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‘Big Tech’ threatens democracy, Profs warn

Submitted on Monday, February 22, 2021

Inspired by the Defund the Police movement, two U of T professors have joined forces with colleagues at other universities to call for the defunding and radical reform of Big Tech. In their “Defund Big Tech, Refund Community” report, published earlier this month, they warn that Big Tech’s wealth and power has become so concentrated that it poses a threat to democracy.

Faculty of Information Associate Professor Christoph Becker and Professor Emeritus Andrew Clement hope to take advantage of the current moment to address these critical issues and start a conversation with stakeholders ranging from Big Tech employees to individual consumers. With the big five tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google/Alphabet and Microsoft — increasingly facing scrutiny for monopolistic practices and with the pandemic having exacerbated the gap between rich and poor, they believe the time is right to get their messages out.

Associate Professor Christoph Becker

Associate Professor Christoph Becker says decades of publicly funded research contribute to  Big Tech’s huge profits. 

Becker says a rash of recent media articles — including one in the Guardian earlier this month that asked, “Is Big Tech now just too big to stomach?” — reflect the current mood. “Antitrust legislation is being talked about. Breaking up the big companies is being talked about,” he said. “We suggest in our piece that we need to go further and talk about changing the conditions that made it possible for them to become so big and powerful in the first place.”

The “Defund Big Tech, Refund Community” call to action was unabashedly co-written on a Google document over a seven-month period by seven contributors, who acknowledge how inextricably Big Tech is woven into our lives. Along with Becker and Clement, the other authors are Wolmet Barendregt of Eindhoven University of Technology, EunJeong Cheon of Aalborg University, Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, Douglas Schuler of Evergreen State College, and Lucy Suchman of Lancaster University. Many of the contributors had already worked with each other on different projects before coming together online last summer at the 2020 Participatory Design Conference to discuss technology production and use.

“Defund was very much in the air,” says Clement. “We wanted to align with that but take it to a new arena. We were mindful that we were appropriating a term that had entered the discourse around Black Lives Matter and the protests. We acknowledge that using ‘defund’ is provocative in the current context, but we hope it‘s a constructive provocation.”

Since the authors began writing, Big Tech’s profits have only continued to grow as the news about its impact on society has kept coming. Discussion of free speech and social media has been especially heated in early 2021 while Australia’s quarrel with Google and Facebook has recently made headlines around the world. “There’s definitely a skepticism and pushing back, about monopolization, loss of accountability, and the erosion of democratic norms,” says Clement. “I think there’s a moment here. What our effort is doing is contributing to that moment and to trying to push it past a preoccupation with antitrust and breaking up big tech, vital as these steps are.”

Professor Emeritus Andrew Clement

Professor Emeritus Andrew Clement says that citizens are having some success in pushing back against Big Tech.

Becker emphasizes that the group is not anti-technology, but rather concerned with where tech should be heading. They are trying to imagine a different future, which is why they chose the #TechOtherwise name for the platform where they want to continue the conversation. They understand just how important Big Tech services and platforms are to people.

“It’s hard to attack them or boycott them,” says Clement, adding that (the big five tech companies) can be seen as part of the infrastructure and essential. “Their trick is to monopolize the flows of attention, information and money.”

As much as Big Tech is best known for its huge profits and the wealth it has generated for individuals, the Defund Big Tech report also addresses what Becker calls “the excessive flows of money into big tech.” While the public is enamoured with “the myth of loner genius founder,” Becker says their wealth is often build on decades of government investment in long range research funding for which taxpayers and citizens receive little to no compensation.

Becker also says that tech platforms capture, without giving compensation, the immense value “created by those using the platforms — the landlords and renters at Airbnb, the drivers and riders at Uber, the influencers and followers on social media.”

Yet, at the same time, Becker and Clement note that citizens have succeeded in pushing back against Big Tech. In Toronto, opposition to Google’s Sidewalk Labs project for the city’s waterfront forced the tech giant to give up on its plans for a digital neighbourhood and depart the city. And, according to the Defund Big Tech report, DECIDIM, a free and open-source system for a variety of participatory governance approaches, has shown promise in Barcelona, Milan, Helsinki and Mexico City, where it has been used or tested.

The Defund Big Tech report also offers possible courses of action for different stakeholders. Among other things, it says Big Tech should pay its fair share of taxes, government should revive anti-trust laws, tech workers should organize to oppose egregious Big Tech behaviour, civil society organizations should closely monitor Big Tech and hold it to account, and individuals should recognize that no computing comes without cost, even when offered “for free”.

While there are already many efforts underway, according to the report’s authors, they need better recognition, support and funding. “Now is the time to radically redirect the future of tech, by reclaiming the purposes of technology development, and redistributing the associated responsibilities and benefits, in the service of our collective and sustainable well-being,” they conclude their call to action.

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