Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers” 

In an earlier post I posited that:

  • We are experiencing negative two-way feedback loops related to problems in the governance, operation and impact of our public political institutions and that of the digital platforms we increasingly rely on in our daily lives.
  • These negative feedback loops can be turned into positive feedback loops by strategically expanding and enhancing democratic functionality in both of these two key sectors of modern society.

I followed that with another post proposing that, rather than rely on existing digital platforms to enhance political democracy, we should mobilize as a society to develop a digital platform specifically designed for this task. That post also suggested some guidelines for how we might approach the development of such a democracy-enhancing platform. These included the provision of financial and in-kind support for the platform’s development and maintenance by the dominant platform providers as part of their social responsibilities as enterprises with enormous market power and wealth, highly relevant expertise, and expanding infrastructural roles in our social, economic and political systems.

In this post I’m going to point in a direction for achieving the second prong of this democratizing agenda: expanding democratic functionality in the internal oversight and management functions of digital platforms, especially those that have aggregated massive user bases, data extraction capabilities, and economic (and therefore political) power.

Underpinning the policy directions outlined  in this post will be the groundwork laid in earlier posts, which included discussion of Facebook’s recent crisis of public confidence; the principles of economic democracy; issues and possibilities related to data ownership and control; the need for new tools to address new forms of infrastructural power in the digital age; and the emerging platform cooperative movement.

Facebook, community and democracy

Before outlining some suggestions for change, I want to consider what I believe is a blind spot in the worldview of those who, by virtue of their leadership positions in the tech industry, have come to wield enormous social, economic and political power in modern society. For multiple reasons—including the recent revelations about Facebook’s practices, the company’s massive global reach, and the relatively abundant availability of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent public statements and related commentary from experts and journalists—I’m going to focus specifically on Zuckerberg and Facebook.

Looking back to Facebook’s earlier days, we find David Kirkpatrick quoting Zuckerberg regarding Facebook’s social role, power and responsibilities in his 2010 book The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World:

“In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” [Zuckerberg] says. “We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, Zuckerberg elaborated on his earlier recognition of Facebook’s “governmental” role in a long February 16, 2017 blog post entitled Building Global Community. In the Civically-Engaged Community section of the post he highlights the importance of democratic self-governance:

Our society will reflect our collective values only if we engage in the civic process and participate in self-governance. There are two distinct types of social infrastructure that must be built:

The first encourages engagement in existing political processes: voting, engaging with issues and representatives, speaking out, and sometimes organizing. Only through dramatically greater engagement can we ensure these political processes reflect our values.

The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.

In the Inclusive Community section of his post Zuckerberg suggests that user-driven democratic control over content-related rules on Facebook would lead to better policies than having these rules set by him and his management team:

Building an inclusive global community requires establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in community governanceSitting here in California, we’re not best positioned to identify the cultural norms around the world…Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community…The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.

Near the end of his post, Zuckerberg attempts to put current developments in historical context:

History has had many moments like today. As we’ve made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations, we have always had to build social infrastructure like communities, media and governments for us to thrive and reach the next level. At each step we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone. We have done it before and we will do it again.

Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?

While I admire the sentiment and vision conveyed in Zuckerberg’s post, I can’t help but see something missing in his view of democratic control of social infrastructure. And I think Zeynep Tufekci, in an April 6 Wired column, highlights the nature and impacts of this missing component in Zuckerberg’s otherwise enthusiastic embrace of democratic self-governance:

As far as I can tell, not once in his apology tour was Zuckerberg asked what on earth he means when he refers to Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users as “a community” or “the Facebook community.” A community is a set of people with reciprocal rights, powers, and responsibilities. If Facebook really were a community, Zuckerberg would not be able to make so many statements about unilateral decisions he has made—often, as he boasts in many interviews, in defiance of Facebook’s shareholders and various factions of the company’s workforce. Zuckerberg’s decisions are final, since he controls all the voting stock in Facebook, and always will until he decides not to—it’s just the way he has structured the company.

Facebook’s 2 billion users are not Facebook’s “community.” They are its user base, and they have been repeatedly carried along by the decisions of the one person who controls the platform. These users have invested time and money in building their social networks on Facebook, yet they have no means to port the connectivity elsewhere. Whenever a serious competitor to Facebook has arisen, the company has quickly copied it (Snapchat) or purchased it (WhatsApp, Instagram), often at a mind-boggling price that only a behemoth with massive cash reserves could afford. Nor do people have any means to completely stop being tracked by Facebook…

Again, this isn’t a community; this is a regime of one-sided, highly profitable surveillance, carried out on a scale that has made Facebook one of the largest companies in the world by market capitalization.

Roughly a week before Tufekci’s piece was published, platform cooperative advocate Nathan Schneider, writing on the VICE site, also highlighted the apparent conflict between Zuckerberg’s lofty visions of a democratically-managed Facebook community and the reality in which he “has managed to structure his company so as to retain monarchic powers despite being a minority owner.”

In terms of solutions, Schneider briefly reviewed the pros and cons of regulating Facebook as a “social utility.” Among the risks he cites are regulatory capture that would benefit large entrenched players like Facebook, and a potential alignment of interests between government, platform providers and ISPs, all of which might see more value than harm from the deployment of extensive user surveillance, especially if they cooperated in that deployment.

Schneider went on to suggest that “[t]here are other ways to imagine organizing a social network of Facebook’s scale—ways better aligned with Zuckerberg’s ambition of “local governance.”  One potential model worth considering, he said, is the Associated Press (AP), which was forced by a 1945 Supreme Court decision “to become a truly open-membership cooperative, owned and governed by the competing news agencies that use it.”

