Platform, labour, and struggles for alternative platform models

May 4th 2021, 1:15pm-2:45pm ET


Platform, labour, and struggles for alternative platform models

May 4th 2021, 1:15pm-2:45pm ET

Chair: Stephen Surlin (McMaster University)
Format: Live

Presenters:

David Dubinski (University of Ottawa)
Paper Title: From ‘cultural’ to ‘deliberative’ sovereignty: How an update of cultural policy from the analog era could help frame Canada’s policy response to the use of artificial intelligence on digital networks
Paper Abstract:
The Digital Charter sets out a framework policy to guide future Government of Canada actions to enhance the benefits and mitigate the harms arising out of the use of artificial intelligence to harvest, analyze and monetize data on digital networks. The Charter includes a section on “Strong Democracy” regarding threats “designed to undermine the integrity of elections and democratic institutions.”
In fact, the threats posed by algorithms online go far beyond elections and institutions. Search and social media networks host targeted advertising services that have drained advertising revenues from quality professional news services while at the same time enabling the distribution of toxic disinformation and hateful, violent content. Shoshana Zuboff, drawing on Hannah Arendt, has argued that ‘surveillance capitalism’ further threatens individuals ‘right to a future’ because social media algorithms’ have the ability not just to know our beliefs but alter them. These and related developments mean that there are grave threats not only to elections but the entire public sphere where individuals seek information, form opinions, and deliberate with fellow citizens.
The logic of the existing cultural policy of ‘cultural sovereignty,’ usually seen as the goal of ensuring access to Canadian content in mass media, already includes an underlying objective of ensuring the integrity of a Canadian public sphere where Canadians could be informed about Canadian public life. My paper will show why this concept should be updated to the principle of ‘deliberative sovereignty’ to ensure the integrity of a democratic public sphere. Drawing on the history and theory of the communicative public sphere, it will show how the concept of ‘deliberative sovereignty’ could effectively frame what is at stake for democratic life in the new digital environment and guide policymakers in the choice of effective policy instruments.

Derek Hrynyshyn (York University)
Paper Title: Algorithms, Platforms and the Public Interest: Responding to the Crisis in Canadian Communication Policy
Paper Abstract:
Communication and cultural policy is confronted by a crisis as much in Canada as anywhere else. The emergence of online platforms as a dominant means of production and distribution of media content is leading to a collapse of the capacity to ensure that the media system serves national public interests. This essay argues that many different issues in communication policy can be seen as different aspects of this crisis, and that public institutional support for new kinds of platforms must be an essential part of any strategy to deal with the root of these problems.
Problems such as the difficulty in mandating national content, the unreliability of political information, a local of production of local news, violations of privacy, as well as others, are all either generated or exacerbated by the reliance of most of the dominant online platforms on advertising revenue. The algorithmic determination of distribution of content on these platforms is not designed to keep users of the platforms satisfied or to meet their needs but to maximize revenue. This leaves no means of ensuring an accountability over the flow of information and cultural goods to the public.
The existing framework of Canadian policy designed to regulate national media markets is, consequently, becoming ineffective. Subsidising the production of content by private producers, and funding a public distributor of content to fill gaps left by the market, both depend on the ability to impose regulations on a marketplace of private producers and distributors. In a world dominated by global monopolistic platforms, that ability is disappearing.
What is needed, it is argued, is not a new publicly owned and managed platform, but a new type of platform: not centrally controlled but instead distributed and connected by open-source protocols. While open-source projects have had limited success competing with monopolistic platforms, government support in terms of financial and logistic support for non-profit projects developing new platforms could begin to solve many of the problems that cultural policy makers face.

Daniel Paré (University of Ottawa) and Charles Smith (St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan)
Paper Title: Free to express yourself outside of work? Workplace discipline in the age of social media
Paper Abstract:
In an age when social media platforms are embedded into peoples’ daily routines and the boundaries between public and private spheres are blurred, the power yielded by rights of property extends workplace discipline far beyond one’s place of employment. This, in turn, challenges existing understandings of freedom of expression and the political economy of time.
Such realities raise countless public policy questions about the best ways for labour, unions, employers, and governments to balance competing needs of security and privacy in an increasingly ‘open’ society. In terms of labour relations, the myriad opportunities social media platforms provide for amplifying individual expression, some of which may clearly be damaging to employers, presents a host of ethical, legal, and moral challenges pitting employee rights against the authority and power of employers. Put simply, the relationship between employees’ experiences at work and their ability to publicly express their voice without fear of reprisal constitutes an important public policy and human rights issue. This highlights the need for developing governance mechanisms to ensure an effective balance is struck between the interests of employees and those of employers.
At the centre of our work is the following question: How are the discursive and dissemination opportunities afforded by social media platforms altering the balance between citizens’ public rights to freedom expression and their private contractual obligations as employees?
In this paper we investigate the extent and manner in which legal doctrine protecting the freedom of expression and personal privacy of employees is being transformed by the contending opportunities social media platforms afford. Our research is anchored in an analysis of 27 cases of workplace arbitration and court decisions dealing with disciplinary actions resulting from online speech. The findings show that in each instance the imposed disciplinary measures have been constructed in accordance with how employees’ speech reflects on employers and/or professional associations. More concretely, decision outcomes demonstrate that the property rights of the employer or larger professional bodies, is the principal issue guiding the types, and degrees, of penalties to which employees are subjected for expressing their voice.

