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An ‘Informational Right to the City’?

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Google search results for 'Jerusalem’ display an infobox controversially declaring the city to be the ‘Capital of Israel’.

What rights do citizens have, not just to public and private spaces, but to their digital equivalents? Mark Graham and Joe Shaw ask.

When you type the word ‘Jerusalem’ into Google, it is likely that you’ll be shown an infobox declaring the city to be the ‘Capital of Israel’. The problem is that the state of Israel is the only country on earth to recognize the city as Israel’s capital. Many Palestinians consider the city to be the capital of the Palestinian state. But the rest of the world either explicitly states that the city isn’t a capital, or refuses to take a position on the issue.

This is but one example of how code and databases that are deployed by a search engine can help to define what a place is. Contemporary cities are much more than bricks and mortar; streets and pipes. They are also their digital presences – abstract presences which can reproduce and change our material reality. If you accept this premise, then we need to ask important questions about what rights citizens have to not just public and private spaces, but also their digital equivalents.

In 1968, long before our digitally-augmented cities were ever enabled by the likes of Google, the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre outlined what he referred to as a ‘right to the city.’ This was a vision that everyone should be able to get the most out of living in cities, not just the powerful elites and large corporations that own and control so much of them. This emphasis on reclaiming a more egalitarian and inclusive city was aimed at the traditional mediators and drivers of urban politics and inequality – landlords, the state and the police.

Whilst the ‘right to the city’ was never intended to be pre-defined as a list of codified laws, its embodiment as a slogan against exclusion has resulted in all sorts of shared benefits for urban citizens around the world: It has been used to frame struggles for access to clean water in South America, to sanitation in India, for new rent control laws in Berlin, and for battles for displacement compensation in South Africa. It doesn't always work, but in the right hands it can serve as a powerful conceptual weapon for the collective good – it can represent the right to change ourselves by changing the city.

But, if our cities are digital as well as material, then shouldn’t the struggle for more egalitarian rights to the city move beyond a focus on material spaces and into the realm of digital ones?

Of most concern is the fact that corporate giants like Google mediate a vast amount of information about our cities. If you search for a coffee shop close to you, the results that the search engine gives back to you can end up shaping what you do, where you go, and how you end up spending money. This, in turn, can reshape our cities themselves: privileging some people, places, and organizations and sidelining others.

There are many who undoubtedly find the idea of one unaccountable company playing such a dominant role in everyday urban life problematic. And this is where a return to the vision of ‘a right to the city’ might help us envision more just, more inclusive, and fairer cities. There might be many ways to do this, but we propose starting with three principles.

First, we all need to consider how exactly we can disagree with the information presented by large organizations and platforms like Google and Google Maps – how might we change 'Capital of Israel' to something else? Can we change it?

The second point is that we need to consider not just whether we can have more of a voice in the informational layers of our cities, but also whether the corporate giants that control them are actually a force for good. This requires that we think more critically about the interests and motives of Google, who are really little more than an extremely successful advertising company that employs a few smart engineers and a raft of aspiring salespeople. Google records very personal, yet often also banal, information about us through offering us a myriad of free information-based services. So are they really the best organization to record, organize and mediate such a vast amount of urban information?

Finally, if the realization generated by the first and second principles are cause for concern – because we can't easily disagree with the opaque algorithmic operations of a large advertising company that knows so much about us – then we need to consider how best to invoke an informational right to the city. In an age where so much political action takes place in a fairly impotent 'post-political' sphere, 'doing politics online' is not easy. For example, would signing digital petitions or asking Google to be more inclusive really move us towards a significantly different situation?

There could be many ways to pursue a contemporary, digital, ‘right to the city’, but here are a few of our own suggestions. Specifically, we could engage in actions that fundamentally undermine the value of our data to a firm that sees such data as its lifeblood. Said differently, we could undermine and devalue their hold over urban information by changing our own behaviour.

