently define our society.

Democratizing digital sovereignty: an impossible task?

Julia Rone

The concept of digital sovereignty has increasingly gained traction in the last decade. A study by the Canadian scholars Stephan Couture and Sophie Toupin in the ProQuest database has shown that while the term appeared only 6 times in general publications before 2008, it was used almost 240 times between 2015-2018. As every new trendy term, “digital sovereignty” has been used in a variety of fields in multiple often conflicting ways. It has been “mobilized by a diversity of actors, from heads of states to indigenous scholars, to grassroots movements, and anarchist-oriented “tech collectives,” with very diverse conceptualizations, to promote goals as diverse as state protectionism, multistakeholder Internet governance or protection against state surveillance”.

Within the EU, Germany has been a champion of “digital sovereignty” — promoted in domestic discourse as a panacea, a magic solution that can at the same time increase the competitiveness of German digital industries, allow individuals to control their data and give power to the state to manage vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures. As Daniel Lambach and Kai Opperman have found, German domestic players have used the term in very vague ways, which has made it easier to organize coalitions around it to apply for funding or push for particular policies. Furthermore, the German Federal Foreign Office has made considerable efforts to promote the term in European policy debates. It has been more cautious at the international scene, where the US has promoted an open Internet (which completely suits its economic and geopolitical interests, one must add) and has been very suspicious of notions of digital sovereignty, associated with Chinese and Russian doctrines above all. Attempting to avoid qualifications of sovereignty as necessarily authoritarian, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed in a 2018 speech at the Internet Governance Forum a vision of the return of the democratic state in Internet governance, as different from both the Chinese model of control and the Californian model of private self-regulation. This unfortunately turned out to be easier said than done.

What all of this comes to show is that beyond the fact that more and more political and economic players talk about “digital sovereignty”, the term itself is up for grabs and there is no single accepted meaning for it. This might seem confusing but I argue it is liberating since it allows us to imagine digital sovereignty as how we want it to be rather than encountering it as a stable, ossified reality. Drawing on a recent discussion on conflicts of sovereignty in the European Union, I claim that discussions about digital sovereignty have been dominated by the same tension as more general discussions on sovereignty – namely the tension between national and supranational sovereignty. Yet, as Brack, Crespy and Coman convincingly argue, the more important sovereignty conflicts in recent European Union politics have in fact been between the people and parliaments, as bearers of democratic sovereignty, on the one hand, and executives at both the national and supranational level, on the other. The demand for “real democracy now” that informed the Spanish Indignados protests reverberated strongly across Europe and in a decade of protests against both austerity and free trade protesters and civil society alike made strong claims for democratic deepening. Sovereignty is ultimately bound with the question of “who rules” and since the French Revolution in Europe the answer to this question at least normatively has been “the people”. Of course, how do “the people” rule and who constitutes “the people” are questions that have sparked both theoretical and practical, sometimes extremely violent, debates over centuries. Yet, the democratic impulse behind the contemporary notion of sovereignty remains there and has become increasingly prominent in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which the insulation of markets from democratic control has become painfully visible.

What is remarkable is that none of these debates on sovereignty as, ultimately, democratic sovereignty has reached the field of digital policy. Talk about digital sovereignty in policy circles has often presupposed either an authoritarian omnipotent state — as evidenced in Russian and Chinese doctrines of digital sovereignty — or a democratic state but where all decisions are made by the executive, as in Macron’s vision of the ‘return of the state’ in Internet policy. Yet, almost all interesting issues of Internet regulation are issues that deserve a proper democratic debate and participation. States such as France attempting to regulate disinformation without even a basic consultation with citizens have rightly been accused of censorship and stifling political speech.

Who can decide what constitutes disinformation, hate speech or online harms? There is no easy answer to this question but certainly greater democratic involvement and discussion in decisions about silencing political messages would be appropriate. This democratic involvement can take the form of parliamentary debates, hearing and resolutions. But it can also take the form of debates at democratic neighbourhood assemblies or organized mini-publics events. It can take place at the European level with more involvement of the European Parliament and innovative uses of so-far ‘blunt’ instruments such as online public consultations or the European Citizen Initiative. Or it can take place at the national level, with parliaments even of small EU member states building up their capacity to monitor and debate Internet policy proposals. National citizens can also get involved in debates on Internet policy through petitions, referenda, and public consultations. Such type of initiatives will not only promote awareness about specific digital policies but will also increase their legitimacy and potentially their effectiveness if citizens have a sense of “ownership” with regard to new laws and regulations and have taken place in coining them.

Some of this might sound utopian. Some of it might sound painstakingly banal and obvious. But the truth is that while our democracies are struggling with the challenges posed by big tech, a lot of proposals for regulation have been shaped by the presence and power of private companies themselves or have been put forward by illiberal leaders with authoritarian tendencies. In such a context, demands for more digital democratic sovereignty could emancipate us from excessive private and executive power and allow us to reimagine digital content, data and infrastructures as something that is collectively owned and governed.

The early years of the Internet were marked by the techno-deterministic promise that digital tech would democratise politics. What happened instead was the immense concentration of power and influence in the hands of a few tech giants. The solution to this is not to take power from the private companies and give it back to powerful states acting as Big Brothers but instead to democratize both. We can use democracy as a technology, or what the ancient Greeks would call techne, to make both private corporations and states more open, participative and accountable. This is certainly not what Putin, Macron or Merkel would mean when they talk about digital sovereignty. But it is something that we as citizens should push for. Is it possible to democratize digital sovereignty? Or is such a vision bound to end up as the toothless reality of an occasional public consultation whose results decision makers ignore? This is ultimately a political question not a conceptual one. The notion of “digital sovereignty” is up for grabs. So is our democratic future.