Julie Yujie Chen (University of Toronto)
Paper Title: The mirage and politics of participation in China's platform economy
Paper Abstract:
Despite considerable attention paid to the roles played by digital platforms in mediating and organizing the economy and sociality, there is a dearth of knowledge about how the platform economy is operationalised, discursively, politically, and practically in China. The article explicates the semantic deployment of the term platform in the national development policies generally and the specific manifestations in the policies and praxis of ride-hailing and food-delivery services – two of the fastest growing sectors in China’s platform economy. The study contextualises the framework and rationale behind the governmental promotion of the platform economy in the state’s long-term efforts to be part of the global digital capitalism. It also charts the persistent and shifting struggles facing workers in the new socio-technical and economic landscape in which digital platforms play a crucial role. The article demonstrates how the characterization of digital platforms as participatory infrastructures for (new) jobs takes precedence in contemporary China. Juxtaposing policies with praxis, it is argued that the mirage of participation conceals an emerging digital infrastructure of distribution to the disadvantage of the workers, which may eventually undermine the development agenda.

Guy T. Hoskins (York University)
Paper Title: The Submissive Citizen in the Shadow of Platform Power: Between Rights Claims and Active Citizenship
Paper Abstract:
In a context of pervasive datafication, an essential component of the quest for ‘data justice’ (Hintz et al 2018) is to establish a framework of rights that can safeguard fundamental freedoms for the ‘data citizen’. As Isin & Ruppert (2015) make clear, however, the performance of rights claims makes the data citizen both a subversive and a submissive figure: simultaneously making demands and submitting to authority. It is my contention that the rights claims of the data citizen, and the dominant imaginaries that surround them, are often best defined as submissive to platforms rather than subversive of them. They are submissive because the core rights, usually centred on dimensions of privacy and expression, fail to connect to broader social struggles and over-emphasize individualist and technical solutions. Moreover, I contend that we can better understand this failure to adequately challenge the systemic injustices implied in the mass capture of citizen data if we examine the earlier lineage of digital rights frameworks, from WSIS to the present day.
Using a poststructuralist political economy approach (Schoonmaker 2009) that takes into account discursive as well as political-economic components, I examine some of the most prominent bills of digital rights, such as the IGF’s Charter of Human Rights and Principles for the Internet. In so doing I propose that the dominant formulation of rights claims has had the effect of sating the systemic needs of informational capitalism, as well as foreclosing the potential to substantively address its inequities in the form of monopolization, surveillance and commodification. By contrast, I explore the potential for models of active data citizenship (Powell 2016), such as ‘platform cooperativism’ (Scholz 2014), to more effectively democratize the processes of datafication.

Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte (Simon Fraser University)
Paper Title: VUCAVU.com: Artist-Run Distribution of Independent Canadian Film and Video in the Age of the Platform
Paper Abstract:
VUCAVU.com is a pay-per-view streaming platform for independent Canadian film and video. Independent here means that the artist or producer had complete artistic control and that their work was created primarily for purposes of artistic expression. VUCAVU.com was launched in 2016 following an initial investment of $1.5M, by the Canada Council for the Arts. The platform is managed by the Coalition of Independent Media Art Distributors (CCIMAD), which brings together eight media distributors from across Canada, i.e. most of the distributors of independent film and video that receive operating support from the Canada Council. These are non-profit organizations that emerged from the late 1960s onward out of the artist-run centre and alternative film distribution movements. The lack of commercial viability of artist-driven film and video has long been established and CCIMAD distributors and VUCAVU operate in an ecosystem historically characterized by market-failure. Since its inception, VUCAVU has generated low revenues from its streaming services and, not benefitting from stable financial support from funding bodies, is presently struggling to establish a sustainable operating model. This paper examines the development of VUCAVU, the platform’s networked governance structure, and its operating model. An analysis of the ways in which VUCAVU both resists and embraces aspects of the platform economy is developed. It is argued that VUCAVU constitutes an artist-driven appropriation of the audiovisual distribution platform, which nevertheless challenges established models in the independent media arts sector. It is proposed that VUCAVU can serve as a case study in the opportunities and challenges that the adoption of digital models represent for the market failure artistic sector. Lessons learned from this case study are particularly relevant to consider in light of the recent push for the adoption of digital models in Canadian arts funding orientations.


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