Why Facebook users’ “strikes” don’t work (and how can we fix them)?

Another day, another call for a Facebook “users’ strike”. This one would allegedly run from May 25 to June 1, 2018. It seems to be a one-man stunt, though (“As a collective, I propose we log out of our Facebook…”). Also, it claims to be “the first ever” strike of this kind.

Yet, since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, new calls for strikes have been popping up every few days. As far as I know, the first one dates back to March 21 (although the actual strike is scheduled on May 18, 2018). The organizer is a seasoned Boston Globe journo, who likely just discovered what digital labor is and is SO excited to tell you:

“I like the idea of a strike, because we users are the company’s real labor force. We crank out the millions of posts and photos and likes and links that keep people coming back for more.”

On April 9, 2018 an an obscure Sicilian newspaper called a strike action (which, in Italian, sounds like “sciopero degli utenti di Facebook”). It actually turned out to be an article about the “Faceblock” which did take place on April 11, 2018. It was a 24-hour boycott against Instagram, FB and WhatsApp organized by someone who describe themselves as “a couple of friends with roots in Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, the UK and the US” (a tad confusing, if you ask me).

Of course, May 1st was a perfect time to call for other Facebook strikes. This one, for instance, is organized by a pseudonymous “Odd Bert”, who also mentions a fictional Internet User Union (which seems to be banned by Facebook). This other one looked a bit like some kind of e-commerce/email scam, but produced three sets of grievances.

“On May 1st, 2018, Facebook users are going on strike unless the company agrees to the following terms:

A. Full Transparency for American and British Voters

  1. Facebook shares the exact date it discovered Russian operatives had purchased ads.
  2. Facebook shares the exact dollar amount Russian operatives spent on political ads.
  3. Facebook shares the 3,000+ ads that Russian operatives ran during 2016.
  4. Facebook reveals how many users saw the fake news stories highlighted by BuzzFeed.
  5. Facebook lets an independent organization audit all political ads run during 2016.
  6. Facebook gives investigators all “Custom Lists” used for targeting 2016 political ads.
  7. Facebook stops running paid political ads until January 1st, 2019.
  8. Mark Zuckerberg (CEO) and Sheryl Sandberg (COO) testify before Congress in an open-door (televised) session.
  9. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg testify before the UK parliament.

B. Full Transparency and Increased Privacy for Facebook Users

  1. Facebook explains to users exactly what personal data is being used for advertising.
  2. Facebook asks users for itemized consent to use photos, messages, etc. for advertising.
  3. Facebook gives users the ability to see a “history” of all the ads they have viewed.
  4. Facebook lets an independent organization investigate all data breaches since 2007.
  5. Facebook agrees to be audited monthly to make sure it is complying with local laws.
  6. Facebook allows users to easily delete their “history” on the platform.

C. Better Safety for Children on Facebook

  1. Facebook increases the minimum age for Facebook users from 13 to 16.
  2. Facebook shuts down the Messenger Kids product.”

Users’ strikes are hardly new. In 2009, the Spanish social media Tuenti was concerned by a huelga de los usuarios against their terms of service. In 2015, Reddit users disrupted the platform when they revolted en masse in solidarity with a wrongly terminated employee. On Facebook, users’ collective action is inherent to the life of the platform, whose history is replete with examples of petitions, lawsuits, and class actions. After the introduction of Beacon in 2007, a 50,000-strong petition led to its discontinuation. In 2010 several users’ groups organized and lobbied US senators and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to oppose the introduction of the ‘like’ button social plugin on external websites. In 2011, the association Europe versus Facebook filed numerous complaints with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) and a class action which is presently discussed by the Court of Justice of the European Union. In 2016, the real-life protests and general mobilization against the introduction of Free Basics in India led to its successful ban by the telecommunication authority TRAI, over net neutrality and privacy concerns.

