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A Power Analysis of Platforms: Expression, Equitable Governance, and Participation

Overview

Author: Jasmine McNealy (University of Florida)

Justice Thomas acknowledged the extreme concentrations of power in social media organizations in the recent US Supreme Court case Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute in which the Court determined that a case — meant to decide whether the blocking of critics of the presidential administration from a Twitter account used by that administration for official business, was unconstitutional — was no longer worthy of discussion. Justice Thomas was especially concerned that there seemed to be no specific regulatory framework that could mitigate the enormous consequences of the concentration of power in tech organizations as it related to expression and governance. He noted that we could look to public accommodation and common carriage laws for routes toward regulation. But both areas of law fall short of being either applicable or resolving tech-specific issues. There must be a new route for more adequately regulating tech organizations. This essay recommends using a power analysis in creating policy for tech firms, and in brief, offers a way of examining platform power dynamics and how we should proceed in regulating interactions in order to mitigate the consequences of unchecked power on expression, governance, and participation.

Data: Power or Pawn? Advancing Equity by Reimagining the Consumer-Data Relationship

Overview

Author: Amina Kirk and Mae Watson Grote (Change Machine)

Tech’s ability to accumulate and wield power is unquestionable. The dominance of the Big Four tech firms — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google — has commoditized consumer data in unprecedented ways, subjecting all of our online activity to search, analysis, and constraint. These dynamics not only perpetuate existing forces, making products and payments accessible to white consumers who are ready adopters, but intentionally exploit and prey upon low-to-moderate income consumers with product placement and ads for targeted services such as payday loans. Without reform, we run the risk of exacerbating inequities — the racism and sexism so hardwired in our society — leading to even further financial insecurity. We must hold all of fintech accountable to wield its power in ways that challenge and change the policies, practices, and beliefs that keep Black and Brown women navigating financial insecurity from achieving their financial goals, much less acquiring or leveraging wealth for economic mobility. We must reform the financial system to intentionally and surgically reverse digital redlining one practice at a time.

The People vs. the Algorithmic State: How Government Is Aiding Big Tech’s Extractivist Agenda, and What We Can Do About It

Overview

Author: Ulises Ali Mejias (State University of New York at Oswego)

This paper focuses on forms of discrimination, including racism, that are produced and replicated when the state uses biased algorithms, and when the state fails to regulate corporations that use biased algorithms. The paper specifically asks what happens when the state—whose purpose is to guarantee the rights of citizens—becomes a political and business partner with corporations whose profit model hinges on exploitative data-driven advertising, platform services, and gig work. The framework of “data colonialism” (Couldry and Mejias 2019) is used to examine the historical roots of these new forms of extractivism. Suggestions are reviewed for how the public can help prevent the deployment of discriminatory algorithms, and hold states and corporations accountable when this happens.

Technology, Fissuring, and Race

Overview

Author: Veena Dubal (University of California, Hastings College of the Law)

Technology platforms may be understood as the symbolic “cotton mill” in today’s rapidly growing digital economy. Just as the capital-intensive nature of unregulated factory production amidst the industrial revolution expropriated and exploited human labor, today’s platforms—with their venture capital-facilitated business models, monopoly and monopsony-guided ideologies, and resistance to regulation—create and rely upon profoundly immoral economies of work. In this article, I argue that firm fissuring practices across the tech economy have created a two-tier system of workers. This two-tiered system has undermined possibilities of labor intervention in the broader, racialized injustices produced through and with digital capitalism. In the face of this, the most vulnerable, racial minority, and immigrant workers—often relegated to temporary labor or independent contracting—have organized to claim both labor power and to produce friction in the production of racially unjust automation technologies.

Supporting Black Businesses Online with Federal Policies and Recommendations

Overview

Author: Fallon Wilson (#BlackTechFutures Research Institute)

Black businesses have been disadvantaged due to racial inequalities, as outlined in what Kapor (2018) refers to as the “Leaky Tech Pipeline,” which examines how intersecting racial tech disparities, such as the lack of access to the high-speed internet, business mentors of color, and non-dilutive capital, affects Black tech businesses’ ability to scale. The lack of digital infrastructure (e.g., access to high-speed internet) to support the growth of non-tech Black businesses into e-commerce further amplifies these disparities while the monopolistic tendencies of corporate giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google use their algorithms to absolve competition from smaller Black firms. Further, by outlining federal policy solutions by which Black businesses can scale and thrive in a competitive online marketplace, including federal policies and recommendations from the Small Business Administration, Federal Communications Commission, and pending antimonopoly legislation (e.g., Ending Platform Monopolies Act), we can exemplify how to help “level the playing field” (e.g., reduce racial tech disparities) for the growth of Black tech businesses in the United States.

How Platform Based Work Contributes to the Racial Wealth Gap

Overview

Author: Shelly Steward (The Aspen Institute)

Platform work, or the use of apps, websites, or intermediaries to connect workers to tasks, is an increasingly common way of arranging work in the tech sector. Platforms weaken the relationship between workers and employers by acting as a mediator between them; workers interact with an impersonal interface rather than a supervisor. These arrangements provide workers with few career prospects, while offering low wages and few benefits. Existing estimates suggest workers of color are concentrated in these jobs. As such, platform-based work represents the latest iteration of a racial exclusion in the U.S. labor market, which holds workers of color from opportunities for career growth and wealth-building, contributing to the country’s persistent and substantial racial wealth gap. Solutions include policies aimed at improving platform work conditions, and alternative models of platform work, which hold potential to bring a more equitable future of work.

Silence No More: Addressing Anti-Competitive Opportunity Hoarding in the Tech Industry

Overview

Author: Cierra Robson and Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University)

In this paper, we examine the racial dimensions of five recently proposed antitrust bills targeting the tech industry. Racial inequity has always been maintained by formal laws and policies (i.e., de jure discrimination) and informal norms and practices (i.e., de facto discrimination). While the aforementioned bills prevent de jure anti-competitive behavior, they do not completely address de facto discrimination. Drawing upon the concept of opportunity hoarding (Tilley 1998), in which members of privileged social groups monopolize valuable resources to maintain their advantage over subordinated groups, we argue that workplace discrimination stifles opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) talent within the tech industry and is, therefore, relevant to tech policy debates. To advance racial equity, advocates must address how workplace culture perpetuates opportunity hoarding, and proposed legislation must be combined with systemic efforts to directly address racism in the tech industry.

Working Around Democracy: Big Tech, Computational Power, and Racial Equity

Overview

Author: Seeta Peña Gangadharan (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Changes in our technological infrastructures are deepening inequalities and intensifying systemic racism. As society becomes more reliant on computation-hungry technologies such as cloud or software as services, computational service providers are hollowing out public institutions and diminishing their ability to administer basic democratic duties and to serve populations. For members of marginalized communities, this transformation adds to the challenge of getting the state to adequately address economic disparity, cultural violence, and political power imbalances, further obstructing paths to racial justice and equity. This paper argues that the rise of computational power warrants new ways of demanding racial equity and justice above and beyond familiar interventions focused on equitable access, diversity, and inclusion. To build out this argument, the paper looks at historic ways that race intersects issues of technology governance and identifies blind spots that overlook the outsize influence and wealth of technology companies. The paper then explores Big Computing, differentiating between computational power and the kinds of power associated with networked or platform technologies. Computational power often works around democracy, and its problems encompass more than the typical ones of access, bias, privacy, or free expression. Advocates for racial justice and equity face a unique opportunity to lead debate on computational infrastructure and its broad implications for equity and justice.

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