One approach, following the AP example, would be to reorganize Facebook into an association of diverse, interoperable social networks among which users could choose. The central company would act as a kind of franchiser, managing the core technology and underlying infrastructure; the smaller member-owner companies would compete for users by offering varied options on matters of ad deployment, data standards, content filtering, and even interface design. Like the internet’s most essential and resilient social network—email—the result would be a blend of unity and diversity. Like AP, also, Facebook would be insulated from the day-to-day economic temptations of the ad business.

Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance

I found this approach interesting, including its parallels to the structural separation approach to regulating telecommunication networks. But I found Scheider’s second option even more so, mainly because it is anchored in participation by users in the governance of platforms to which they contribute substantial value through their usage.

A second approach might involve a more direct form of user-ownership, in which…individual Facebook users, together, wield significant ownership and governance powers. This would be especially well-aligned with one of Zuckerberg’s stated ambitions: “I hope that we can explore examples of how collective decision-making might work at scale.” Handling such governance would not be easy, but already large-scale co-ops and mutuals—think REI and Northwestern Mutual—do a fairly good job of serving member interests without being toppled by the fleeting whims of the crowd. The electric utility co-ops that supply electricity to much of rural America receive consistently higher customer service ratings than their investor-owned counterparts. If companies like Facebook are going to hold the data of our daily lives, the surest route to security and a sustainable business is for us to hold a stake in those companies in turn.

This model is grounded in the same economic democracy principles driving the platform cooperative movement, and would go a long way toward resolving the fundamental inconsistency between Zuckerberg’s praise for the value of democratic governance of the Facebook “community” and the company’s corporate ownership and management structure, which gives him near-dictatorial decision making power and features a Board of Directors comprised of Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, several tech investors and entrepreneurs, and the Gates Foundation’s CEO.

What if Facebook users could elect some board members to represent their interests in overseeing the company’s management, just as stockholders are able to do today?

If, as Zuckerberg realized at least a decade ago, Facebook “is more like a government than a traditional company,” shouldn’t it operate more like a democracy and less like a dictatorship or investor-controlled oligarchy?  Especially so, given the company’s repeated lapses in privacy protection followed by apologies, which culminated in a clearly “over the creepy line” mix of events associated with the 2016 election.

Technology can help users participate in FB governance

One appealing aspect of such an expansion of democratic governance is the fact that Facebook users are already very used to engaging with each other via the platform’s interactive functionality. And given the company’s world-class software development capabilities, it doesn’t seem too big a stretch to imagine it adding effective (and, yes, even enjoyable) capabilities that enable users to nominate, discuss and vote for board members (e.g., these might include one or more of the experts referenced in this series of blog posts) and participate in decision-making on key user-related issues.

And unlike political governments that are often constrained by legacy rules and processes developed decades or centuries ago, a system enabling Facebook users to elect board members could leverage digital technology to efficiently incorporate features that enhance democratic functionality and outcomes, including what is often referred to as “delegative” or “liquid” democracy.

As the one minute video above explains, a system incorporating liquid democracy allows users to either vote directly or delegate their vote to someone they trust to vote on their behalf.  And in a digitally-enabled system, a user could dynamically switch between these two modes and pick different “delegates” to represent them on different issues.  Given the social nature of Facebook’s platform and the set of interactive tools (e.g., likes, friends) it already offers, the addition of liquid democracy-based functionality to elect board members and vote on user-related issues seems like a relatively modest extension of the platform from a technical perspective.

Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy

It’s worth noting here that, in 2015, shortly after they had a child, Zuckerberg and his wife expressed their intention to give away 99% of their Facebook stock over the course of their lifetime.

My suggestion to the Zuckerbergs at this key point in Facebook’s evolution and the ongoing but halting march of humanity toward more expansive and effective democracy, is to consider revising their stock divestiture plan to include the assignment of voting shares to Facebook users in ways that enable them to collectively participate in corporate decision-making. That participation could consist of electing board members and voting on issues that most directly impact users, including policies related to privacy and protection from harm.

Somewhat ironically, the fact that the Zuckerbergs have a controlling stake in Facebook could make it easier for the company to explore the potential of user participation in corporate governance without facing an unmanageable backlash from investors who demand fealty to the principle of shareholder primacy.  It’s worth noting here that this situation also applies to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, the other Internet giant built on the mass-scale collection and analysis of user data underpinning an advertising-based business model that has yielded unprecedented levels of growth and market dominance.

While empowering users to participate in corporate governance would not necessarily eliminate the need for legislation aimed at regulating the platform sector, it could reduce the urgency and scope of that need.

In fact, it seems quite possible that, if well designed and executed, internal systems of democratic governance could do a better job of balancing the needs of users, shareholders, employees and other stakeholders than reliance on regulations enforced by government agencies subject to “revolving doors” and regulatory capture, and laws passed by a dysfunctional and financially corrupted Congress that understands painfully little about the digital world in which Facebook and other digital platforms operate.

My guess is that Zuckerberg, Page, Brin and most of their tech-industry peers would agree with this assessment of the relative effectiveness of direct and internal vs. indirect and externally-imposed democratic governance. If I’m correct, they might welcome the chance to pursue the former and avoid—or at least postpone, inform and/or limit the need for—the latter.  And it strikes me as possible—perhaps even likely—that the deployment of such tools could contribute not only to a restoration of flagging trust among platform users, but also to value-generating growth in platform user bases, technical capabilities and user satisfaction. And, while some of that value would presumably be monetized as shareholder returns, a portion of it would be captured by users to the extent their interests were adequately represented in platform companies’ internal democratic governance systems.

********

Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Digital Platforms & Democratic Governance: Standing at an Historic Crossroads
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • The Facebook F-Up as a Wake-Up Call
    • A growing awareness of problems
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S.
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy

 

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