To Build A Better Internet, Put Laid Off Tech Workers Back to Work in the Public InterestMadison Snider / Jun 6, 2023
Madison Snider is a Research Fellow at Siegel Family Endowment, a grantmaking organization that aims to understand and shape the impact of technology on society.
In their recent essay in Tech Policy Press, David Elliot Berman and Victor Pickard argue that another internet is not only possible, but has already taken root in communities across the country. They implore the reader to look to community-based movements for a better internet that is taken out of the market, and out of the hands of monopolistic tech firms, and to help cultivate these efforts and sow similar seeds in their own communities. The essay compellingly argues that we should look to models of community broadband, cooperative ownership, and new experimental social media as means for moving from critique to action.
I believe it is time to consider another means to build and scale this movement: recruiting skilled workers affected by job cuts across the tech industry to build public interest technology. Moves to democratize the internet, as Berman and Pickard argue, necessitate bottom-up movement-building and coalition-building across localized efforts rather than small tweaks that work within the existing political economic paradigm that maintains monopolistic control and extinguishes radical change. With so much talent separated from that economic paradigm, this is a significant moment of opportunity to build the movement.
Though the news cycle on layoffs in tech has perhaps slowed, it is worth noting that these layoffs are still ongoing, and the number of individuals affected is substantial. Layoffs.fyi tallies nearly 200,000 tech layoffs at 715 companies in 2023 to date. Like other metrics in tech jobs reporting, this figure does not accurately reflect the scale of the real impact as many of these companies increasingly rely on contract workers who are excluded from these figures.
At the same time, initiatives aiming to recruit and retain technologists in the field of public interest tech (PIT) are growing. PIT is a movement that encompasses federal, state and local government, non-profit, and professional organizations broadly interested in orienting technologies in service of the public good with a focus on social, ethical, and political implications of design and implementation. In light of recent tech layoffs, we find ourselves at an unprecedented moment to propel these efforts and integrate more of these values into our critical digital infrastructure. This is a moment of rare opportunity for public tech initiatives to seize on the talent that has flooded the market.
Of course, community-based, bottom-up, democratized internet initiatives do not usually come with the same salaries and amenities as a Big Tech firm can offer. But in a moment of uncertainty, there will undoubtedly be tech workers who are disenchanted with that world and emboldened to use their skills to build something better for themselves and the world.
The imagining of another internet, one for and by the people, is an effort to translate a long tradition of tech criticism into action. This criticism has come from within tech companies as well as from the outside– it should be possible to find and recruit those who understand why the existing for-profit paradigm is broken.
Of course, for those already committed to the public interest, many of whom have been striving in the field for years, it may be difficult to trust those who now openly critique the system they benefited from in their prior careers. The point is well taken that those who designed the systems that many activists have been tirelessly working to undo may not be appropriate candidates to serve as the leaders of the new, democratized internet we need. Their critiques often stop at the design of products or calls for leadership changes, rather than at true reforms to extractive surveillance capitalism. However, this movement requires technical talent as well as critique. A democratized internet will need programmers, engineers, and designers to help us build and maintain a new and better infrastructure. The challenge is recruiting and integrating existing tech skills toward democratized products.
This is where things get sticky: who do we trust to build the internet we need? In a recent Mozilla Festival panel on building better bridges between policy and research, I led a discussion with Alexandra Reeve Givens, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology; B Cavello, Director of Emerging Technologies at the Aspen Institute; and Emily Tavoulareas, Managing Chair at Tech & Society at Georgetown University. The conversation teased out some of the tensions inherent to this work, including what level of involvement to seek from tech workers, the insiders to the system we know needs to be dismantled. The need for trust-based, closed door spaces for this work to progress outside the surveillance and cooptation of Big Tech is clear. This perspective is often based on valid experiences of adverse outcomes from the inclusion of Big Tech representatives in the past.