Related: Smiley-faced monopolists, New Internationalist magazine July 2016, Issue 494

This might involve the consideration and active pursuit of alternative service providers: why shouldn't we pay a few pounds a year for a secure and private email account when email is so important? Further still, it might even involve the total rejection of some technologies. But especially, it might involve supporting others in their battles against informational exclusion and the initiatives to develop alternative platforms operating on a not-for-profit, and more transparent, basis, like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap. In turn, this could move us a little bit closer towards cities that are similarly not-for-profit.

Whatever our pathway to a more digital ‘right to the city’ is, we need a more focused conversation about it. Are comfortable not knowing why certain parts of our cities are made digitally visible or invisible? Should every place be tied to universal binary categories like 'Capital' and 'not-Capital'? What sort of roles do we want the state or civil society to play in those digital mediations? Who do we want to control the digital means of production? And, what specifically, should we hope to do about it all?

As our cities become increasingly digital, and as corporate giants like Google play an ever increasingly central role in our digital lives, a renewed debate about what an informational right to the city might look like, could help us ensure that older struggles about urban rights make their way into the digital world.

Mark Graham and Joe Shaw have published an edited pamphlet titled ‘Our Digital Rights to the City’ (see PDF below) and a longer academic article (‘An Informational Right to the City?’) on the topic. Joe Shaw is a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute and tweets @hyperrealestate. Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See more of his work at markgraham.space or follow him @geoplace.

Let’s make platform capitalism more accountable

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© JESS3 LeWeb

What do Google, Uber, and Facebook have in common? You might think that the answer is that they are all technology companies. But actually it is that they all pretend to be technology companies. This shared lie amongst platform companies is both bad for workers and bad for users of those platforms, Mark Graham writes.

Platform companies in the gig economy, in particular, have a lot to answer for. At the moment, there are millions of people around the globe who make a living from jobs that they source from apps and websites. The World Bank estimates that there are about five million online outsourcing workers doing tasks that range from transcription to translation to writing fake news articles. And there are many millions more doing gig work that needs to be done in particular places: ranging from driving taxis to delivering parcels and food.

Much of this work is being done in a highly unregulated way. Because there is an oversupply of labour for many jobs, and because so many workers rely on their gig work income for a living, some workers are faced with problematic working conditions. Some workers are paid below local minimum wages, some have to work when they are sick or get back to work just days after giving birth. If your work is precarious and you earn very little, then you simply can't afford to take any time off.

The problem is that companies like Uber or Upwork take very little responsibility for these workers. Uber's argument is that they are simply a technology company for the reason that they only put customers in touch with drivers (rather than providing a transport service). This sort of logic means that platform companies have little responsibility to the millions who rely on them for daily income.

Google and Facebook deploy a very similar line of reasoning. When people protest that Google directs users to racist content, Google can claim that it is simply their algorithms efficiently finding the most relevant content to a given search query. If Facebook is being used to share fake news, they claim that it is both the sharers and the creators of the fake news that are to blame rather than the Facebook platform.

If a person ends up working full-time on Upwork and then falls sick, why shouldn't Upwork be liable for some of their sick pay? Upwork pockets up to 20 per cent of their salary in commission after all. If Google and Facebook want to mediate our digital lives, making huge amount of money by selling data and advertising, why shouldn't we hold them responsible for the content that they put in front of our eyeballs. We wouldn't let a magazine running racist advertisements shirk their responsibility by claiming that they are just a paper company, would we? (Unless they are the Daily Mail.)

All of this reminds me of a moment in the pre-platform capitalism days when Expedia accidentally introduced a glitch into their booking engine. They sold rooms at the Tokyo Hilton for $3 a night instead of $300 a night. They unsuccessfully tried to claim that the confirmation emails that they sent to the lucky customers who booked tickets were void due to the error. But Expedia is a company that was able to get to where it is by automating tasks that were previously done manually by travel agents. Its automated approach allowed it to cut costs and thus capture huge market share. If the same technologies that enabled this business model to work at scale also introduce unforeseen costs, due to glitches, why should we not expect this to be their responsibility?

None of this is a plea to return to a simpler pre-digital world. On one level, all of these platform companies are correct. Uber, Upwork, Google, and Facebook are different businesses from their pre-digital precursors. They do not own the means of production. But they do own the means of consumption. And, in doing so, they are afforded with great power.

