The Ownership Alternative
Historically, one of the common “solutions” to the problem of natural monopolies has been public utility regulation. And while the idea of classifying and regulating platforms and other Big Data–dependent corporations as public utilities is controversial, it is starting to gain traction among various experts.
However, both the experience and theory (including from diverse ideological perspectives) of public utility regulation in the United States suggests that it is often insufficient to deal with the innumerable problems associated with corporate concentration and power, and does little in furtherance of redistributing or democratizing wealth and economic control. Case in point is the United States’ experience with large investor owned electricity utilities.
This leaves alternative models of ownership as the most viable and radical path forward, and one of the only options capable of getting to the root of the problem. A new report from Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative (to which the authors contributed) presents several bottom-up and top-down proposals to fundamentally change the ownership structure, values, governance, and orientation of platforms and data, and gain control over the commanding heights of the modern economy.
First and foremost, this includes taking some or all of the large platform corporations into public ownership (either wholly or through a controlling or majority share ownership position). Part of this process must include embedding democratic principles at various levels.
For instance, if ownership stakes are taken in major platform companies, they should likely be held in an autonomous public trust (or similar vehicle) organized with democratic multi-stakeholder representation from workers, consumers, government officials, the general public, etc. Once in public ownership, the platform companies themselves should also be restructured to embed both democratic management structures and new public interest principles.
Of particular concern will be ensuring that anti-surveillance and data privacy values are woven into these new publicly owned platforms. This cannot be an afterthought, as it would introduce the unacceptable risk that the new public platforms would face incentives and pressure to collect, monetize, and/or misuse data (including sharing it with government agencies engaged in surveillance and social control).
Rather, anti-surveillance and privacy values and rules should be included in any and all enabling legislation. Moreover, a strict national data privacy framework — whether enacted in conjunction with, or prior to, platforms being brought into democratic public ownership — would be an important complement to this proposal, together overcoming the problem of consumer protections creating barriers to entry that favor dominant firms.
Another important component will be ensuring global, multi-stakeholder governance of these new public platforms. While many of the major platform and Big Tech companies are nominally based in the United States, their users are located throughout the world. Any proposal to democratize the ownership of platforms and data must take these global dynamics into account and develop ways in which people around the world (and not just in the United States and the UK) can be involved in ownership and governance decisions.
In addition to public ownership of the major platform corporations, there are a number of further policy solutions that should be deployed to confront the platform monopolies and chart a course away from surveillance capitalism. For instance, a new and powerful set of labor and union rights, such as that put forward by the PRO Act, should be embedded in the organization and management structures of any new public or cooperatively owned platforms (and should be enacted regardless of possible shifts in ownership).
Existing and new public agencies at various scales should be dedicated to incubating and supporting the development and proliferation of new cooperative and nonprofit platform and data alternatives; and financing of such ownership alternatives could be facilitated via direct federal spending and through the establishment of a network of local and regional public banks.
A new multi-stakeholder regulatory authority should be created, tasked with democratically setting and enforcing standards around data collection and speech — taking those decisions out of the hands of bosses, corporations, and state technocrats; and when data is collected, it should be held in a new network of public “data trusts” that enable residents and communities both access to, and democratic control over, the data so that it can improve their lives, and not be misused for purposes of surveillance capitalism and social control.
Lastly, as we are confronted with the rapidly emerging prospect of the currency system itself being captured by platform capitalists like Facebook’s newly rebranded cryptocurrency project, Diem, a linked Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) and postal banking system should be established to modernize payment infrastructure, while centering the preservation of financial data privacy inherent to paper cash.