Importantly, this critique does not always question who these representatives are in relation to their employer. If you convene a group to discuss how to democratize the internet and you invite someone from, let’s say, Meta, you are likely going to get a policy team representative who is affixed to the idea that an internet untethered to the market economy will inevitably fail users who are better served by the continuation of an extractive advertising model. For instance, some tech firms argue their model of targeted advertising must be preserved in order to “protect small businesses,” and that any policy that hurts the major platforms would only hurt entrepreneurship. These ideologues are not the tech workers we need in the room. The ones we need are those that B Cavello calls, admiringly, “the rebels on the Death Star,” people inside of these organizations who are actively fighting for them to be more responsible from within– the ranks of whom, I suspect, have grown with the recent layoffs.
Efforts to bring said rebels into the public interest technology movement will require bidirectional learning and unlearning. As a research fellow working within a philanthropic organization that funds public interest technology efforts, I have had the opportunity to interview and landscape the organizations and thinkers driving this robust ecosystem. What I have found is that while there are several organizations working specifically at different points in the PIT pipeline (from professional development to recruitment to training to retention), there are gaps and a need for more support to scale these efforts to meet the demand of this moment.
For instance, in speaking with two conveners of a Tech2Gov webinar for recently laid off tech workers interested in moving into government, I learned they had expected registrations in the hundreds, only to find that there were thousands in attendance. The need to expand these initiatives is an urgent one. However, tensions arise as a shift from tech to public interest tech doesn’t just mean a potential decrease in salary, but a cultural and philosophical shift away from unquestioned growth, unbridled optimization, and different forms of accountability.
This moment is also an opportunity to pause and reconsider the precarity not just of the jobs of technologists working in Big Tech, but also what this precarity means for a broader community of users. We should consider what it means for our critical digital infrastructures to be profit-driven and stockholder controlled. What is the human cost, both for workers and those relying on these technologies, when maintaining profit margins is prioritized over the rights and interests of billions of users?
As layoffs slow, we must also examine which roles are getting cut. The cuts have disproportionately hit DEI and trust and safety teams, and hurt Black and Brown workers the hardest. This undoes longstanding efforts to increase equity in tech workforces, manage content moderation, and secure online privacy and safety. This necessary recruiting strategy ought to also grapple with representation. This requires that we also reckon with the question of who is getting recruited into public interest technology and what does this mean insofar as income equality and the burden of care falling disproportionately on those most affected by harms?
Finally, I would like to make a call to reimagine the funding structure driving these investments - not just for explicitly public interest tech initiatives that are currently supported predominantly by philanthropic dollars, but for a more fundamental shift in the current for-profit industry controlling much of our critical digital infrastructures. Knowingly or unknowingly, tech companies are designing and deploying the digital infrastructure upon which we will all rely – from online social networks to the logic inside autonomous vehicles – and we must demand that they incorporate public interest values and goals alongside profit. In moments of breakdown, it is necessary to attend to both the symptoms (supporting efforts to integrate tech talent into public interest tech) and the root causes (reimagining for-profit precarity toward the public interest) to spur the widespread change we need.
In the course of writing this essay, I heard feedback that interest in PIT was falling and murmurs of conversations questioning the movement as a “distraction” from the core problems in tech. These critiques are rooted in a system of what Lee Vinsel calls “criti-hype” and Charley Johnson has extended as a call to action. Johnson writes:
“We can call out criti-hype when we see it and amplify alternative voices that explain what the technology can actually do, what it can’t, and who are careful not to anthropomorphize it; voices that critique systems, not technologies; that situate technological systems within broader social, cultural, and economic contexts. Ultimately, we need voices that move us beyond critique to positive, alternative visions.”
PIT is a place for alternative voices and visions for digital networks and tools, and to imagine the ones we want to build next. The means to make change inside Big Tech are severely limited. The real work will happen through movement-building efforts led by proximate leaders with incentives built on equity and design justice. This is the long term work of committed individuals and organizations. It is time to welcome new faces from industry who are willing to make that commitment to begin a new chapter of the work.