RELATED: Smiley-faced monopolists, New Internationalist magazine, July 2016, Issue 494

Gig economy firms, search engines, and social networks are no more just technology companies than a factory is just a building. They all reap rewards from their oligopolistic positions as economic and informational intermediaries, so isn't it fair that we ask them to shoulder more of the risk and responsibilities for the sectors of the economy that they profit from?

The problem is that these firms are not going to voluntarily become more responsible, and much of our current regulation is not designed for the platform economy. Until we do that, we'll have to live with platform companies enjoying the best of both worlds. Rewards without risks and responsibilities.

There might be no way back from platform capitalism, but this does not mean that we cannot hold platforms to account. They need to stop passing on costs to the publics who use them, to governments in the territories in which they operate, and to the workers that make all of their services possible. There are many efforts to change this .

The ways that we hold them to account will vary by country and by service and will require regulators, activists, and collectives of workers who understand how platform capitalism works. There are a range of ongoing efforts by unions, regulators, co-operatives, and hackers. But a prerequisite for any of this is recognising that there is nothing sacred about the digital medium. There is nothing about it that absolves a firm of its sectoral responsibilities. We need to stop imagining that the digital is somehow a separate realm of society. These are not technology companies. They are transport companies, employment agencies, media companies, and delivery companies. Let’s treat them that way.

Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See more of his work at markgraham.space or follow him @geoplace.

Digital work marketplaces impose a new balance of power

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Workers in an electronics factory in Shenzhen, China. Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA - glue works under a Creative Commons Licence

Can we reverse the diminishing power of workers in a world of hyper-geographically mobile work? asks Mark Graham.

Factories can’t run, farms can’t produce, mines can’t be mined, supermarkets can’t be stocked, and call centres can’t accept calls if workers don’t go to work. Even though the decks are often stacked against workers, the basic fact that workers can withdraw their labour with strikes, and encourage others to do so with picket lines, has done much to improve working conditions in a range of industries around the world.

But in a world of globalized, digitized, and atomized work, we now have a fundamentally different balance of power.

Traditionally, a core weakness of capital in its struggle with labour was its need to be spatially fixed. Employers needed geographical sites in which workers did their work. This is not to say that capital wasn’t inherently much more mobile than labour. But, although jobs could be outsourced and offshored, those new sites of production were often vulnerable to a withdrawal of labour power. 

Recognizing that as a group they could wield significant bargaining power, many workers formed trade unions. Unions could engage in collective bargaining with employers to demand a greater share of returns generated by the work done by workers. Collective bargaining also enabled workers to regulate how they were treated in the workplace. For example, grievance and disciplinary procedures were developed to protect workers from managerial despotism. Because of the ever-present threat of a withdrawal of labour power, this collective bargaining tended to be far more effective for workers than individualized bargaining done by atomized workers. Unions have been shown to significantly increase the wages and conditions for workers. 

This is now all changing due to the advent of digital work marketplaces. Platforms like Upwork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com mediate the auctioning of work. Clients post tasks and workers bid on them. With some colleagues, I have spent the last few years studying this phenomenon: interviewing about 120 digital workers in Africa and Asia who do jobs as varied as programming, content creation, transcriptions and clickwork. We asked each one of them how comfortable they felt asking for a raise or for better working conditions, and whether they had considered joining a union.

What we heard back from many of them was that they felt extremely replaceable. The nature of much digital work means that workers from all over the world are thrust into the same marketplace and are forced to compete against each other on very short-term contracts: some lasting only a few hours. Digital workers in Kenya know that if they withdraw their labour, then workers in the Philippines can easily take their jobs. And Filipino workers likewise know that Indian workers can do their jobs if they were to refuse to work. Every worker on these digital platforms knows that there are many more out there to take his or her place. 

Does this mean that digital work represents a move to a fundamentally post-union world? A world in which work is fundamentally characterized by competition rather than solidarity between workers? If we want to avoid a world in which competition between workers leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, then I would argue that there are three key strategies that we should be thinking about to redress the current structural imbalance of power.

