Is it time to establish Internet user unions?
Since everybody and his grandma have gotten on the Internet in a big way in the last few years, the social influence of giant Internet companies has skyrocketed. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and many more wield enormous power over us.
We have given them that power. Their success is built on participation, and we willingly participate.
For those of us who have watched the Internet grow from the time we had to dial in to local bulletin boards, or log onto big mainframes, these are somewhat troubling developments. Facebook makes decisions that are deeply consequential to all of us, but without consulting us. They violate our privacy expectations and too readily share our information with people who might abuse it. Another example is Wikipedia. People who find lies about themselves on Wikipedia pages, who otherwise might have recourse to libel law, are often forced to participate in an arcane and often unfair system. Wikipedia also lacks any filter for their enormous porn holdings, while its representatives continue to tout it as a great resource for school children.
I could go on, but this is not just about Facebook or Wikipedia, or any one website. This is about participatory Internet companies that are so huge that their users–and the broader public affected by them–essentially have no meaningful input in their governance. But shouldn’t they? We live in a democratic age. If we participate in a community, we expect to have a say in how that community operates; the community becomes, in a real sense, ours.
The patriots of the American Revolution said, “No taxation without representation.” Now, participation and use are not exactly taxes, but they are obviously very valuable to Internet companies, and those companies are now in a position to abuse what is so freely given to them. Why shouldn’t we say: no participation without representation!
I don’t propose an online revolution. These are issues that must not be left in the hands of the state, wielding “the blunt instrument of the law.” If the state were to address these issues, it would be making itself into an editor, and the state cannot edit without censorship. Rather, these issues should be left in the hands of civil society–in free associations of free people.
But civil society lacks effective institutions and mechanisms to deal with these problems. Let me propose one: Internet user unions.
In the 19th century, when economic influence consolidated in the hands of factory owners, the union movement sought to give a voice to workers who, individually, had no way to negotiate with their employers.
In the 21st century, we find social influence consolidating in the hands of website owners. Shouldn’t there be corresponding unions of Internet users to negotiate with the websites that they participate in and use?
A Facebook User Union might call Facebook executives to the negotiating table about any significant changes to policy, or else face days of boycotts. That union’s nuclear option would be, after an open, transparent process, to recommend that masses of users abandon Facebook for any number of competitors.
A Wikipedia User Union might represent the voices of Wikipedia’s users, which have never been represented within Wikipedia’s insular decisionmaking processes. They might influence Wikipedia to install a porn filter–or to admit that they have an “adult” website.
In addition to unions for participating websites, there could be unions for special issues. There might be an Internet User Union of Families, which represents the interests of children online. There could be scholarly unions, which blow the whistle on media companies and others online, who get facts wrong and who organize their users’ collective influence to engage in their essential role of teaching. There could even be, simply, an Internet User Union, although they would have to think hard about what their goals are, precisely.
But let’s be careful about what we wish for. These would be inherently political organizations. The consequences, at least in some cases, could be as troubling as companies acting on behalf of users without adequate user input. One can imagine a “rogue” union–like Anonymous, but bigger–coordinating cyber-attacks. One can also imagine openly political unions that use their influence to flood ideological opponents’ forums with hostile comments.
To my mind, however, the best effect that Internet User Unions might have is to organize people to build things that are useful to everyone. I have been thinking about the enormous untapped potential of people working together online since before I spearheaded Wikipedia in 2001. The Big Problem, not really solved by Wikipedia itself, is getting enormous numbers of people to agree upon a well-designed system. Wikipedia would be dwarfed by a system that I imagine is really possible, one that is appealing to a much broader cross-section of the public than Wikipedia itself is. An Internet User Union might develop the idea for such an organization, launch it with many thousands of people ready and raring to go, as well as find enough funding to keep it independent and non-profit.
If you’re interested in this idea, let’s start talking about the philosophical, social, and broadly technical issues. This is something new. We do not want to go off half-cocked.