DIGITAL NEW DEAL
The political, social and economic compact we have made in our digital lives is broken — and it’s time to start over.
The Internet is in crisis.
In the early twentieth century, the New Deal became the best example of how to deliver financial and social reforms in a single bundle that the public will support. A century later, spurred by the grassroots mobilizing efforts of the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Justice Democrats and more, there is renewed interest in a twenty-first century “Green” version of the New Deal that would deliver a political, social and economic compact with a specific focus on urgent action against catastrophic climate change. There are various policy proposals made under this premise; for example, the NDP recently announced its own version of the Green New Deal with a particular focus on free public transit.
Much like climate change, the Internet crisis is a man-made threat to global stability, caused by an unwavering commitment to perpetual growth that is incompatible with our social, physical and environmental limits. Like Big Oil, Big Tech works exceedingly well for a small, homogenous group of powerful people, but its negative, externalized effects — harassment, abuse, corruption, cheating, lobbying, discrimination, distrust — has now led to a global crisis of confidence. Modern technology, both in its production and its usage, has been weaponized as a tool of wealth preservation that has exacerbated global income inequality.
A good example of how to reform our usage of technology comes from newly elected New York Senator Julia Salazar. The technology plank of her election platform, developed in democratic consultation with the New York City chapter of the Tech Workers Coalition, lays out an excellent example of what an alternative technological political future could look like in Canada:
- • Make high-speed affordable internet access available for all people in Canada, at the expense of telecom giants like Rogers and Bell.
- • Fund neutral, high-speed, publicly-owned and operated municipal broadband infrastructure, as several Canadian cities already do.
- Extend collective bargaining rights, a living wage, full benefits and corporate protections to all Canadian “gig economy” contract workers, like those working at Uber, Foodora and Lyft. This kind of struggle has already begun by courageous workers at Foodora and Amazon.
- • Legislate support for worker co-operatives to harness the power of the Internet in the service of working people. These “platform co-ops” would allow Canadian software developers, web designers and tech literate folks to work hand-in-hand with car drivers, food preparers, hotel wait staff and service workers to build local, democratically informed alternatives to Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, and others.
- • Update Canadian privacy and communication laws to protect unethical electronic surveillance from a range of public and private actors, including police forces, immigration agencies and corporations.
- • Ensure that technology companies contracting with all levels of government abide by standards of algorithmic transparency and data privacy (e.g. requiring open-source code and bias screening), so that no company can discriminate or spy on Canadian residents.
- • End corporate tax breaks like SR&ED that amount to corporate welfare with a poor return on investment for the majority of people in Toronto and Canada.
- Force all tech companies to pay their fair share in corporate taxes, and reinvest that money into public technology jobs, infrastructure, and tools that allow Canadian provinces and cities to compete technologically with private companies and become self-reliant.
These ideas are not the only worthy policy ideas for consideration, and there are many ways to tailor these proposals to suit various communities. Plus, these proposals could only work as a single plank of an expansionist, progressive platform that was built in solidarity with other social movements. That includes a fight for child care that helps mothers who work or want to work in the tech industry. It includes a fight for faster, frequent mass transit that supports underrepresented tech workers systematically forced to live in transit deserts. It includes a robust library system that supports digital inclusion. It supports affordable housing for people displaced by shiny new tech offices in our downtown cores. These structural barriers are why the tech industry doesn’t work for so many people.
A Digital New Deal will require a stronger, national conversation, but this is a starting point for how we restart the Internet and democratize the technologies that power our lives in the 21st century.
This won’t happen overnight. Political parties in Canada will not support this idea any time soon. The Green New Deal is a political governance framework that began with activists, residents, academics, unionists, artists and workers working to build a larger vision of how economic production and consumption must evolve in an environmentally just society. A Digital New Deal would require a similar groundswell of support. It will require building a lasting, powerful consensus that stops powerful tech industry interests through neighbourhood, grassroots, local, democratically informed organizing.
If the advent of the Internet taught us anything, it is how to think big. That’s why Canadians can’t only be thinking about technology in the context of the Google project on Toronto’s waterfront, or how to develop a national smart city strategy. We need to think bigger. We need a new political, social and economic compact with a loud, sustained focus on a democratic usage of modern technology.
We need a Digital New Deal.