The struggle for a democratic internet

OursToHackAndOwn_CVFThe prospect of a democratic internet is something that has energised and frustrated campaigners for decades. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with activist and scholar Trebor Scholz(over Skype) about the consequences of an increasingly monopolised internet, the rise of platform cooperativism alongside it, and the new collection Scholz edited, Ours to Hack and Own. This is an edited version of our discussion, and my research before and after, focussing on digital cooperatives, the labour struggles of our time and opportunities for a fairer society.


‘The web has hit rock bottom in a sense’, Trevor tells me. ‘It has become a consumer tool rather than the participatory medium it was conceived as. Think about how many websites you visit on a day’s basis – there is an extreme concentration of traffic, as opposed to the decentralisation that the web was supposed to offer.’

The logical extreme of this is platform capitalism, in which tech giants such as Uber, Facebook and Google directly employ few staff but nonetheless control huge volumes of traffic – and labour. These platforms are no longer regular companies which can be competed with, because their monopoly is precisely why they are useful. Nobody wants an Uber that doesn’t turn up, or to have to ‘friend’ somebody on a different social network.

We became the product a long time ago. Our car, our handyman abilities and our spare room have exited the world of Couchsurfing and Freecycling – perhaps the ‘true’ sharing economy, according to Scholz – and instead become acceptable, even desirable, social goods. Moreover, powerful governments and the world’s biggest corporations are in a tizz about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’ as a source of governance and revenue in and of itself. Flows of data, properly analysed, have become real power, one which exists only in the hands of government officials and more troublingly in the hands of Silicon Valley.

The problem is less that these new ways of organising society have been radically successful than they’re being run in a way which is exploitative and undemocratic. Since 2008, Scholz has been considering the ramifications of the internet for labour. As the trends to platforms became more pertinent, he shifted his focus from cognitive work to labour in the more traditional sense.

‘In the United States in 2016, 24% of workers had worked on some kind of platform. Every third person is a freelancer – fifty five million people. How do you make an intervention in this kind of work?’

The internet has penetrated the labour-force to a radical degree, the extent that an app is effectively many workers’ sole interaction with their employer. Workers no longer use the internet as some kind of tool, but rather find themselves the tool that a platform coordinates for its consumers. If technology can efficiently coordinate human beings as if they were data cogs in the internet’s machine, then why rely on old service providers? However, this can be turned on its head: if technology is all that’s required to create these new productive modes of operating, then who needs these platforms at all? Why can’t the internet become the commons that it always intended to be?

Ours to Hack and Own makes this case clearly and concisely, with 40-odd contributors from scholars and activists in the movement of platform cooperativism. The book itself is merely the latest stage in a global movement, and is appropriately aphoristic, representing various theories and approaches depicting how things have got so bad and how platform cooperativism is central to reshape our Uberised world. The rapidly emerging phenomenon attempts to co-opt the disruptive nature of platforms, allowing communities to reorganise themselves utilising the communicative ability of apps, reducing monetary and organisational costs, while retaining collective control of how services are provided, and preventing the surplus from being extracted to Silicon Valley.

The liberating potentials of this are profound. Platform cooperatives provide not only a way to redistribute wealth from the largest corporations to local communities, but one which is deeply functional, already-existing and rapidly expanding. It ties into old labour traditions of cooperativism and communitarianism, while simultaneously rapidly expanding their potential through digital technology. Scholz’s frequent co-author, Nathan Schneider, expresses this nicely in describing a visit to Barcelona:

Rather than securing old-fashioned jobs, these independent workers help each other become less dependent on sala­ries, and more able to rely on the housing, food, childcare, and com­puter code they hold in common.

One might not understand the appeal of digital cooperativism unless they understood how dire the situation is. Scholz and his co-authors are keen to make comparisons to the nineteenth century, noting how centuries of labour laws have been effectively swept under the rug through a system of technological fiat. If Uber sets up camp in your city, it will carry on business regardless of local regulations – until they are loosened to include Uber. It and other platforms take over cities, implanting themselves by creating a network of newly commodified workers, until the weight is too strong on the local government that they have to submit, existing laws be damned.

Nowhere is this clearer than the euphemistic language employed by companies like Uber and Deliveroo – ‘driver partners’, ‘rider community’ – in which they disclose themselves of any responsibility for the people on whose labour they rely. While the means are different, the effect is the same: workers – for these partners and riders are workers – are exploited in this digital factory at the whim of their employers with the same recourse to labour laws as their nineteenth-century peers.

This comparison is further fruitful when considering the actual working conditions of the nineteenth century. In Capital, Marx details at length how the construction of the working day was under radical contention between those who would undersell adulterated goods, chiefly bakers, and their ‘full-priced’ competitors. The former could only provide bread at a cheaper-than-market price by not only adulterating its material inputs – i.e. sawdust loaves and mystery-meat pies of Sweeny Todd fame – but also their labour input. In the words of one disgruntled baker, they got ‘18 hours work out of their men for 12 hours wages’.

If this begins to sound familiar to our present context – Uber drivers working at a lower wage, poisoning the well for any ‘full-priced’ taxi driver, let alone a unionised workforce – it has a few further twists in today’s day and age. As opposed to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were in such poverty that they could be successfully exploited to undermine wages and conditions, Scholz notes that many of the sharing economy’s participants are likely to be wealthier and higher educated than the workforce they replace.

‘Uber drivers are 40% college educated and more white than traditional taxi drivers. What you have is a displacement of workers who were already very precarious, and now it’s become more acceptable for middle-class workers to take up this kind of work.’

In short, it is broadly the somewhat comfortable who are scabbing off union conditions rather than the desperately poor. Even Uber’s own figures – Scholz does not trust them – claim that only 19% of their drivers are full-time drivers, implying that nobody could actually make a living off this.

Of course, class often intersects with race, a topic Scholz continually raises. Beyond the usual aspects of discrimination that reappear in their non-criminalised forms – it may be illegal for a landlord to reject a black tenant on the basis of race, but it’s no problem to reject a black Airbnb applicant – the sharing economy radicalises gentrification.

‘Airbnb increases the cost of the rental market. Landlords are simply able to make more money rather than local renters, so it simply removes many apartments from the rental market. Even houses are advertised by real estate agents with the money that you can make per month if you put it on Airbnb, which even increases those prices.’

In short, the sharing economy requires ideal and transitory consumers, rather than serving any existing people’s needs. This is evident in the way that Airbnb has reshaped cities around itself. Scholz shares the example of fruit and vegetable markets in Barcelona whose business has suffered as a result of Airbnb tourism – tourists flock to markets, discouraging locals, who understandably do not want to shop at a tourist destination – and yet tourists will generally buy little, with the market’s sellers being the great losers. Stories regarding the speculative boom of Airbnb are an obvious corollary of when an empty house or apartment is suddenly significantly more valuable than one rented, let alone actually owned, by its tenants.

The social ends here are deeply important: what if people had actual control of their communities, or were able to serve them directly? How many overcrowded markets and underpopulated houses could be turned into socially productive institutions? How can we not only avoid these dire circumstances but actively build a better world out of them? We have to be proactive rather than merely condemnatory – after all, no matter how much the chattering classes condemn Uber’s work practices, no personal boycott will change much – the appeal of cheap labour will still overrun any ethical injunction.

‘I think that this economy is consumer convenient – people appreciate this, the technology is clearly superior – so it’s not in defence of the old-fashioned factory businesses,’ Scholz argues. ‘This model can work quite well for students and people in-between jobs. But the point is that I would not defend this model as a full-time occupation.’

As in Marx’s day, this kind of exploitation cannot carry on forever. The health and life expectancy of nineteenth-century manufacturing regions were appalling, as generations of human beings were fed to the machine. Today, capitalism is in extreme crisis: the world’s wealthiest corporations hold onto their wealth for fear of investment; populist movements challenge the norms of bourgeois government, and there is little expectation for a better life for even the middle classes. How might these overexploited communities react, I ask, after becoming marginalised even from the low-skilled, low-paid work that predominates?

‘It breeds economic resistance – and this is what we’re seeing,’ Scholz reminds me. ‘Indeed, this is the history of unions and cooperatives – in 1844, in Rochdale, Manchester, where people started founding cooperatives and unions out of desperation, because they didn’t have anything to eat. They thought, “maybe if we buy oatmeal in bulk, maybe we could create a better situation for ourselves.”’

The reality is something Scholz is keen to emphasise.

‘Even our opponents agree that digital coops will happen – it’s not a question of whether this will happen, it’s a fact of life already. The question is to what extent, and how big of a role this economy will play in confrontation with this other model.’

Scholz doesn’t mince words in our interview: his head is clearly in the here-and-now, not some hypothetical future. Indeed, he warns that for countries like Australia, which still participate in more innocent discussions of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ compared to the US, EU and other nations who have witnessed their disruptive effects at a far greater level, failure to think about alternatives like cooperatives will leave us vulnerable to similar kinds of social discord.

Focusing on cooperatives may seem unusual given the broad swath of political crises across the globe, yet it is a useful anchor for how we can consider the capacity for struggle. Scholz himself admits that cooperatives are only going to be as successful as the political movements of which they form part. Their strategies will be varying, and their tactics and organisations will be piecemeal. Cooperativism is no panacea, but it is the first step. The big act of his and others’ work then is to link these cooperative struggles with broader political movements.

‘It’s good for people who seek an activist path that they actually have something to do. There’s lots of critique, long term visions, etc, but there’s very little that people can do right now, so this is something that we can offer.’

In his words, we need ‘something to say yes to’.


Trebor Scholz visited Australia in May, courtesy of the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals. His edited collection is Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet.

The author would like to thank Trebor Scholz for this interview.


Image: crop of Uber promotion.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Angus Reoch is a freelance writer and essayist from Sydney. His writing has appeared in Overland, New Matilda and Hong Kong Review of Books.

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