Even Google’s fiercest critics use its technologies to research their fiery tirades against it or, more mundanely, to find their way around a foreign city. Let’s be honest: life without Google would be awfully more tedious in a variety of important ways. But that is not a good reason to leave Google and the other tech giants alone. On the contrary, the nature and importance of their contribution make it imperative that they be placed under democratic control—and not just because of the well appreciated need to protect individual privacy.
In recent years, Big Tech companies have been subjected to scrutiny for perfecting a dark art pioneered by commercial newspapers, radio, and television: attracting and holding our attention, in order to sell access to our senses to paying advertisers. Whereas readers, listeners, and viewers were customers paying for some commodity, commercial electronic media learned how to profit by transacting directly with vendors while reducing us, and our data, to a passive commodity at the heart of the transaction.
Google, Facebook, and others were able to take this odd production process, where our attention is the traded commodity, to a different level, thanks to their stupendous capacity to personalize our screens. Unlike their forebears, they can capture the attention of each one of us with person-specific (or even mood-specific) attractors, before selling to the highest bidder access both to our data and to our senses.
Underlying the backlash against Big Tech has been the sense that we are all becoming proletarianized users. In the 1970s and 1980s, we were annoyed when commercial channels ambushed us with advertisements seconds before the end of a cliff-hanger movie or basketball match. Now, we can no longer even recognize the tricks used in real time to hold and sell our attention.
Data protection and privacy regulations are meant to return to us some of our lost autonomy regarding what we see, what guides our choices, and who knows what we choose. But regulating Big Tech to protect our data and restore “consumer sovereignty" is not enough. Against a background of automation and labour casualization, these firms’ monopoly profits boost inequality, fuel discontent, undermine aggregate demand for goods and services, and further destabilize capitalism.
The problem is that traditional government interventions are an exercise in futility: Taxing free services is pointless. Taxing robots, to fund humans, is as impossible as it is to define them. And while taxing Big Tech’s profits is essential, these firms’ skilled accountants and abundant opportunities to shift profits to different jurisdictions makes this difficult. A simple solution exists, if we look beyond taxation. But it requires accepting that capital is no longer privately produced, as least not in the case of Google et al.
When James Watt built one of his famed steam engines, it was his creation, his product. A buyer who put the engine to work in, say, a textile factory could think of his profit stream as a just reward for having taken the risk of purchasing the machine and for the innovation of coupling it to a spinning jenny or a mechanical loom.
By contrast, Google cannot credibly argue that the capital generating its profit stream was produced entirely privately. Every time you use Google’s search engine to look up a phrase, concept, or product, or visit a place via Google Maps, you enrich Google’s capital. While the servers and software design have been produced capitalistically, a large part of Google’s capital is produced by almost everyone. Every user, in principle, has a legitimate claim to being a de facto shareholder.
Of course, while a substantial part of Big Tech’s capital is produced by the public, there is no sensible way to compute personal contributions, which makes it impossible to calculate what our individual shares ought to be. But this impossibility can be turned into a virtue, by creating a public trust fund to which companies like Google transfer a percentage— say, 10%— of their shares. Suddenly, every child has a trust fund, with the accumulating dividends providing a universal basic income (UBI) that grows in proportion to automation and in a manner that limits inequality and stabilizes the macro-economy.
This attractive solution must overcome two obstacles. First, we tend to think of taxation as a panacea. But a UBI funded via taxation is sure to trigger a backlash among struggling working people who cannot see the logic of subsidizing the idle, rich or poor. Second, corporate shares are typically given to employees only.
To be sure, there are excellent reasons for taxing profits in order to fund benefits for the poor, and for worker-ownership schemes. But these are separate issues from the one at hand: how to stabilize society by granting property rights over Google’s capital to everyone who helped create it, including unwaged carers, the precariously employed, and society’s dropouts.
And then, as one would expect, there is the motivated fallacy peddled by the defenders of the status quo. The Financial Times’ Alphaville column recently dismissed the case for transferring a block of shares from Big Tech corporations to a public trust fund by misrepresenting the underlying argument as a failure to appreciate what Google has done for us. To repudiate society’s property rights over the returns to capital that we, as users, have created, Big Tech’s defenders invoke users’ large consumer surplus.
This is a little like justifying the confiscation of your shares in a company with the argument that the company is providing valuable services to you and others. In using Big Tech’s services, we manufacture a portion of its capital in real time. Property rights over that portion—for all of us, rather than for any of us—must follow. ©2018/project syndicate
Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece.