It’s Time to Include Workers in Internet Governance

27 November 2019
ABOUT THIS Perspective

As the Internet Governance Forum meets in Berlin, Dr. Bama Athreya argues that workers must have a seat at the table.

The Internet Governance Forum is meeting in Berlin this week. In the wake of rising concerns over the role of the internet and social media in subverting democratic elections, spreading disinformation, and inflaming social tensions, citizens and governments are placing new urgency on effective governance of our digital commons. However, this week’s Forum has one notable absence: no one is on hand to represent workers.

The Internet Governance Forum was created in 2006, in response to growing governance needs in the digital economy.  An earlier private voluntary initiative, ICANN, had been established in California in 1998 to deal with global harmonization needs for the sector (such as standard-setting for domain names). As thornier governance issues emerged, governments and non-governmental actors banded together to ensure that not all regulatory matters were left to a private, US-based initiative.

The Disconnect between Workers and Internet Governance

This year’s IGF Agenda is ambitious, covering challenging questions of governance around surveillance, right to privacy, addressing disinformation, and tackling hate speech online. A number of major corporations and industry associations are participating, along with hundreds of government, multilateral and NGO representatives. Yet, not a single trade union is participating, nor is there a single session on how to regulate labor in the digital economy.

Global inequality, rising social tensions and the lack of decent work are widely discussed in other multilateral venues. These discussions, however, are absent a firm understanding of internet governance. Similarly, conversations around internet governance are lacking a perspective on how technology is affecting workers and work. It’s time to connect the issues.

Digital Platforms Affect Work and Workers

There are several reasons to ensure that workers and their representative organizations are at the table to influence internet governance. First, workers need to be involved because they are uniquely the target of data mining. Platform workers are valuable to platform companies for reasons that go well beyond their visible labor. Platform companies like Uber, Grab and Rappi amass incredible amounts of individual data, including data about all their workers. This can be used for algorithmic management, and as an input for other corporate R&D that relies on artificial intelligence. Algorithmic management uses artificial intelligence (AI) for data collection and continuous surveillance of workers to further extract or ‘optimize’ labor. This data enables platforms to be able to control ever more fragmented bits of a worker’s time, agency and labor and use behavioral ‘nudges’ to incentivize workers to work harder, faster, or provide labor on demand at all hours. Moreover, companies such as Uber have openly described their surveillance of all their drivers worldwide in order to determine mobility patterns, and further capture local transportation markets. Virtually every Uber driver knows this. If drivers had some representation in internet governance, they might provide valuable input into questions such as how local governments might harness and use mobility data in more citizen-responsive ways.

Workers Can Bring Leverage to Influence Technology Firms

Second, on an ad hoc basis, tech workers have had to step up in the absence of corporate leadership on broad ethical questions of how AI and data are used. For example, earlier this year concerned US citizens leaned on workers at tech giants Google and Palantir to protest the shocking abuse of migrant children in detention centers administered by the US government[1]. These are only two of several examples that suggest that while such companies may be impervious to public pressure – too big to shame, so to speak – their one weak point may be the need to recruit and retain high-skilled staff. While these companies lack unions, emerging Silicon Valley worker organizations could provide a very important reality check on the public positions their executives are taking in the IGF and similar venues.

A Critical Moment for Trade Unions

The third benefit is to worker organizations themselves. While global trade unions have been present in discussions of labor standards and the future of work, they have been handicapped by their narrow focus on labor law and social protection systems. Labor needs to understand other tech policy issues and consider they can also use these issues to facilitate collective agency and action. For example, discussions around the right to control over one’s data have yielded interesting new policy reforms, such as Europe’s GDPR. Imagine the implications of shared data rights with a union trying to negotiate on behalf of a class of platform workers. Workers might bargain with full access to the same data as the companies have – or they might negotiate the right to prevent companies from engaging in some of the more egregious ‘optimization’ practices that compel some gig workers to accept jobs with substandard wages and irregular hours.

Finally, including workers in the IGF is not just about tech governance. Trade unions need to be engaged anywhere employers are engaged in standard-setting, because they are the only significant global constituency that is able to countervail corporate influence. With the dramatic increase in capital concentration, exemplified by but not unique to the tech sector, we need to ensure that venues such as the IGF are not captured by those who stand to gain from weak oversight. Strong global governance of the digital economy will be enabled by putting workers at the table.

[1] As of this writing, Google has just fired the organizers behind this action: