a call for online democracy
the urgent need for digital elections: today’s tech corporations are nothing but monarchies. now is the time to build online democracies.
tech companies create places online for people to interact. they can be thought of as public squares — public places where people can come and talk, socialize, spend time together. but these public squares are, effectively, massive countries, and the company owning the country acts as the government. the “content policy” is effectively local laws, which can be different from country to country: the Tumblr country didn’t mind nudes (until recently), but at the Instagram country the nipple is a strict no-go. if something bad happens to you in one of these countries — say, a death threat in your DMs — you go to this country’s police department, that is, you hit “Report” button. in fact, you can freely choose whether to go to Instagram police department or to New York police department — that is, your offline state’s police. the choice is far from obvious. to many, these online countries are still a mystery.
the relationships between citizens and the state in offline countries are never simple, and they largely vary from place to place. but generally (ideally?), the idea is that the state maintains the essential infrastructure, and in exchange the citizens are paying a percent of their income. in a democracy, the citizens have a clear, transparent mechanism for expressing their views on how the government does its job: elections. various people (“politicians”) promise some changes to the existing policies and laws, and every citizen can cast their vote. i’m intentionally oversimplifying to avoid writing a 200-page thesis on what is a democracy.
surely, democracy is not perfect, but all the alternatives are much worse.
now, how are all major tech companies operating? what’s the relationship between their citizens (“users”) and their governments? to begin with, the relationship is entirely one-sided. the local laws (“terms of service”, “content policy”, etc.) are written by the platform owner, and citizens’ opinions are almost never taken into account. as a Twitter citizen who’s unhappy about some of Twitter’s rules and decisions, your situation is tragically binary: either you stay and accept your complete helplessness, or you delete your account.
citizens of these online states don’t pay taxes in the traditional understanding: technically, it’s all free, the tax is 0%. but — all citizens signed a contract, agreeing to two radically important things: (1) to watch ads — as many ads as the state decides to show them, (2) to have their every move tracked, recorded, and analyzed — for making profits. again, there is no option to opt out. you either stay and give up your freedom (but you get to stay where all your friends are), or you quit — and become a digital hermit.
it’s quite ironic that all Western tech giants were created in democratic states, yet of all possible options they chose monarchy: the CEO is the king, and what they say goes. of course, these digital states still have to comply with laws and regulations of the actual states they technically operate it, but they carry just about zero responsibility to the digital citizens who inhabit their digital lands. and while the unhappy citizens of offline states always had the option of going on the streets and protesting, here, in these digital lands, there’s nowhere to go. the best you can do is to #DeleteUber and then tweet about it. but it would hardly matter. a week later everyone will forget, and you’ll obediently reinstall the app.
of course, this “situation” was unavoidable, because none of the digital states were intended as such. they started as novel fun experiments, then they grew, matured, and turned into serious businesses, and as corporations they are primarily responsible to their shareholders, not to their “users”. it’s no surprise that they do everything they can to extract as much money as possible — while they still can. no matter what the spokespeople and ad spots tell you, the goal was never to “connect the world” or “make the world a better place”. the goal was always to make money. more money. more money.
so it would be naive at best to expect any social good from capitalism-rooted institutions. they are not going to change anything, unless there’s a threat of losing money — or an opportunity to make more money. the only way is to learn from their mistakes, and to create new, better online states — ones that embrace the core principles and ideas of democracy, and adapt them for digital lands.
here’s an outline of how such a New Tech Company could look and operate:
- its major goal is to provide an online public space, not to create money
- every citizen has an equal right to the public space
- no surveillance, no tracking. period
- the citizens can contribute financially, if they choose to.
- the whole thing is subsidized by governments,