As my co-authors and I argued in our 2014 book Against the Hypothesis of the ‘End of Privacy’, the adoption of pervasive data collection practices by social platforms has been highly contentious, with frequent and cyclical privacy incidents followed by strong mass reactions. What these reactions have in common is that they are strategic, organized, collectives actions that rely on existing communities. Which could provide essential clues as to why the 2018 Facebook strikes are so ineffective. Their do not seem to be organized by active members of existing communities and they certainly do not engage with elected officials or institutional bodies. They are launched by journalists, startup bros, anonymous users trying to get noticed. These persons’ idea of grassroots is a naive one: one heroic individual (or a nonexistent “union”) sparks a revolt, hence the masses follow.

Importantly, they seem to put excessive faith in strikes seen as their only available tactic. A recent article published by a group of Stanford and Microsoft computer scientists captures this romanticized vision of “powerful” industrial actions where users stand hand in hand and nobody crosses the picket line:

“Data laborers could organize a “data labor union” that would collectively bargain with siren servers. While no individual user has much bargaining power, a union that filters platform access to user data could credibly call a powerful strike. Such a union could be an access gateway, making a strike easy to enforce and on a social network, where users would be pressured by friends not to break a strike, this might be particularly effective.”

Nevertheless, as past experiences on social platforms have taught us, successful actions adopt a specific repertoire of contention dominated not by strikes (which are usually costly and difficult to coordinate) but by lobbying and litigation. If we expect Facebook users grievances to be heard, a comprehensive and wide-ranging strategy is necessary to boost their rights. Community, organization, and the selection of effective tools are the three pillars of collective action.

Lessons from Amazon’s Italian hub strike: industrial action that does not factor in both work AND data is doomed to be ineffective

On Nov 24, 2017, the three main Italian unions (CGIL, CISL, UIL) have called for a strike over the failure to negotiate Black Friday bonuses for the 1,600 permanent workers at the distribution hub near the Northern town of Piacenza. Unions say 50% of the workers partake in the strike. Amazon says it was more like 10%.

Bottom line: the strike did not stop Black Friday in Italy. Someone was working. Yet, according to several sources, it was not not permanent workers, but the 2,000 temps that Amazon recruited until Xmas who saved the day. They were not hired to replace striking workers. Even in Italy, this would be illegal. They were hired to face Nov./Dec. surge in retail sales. And of course they did not stop working on Black Friday 2017. That said, Amazon is known internationally for its brutal workplace discipline, its anti-labor stance, and has been accused of hiring temps, contingent workers and even workampers to edge out unionized labor force.

In Italy, one can recruit a lot of those. Unemployment is at 11.1% and there’s a millions-strong industrial reserve army of faux-freelance, part-timers, “coordinated collaborators”, “project-contractors”, “leased staff” and many other forms of non-standard employees. Especially since the infamous Jobs Act heralded by the government of former PM Matteo Renzi, among young workers temp jobs accounts for 50% of employment and they are up 7% since Sept 2017.

But Italian retail workers and their strike tell only part of the story. Amazon isn’t about e-commerce: it’s about big data. Interestingly, Matteo Renzi’s government has been very helpful in facilitating the strategy of “data entryism” of the Seattle giant, going as far as to hire Amazon’s former vice-president and now-biggest employee shareholder of the platform as “Commissioner for Digital Italy”. He’s doing this for free, and you know what they say when you’re not paying for something…

Which brings us to the main point. Amazon strategy is predicated on data and work. Even better: it is predicated on data-as-work, because it extracts value from the data stored in its humongous cloud and hosting services, and because it uses people-as-a-service (according to Jeff Bezos’s early characterization of Amazon Mechanical Turk) to train, enrich, refine data.

Btw, do you wanna know what the new Italian Digital Commissioner considers as a success story for digital transformation? The controversial Indian biometric ID system… And do you know where 36% of Amazon Mechanical Turkers live? India… (Here’s the interview [in Italian] where the Digital Commissioner talks about Indian ID system while at the same time declaring that “he misses Amazon so much”).

Take-away message: Amazon corporate takeover of Italy is as much a matter of labor policy as it is of data politics. As long as the unions continue to focus on the former while neglecting the latter, their action is doomed to be ineffective. Case in point: after dominating Black Friday sales, Amazon’s shares are up 2% and Jeff Bezos is still world’s wealthiest man. So Amazon Italia just gave a giant middle-finger to workers by cancelling the meeting with unions and rescheduling it for after Xmas…