New study on platform labour in the EU & Project Liberty

I am happy to report that our datafication course is still alive and thriving. I am teaching this semester again this course at Leuphana University of Lüneburg to a group of highly motivated master students. So far, we have addressed the theoretical foundation and key constructs of the scholarly debate around datafication.

This week, we talked about algorithmic management and platform labour. Based on the lecture by Armin Beverungen, we reflected upon the question of how algorithmic management puts human dignity into jeopardy if humans are reduced to sets of data points and only their input and output matter for the firm or client. In this regard, the newest publication from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on platform labour in the European context might be of interest to students of this class, which shows that besides product delivery and driving services, also sectors such as care, cleaning and domestic work and routine office tasks are increasingly organized through platforms.

In previous sessions, we reflected upon the notion of governance in/and datafication, and have discussed as to which actors can and should engage in the governance of datafication. A key insight from our lectures so far is, that the Internet consists of highly centralized infrastructures that are often privately governed by a few firms. Thus, users have limited control or ownership of their data within these infrastructures, alongside the relationships that they forge within these infrastructures. Say, for example, a user does not confirm the rules of a given platform, they have few options except to leave the platform. Yet, leaving platforms or other digital infrastructures is extremely “costly” because this means a user is being cut from their social networks to friends, colleagues, and families. Even more problematic, if a platform owner decides to kick a user out, they involuntarily use access to their social networks. So the question is, how do users potentially (re-)gain control and ownership of their “social graph”, and how to overcome private governance?

An intriguing project attempting to address this concern is the Liberty Project, an initiative that works on the development of a “Decentralized Social Networking Protocol” (see here a laymen’s description of the technology). Essentially, the initiative aims with such protocol to “create a new civic architecture for the digital world that returns the ownership and control of personal data to individuals, embeds ethical values into technology, and expands economic opportunities for web users and developers alike”. The project makes the important argument that the Internet needs to be fundamentally restructured, in order to allow for the creation of a more equal, fair, and human-centred digital ecosystem, in which users are in control of their data. More information on the project can be found here. Interesting side information: The project is funded by Frank McCourt, a man who made his fortune in real estate, and who is considered an antagonist of Elon Musk. (Thanks to my student Michael, who mentioned this case in class!)

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