An image of Julia Rone
Julia Rone

How can we democratise digital tech so that it serves society rather than unaccountable corporate interests? Research Associate, Julia Rone, explains.

After spending years on exploring the effects of digital tech on democracy, I now join the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy to pursue the exact opposite question: can democracy save digital tech from itself?

In a situation of growing concentration of power in the hands of few corporate monopolies and an impending climate catastrophe, can we – perceiving ourselves not as users, but as active citizens and members of communities – use tech for good?  

The answer is a clear and resounding yes.

But in order to get there we need to democratise both tech and democracy itself.

In the wake of revelations on the role of Big Tech’s business model in spreading disinformation and hateful content, as well the use of personal data for influencing elections, more and more countries have argued for the need to have more state regulation over the Internet.

In my research, I argue that more state regulation, sometimes framed as “digital sovereignty”, is an answer that poses new questions, most crucially the question of how to regulate the regulators, that is, how to control executive state power.

One important way to do this is to focus on popular sovereignty and democracy. 

Therefore, my first main project at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy has to do with democratising digital sovereignty.

I claim that we need to strengthen existing democratic institutions such as parliaments to legislate and control digital corporate power. 

“Big Tech’s proposed global solutions to climate change often enter in direct conflict with local communities’ energy needs and environmental visions.”

More importantly, we also need to explore how to strengthen non-institutional counter-democratic powers of oversight, prevention and judgment as embodied in the media as a watchdog, trade unions, social movements, and courts. 

Rather than counting on big tech to self-regulate, we need to mobilize all these actors in order to give citizens and their representatives a say in decisions over tech policy that affect us all.

As part of this project, I am currently exploring democratic participation in decisions over tech infrastructure, more specifically data centres.

This topic is all the more fascinating because it also gives a glimpse into the complicated relationship between Big Tech and climate change. 

By focusing on the energy consumption of data centres as well as their multiple environmental impacts (including noise, light and soil pollution), I show that Big Tech’s proposed global solutions to climate change often enter in direct conflict with local communities’ energy needs and environmental visions.

All in all, the approach outlined above assumes that Big Tech companies are a constant and what we need to change is the way democratic societies relate to them. 

Nevertheless, this is only one way of looking at the problem of democratising tech.

Imagining alternatives

My second main project at the MCTD has to do with imagining alternatives to the current digital monopolies, outlining alternative models of ownership and governance for platforms.

Such an approach is more radical as it extends democracy to the economic sphere. 

It goes beyond the sphere of critique to the sphere of constructive imagination and as such, it envisages collaborations with artists, lawyers, writers, economists, and fellow political scientists – creating a broad coalition of all those interested in coming up with “realistic utopias” of the digital and how to make them happen.

The common thing between both projects I am working on is that they are not techno-luddite.

I do believe digital technology can be used for good and can improve the human condition provided its politics are well-thought through and decisions about it are not made behind closed doors and in ivory, or better to say Silicon, towers. 

The big question then is: How can we democratise digital tech so that it serves us, citizens, rather than unaccountable corporate interests?