Networks instead of hierarchies

First, we need to strengthen efforts to build collective identities amongst digital workers. Many workers do not see the utility of unions, and many workers do not even see themselves as workers! Here there is a space for more groups like the so-called ‘Freelancers Union'.

It is important to point out that while that organization actually promotes precarious freelancing (their website features articles like ‘Top 10 signs you were destined to be a freelancer’), its efforts could nonetheless be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers. Many workers also digitally assemble on Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, and other digital points of assembly to chat, complain, share opportunities, and exchange knowledge. As my colleague Alex Wood has demonstrated, these networks can be the launchpad for successful activism to counter workplace injustice. Thus, in areas where hierarchical unions or collectives make little sense, we can instead look to networks.

Digital-era strategies

However, although these efforts could be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers, they might not alone tip the balance of power in their favour. A second strategy could therefore be to focus on effective trade union strategies that are properly brought into the digital age.

Some might argue that in a world of precarious short-term contracts, with workers all over the world competing against each other, it is impossible to emulate traditional strategies that made trade unions effective. But even though digital markets are not really fixed to a single geographic space, it might be strategically useful for digital workers to think of them that way.

In the same way that a physical picket line disrupts business as usual, a digital picket line might be used to similar effect. This is usually most effective when targeting the most consumer-facing firms in any value chains, which in turn involves understanding the virtual production networks of digital work. We hold Apple responsible for poor working conditions in Chinese Foxconn factories and we hold Nike responsible if any of their shoes are sourced in sweatshops, so let’s use investigative journalism and radical transparency approaches to equally hold the Googles and Facebooks of the world to account for poor conditions in the ways that they source work. 

In practice, that would entail using a tactical media approach to take control of the visibility of corporate controlled narratives. This means making sure that problematic workplace practices are outlined on Twitter and Instagram hashtags; on comments on Facebook pages; and on search-engine results pages by using 'Google-bombing’.

Consumer-led activism

But while these sorts of strategies remove the ability of companies to escape responsibility for any problematic production practices, they can do little to stop workers undercutting each other in digital work marketplaces. So, in tandem with digital picket lines, we need more consumer-led activism to support workers. 

Consumer boycotts of companies engaging in the worst sorts of abuses often persuade companies to rethink how they source products and services. But what we probably also need are organizations committed to measuring and certifying fairness in production networks. 

In much the same way that the Fairtrade Foundation inspects and audits sites of production of products like coffee and chocolate, couldn’t we envision a Fairwork Foundation that ensures that employers of digital workers adhere to certain social and economic standards? Doing so would allow end-users of services to express unity with workers by choosing services, platforms, apps and websites that have been certified. 

Many have proclaimed that unions make little sense in our era of hyper-globalized digital work. And online work platforms are certainly designed to foster a sense of competition rather than solidarity between workers. Although this presents a somewhat bleak outlook for digital workers, there remain some strategies that can be employed to further the interests of worker collectives.

As ever more of the world’s population connects to the internet and looks for jobs, there is the potential for ever more downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Yet it is rarely in workers’ interests to compete against each other, so let’s find ways of collaborating, joining forces and building alliances.

We can do that by recognizing that employers and firms, despite being geographically separated from workers, still have digital ‘locations’ that can be challenged and disrupted. And we can do that by recognizing that even though we are now in an entangled, hyper-mobile digital age, the basic fact remains that everything around us - the apps, the data, the algorithms, the content - is ultimately produced by workers: workers who will receive support from users and consumers if only we could better understand how our actions reverberate through global production networks of digital work. There remains much we can do as we seek to bring a fairer world of work into being.

Mark Graham is Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

The author would like to thank Alex Wood for his helpful comments on an earlier draft, and the IDRC and European Research Council for research funding.

If you liked this blog you may also be interested in our forthcoming July/August issue of New Internationalist magazine which will take a special look at 'The New Digital Titans'. And look out too for our September issue, which will ask: 21st-century trade unions: renewal or bust?