Future historians will mark 2020 as the year when, in the midst of a world historic crisis, it became viscerally apparent that we’re divided into two economies. For the majority of people struggling to make ends meet — with few options but to resort to working in dangerous conditions at warehouses or tethering themselves to servant apps run by exploitative platforms, all while avoiding imminent threats of infection and eviction — it was the worst of times. For a small class of wealthy executives — those who own these companies, control access to essential services, and innovate new ways to extract value — it was a record-breaking year.
Throwing this distinction into sharp relief, tech critic Paris Marx pointed out that billionaires added $3.9 trillion to their wealth during the pandemic while workers globally lost $3.7 trillion in earnings. It’s no accident that the biggest winners of the coronavirus crisis are the same tech and finance executives who have been aggressively consuming the world for more than a decade. This massive redistribution of wealth, from labor to capital, should be seen as a direct outcome of digital platforms reaching new levels of dominance as their owners strive to amass profit and consolidate power.
For example, despite increased scrutiny on the inhumane costs of Amazon’s massive logistics and surveillance infrastructure, “the company as a whole posted record quarterly revenues of $125.6bn, up more than 40 per cent in the same period in the previous year, and comfortably beating Wall Street’s expectations,” reports Financial Times. Meanwhile, gig platforms like Uber and DoorDash scored a major legislative win last November with the passage of Proposition 22 in California, which exempts them from classifying their workers as employees. By enshrining into law a new form of serfdom-as-a-service, these platforms hope to finally turn a profit off of their precarious workforce.
The ascendancy of platforms has been accelerating at breakneck speed over the last decade. The 2019 Digital Economy Report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development shows that companies in the technology and consumer services sector have taken over the global economy, surging from just 16 percent of global market capitalization in 2009 to a staggering 56 percent in 2018. Almost half of the top ten largest firms in 2018 weren’t even among the top hundred in 2009: Amazon, Alibaba, Facebook, and Tencent. This far surpasses other sectors like financial services, fossil fuels, and healthcare. It’s safe to assume that this figure has only increased, as digital platforms take advantage of multiple crises and continue to aggressively expand.
In an economy shrinking for the many and growing for the few, the cutthroat drive to be a monopoly no matter what — a defining feature of platforms — has proved to be good business.
The core business model of platform capitalism is best understood as an expansion of rentierism — owning property for the purpose of maintaining control over it and extracting rent from those who live and work on it. I call today’s techno-economic system — which drives investment in innovation, development of infrastructure, and accumulation of capital — the Internet of Landlords. Here I’m referring to the Internet of Things, which creates sprawling networks of smart stuff that are materially essential for value capture by corporations that seek to enclose everything on their platforms. Think of them as landlords that, instead of owning your house, own all of the other infrastructure and services that you and the economy as a whole rely on every day.
In short, the Internet of Landlords is based on turning all social interactions and economic transactions into “services” that are mediated by corporate platforms. The proliferation of platforms fills society with ubiquitous digital intermediaries that spread rentier relations far and wide, at different scales and intensities, while also concentrating control over infrastructure and economic value in a small number of large hands.
This is what Amazon does for e-commerce and cloud servers, or what Uber does for transportation and food delivery, or what Google does for search and productivity tools. The list goes on endlessly as tech companies increasingly describe themselves as providing “X as a service.” But what this business model really means is that they enjoy all the rights of owning an asset while you pay for the limited privilege of access. In other words, we are now forced to deal with an explosion of landlords in our daily life — constantly paying rent, both in terms of money and data, for all of the different tools and services we use.
“The spaces where we live and where we work are capitalism’s main battlegrounds,” writes author and activist Astra Taylor, “and the rise of networked digital technologies have given capital more powerful weapons with which to conquer them — weapons we can be assured will be put to use as we enter a phase of coronavirus-induced uncertainty and volatility.”
These platforms aren’t so much disrupting capitalism as they are updating traditional forms of rentierism for a society filled with smart technology. Instead of demanding payment from the place you live, the Internet of Landlords captures revenue from the use of digital platforms. Instead of just capitalizing on real estate, the Internet of Landlords is the gatekeeper to services, servers, and software. Instead of just taking its toll in the form of money, the Internet of Landlords also treats data as a key source of value, hoarding as much of it as possible.
Digital platforms perpetuate a vicious cycle of data extraction and digital enclosure. Companies like Amazon do this in a large-scale centralized way to integrate control over entire value chains into their platform. This allows them to maximally monitor, manage, and monetize every component — for example, by using systems to surveil workers and automate factories with names like Monitron and Panorama. Meanwhile, a multitude of “smart” things like home assistants and coffee makers are continually streaming data in a small-scale decentralized way to manufacturers’ servers, which use software licenses to maintain remote control over them. Even after we purchase the device, its maker retains property rights over the digital parts of the physical object, preventing us from modifying, repairing, or exercising any real agency over its features.
All of this raises the question of who really has ownership in our economy? Who claims the lion’s share of value generated by productive work and captured from essential infrastructure? Increasingly, the answer is not people, but platforms. Not users, but landlords.
A long line of classical economists across the political spectrum, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to John Maynard Keynes, all found consensus on one issue: denouncing landlords as “parasites” on the economy. By controlling property that is required for productive activities of work and life, they latch onto circuits of capital and consumption, claiming a cut in the form of rent and directly redistributing value from workers to their pockets. It’s time we finally recognize that corporate platforms — the Internet of Landlords — operate in much the same manner and deserve to be seen in the same light.
The scale of the exploitation is such that even the United Nations can no longer ignore it. As a recent UN report on the power of corporate platforms bluntly states, the “vision of an interconnected digital world, free from artificial boundaries to the flow of information,” has been co-opted by big tech firms that are “turning the mining and processing of data into a rent-seeking cornucopia.”
There’s no security to be found in hoping that we aren’t evicted by the platforms that have unaccountable power over us. By e-commerce giants kicking sellers out of the store, by gig companies deactivating workers’ accounts, by manufacturers bricking our devices. This techno-economic infrastructure has become too critical to allow it to be controlled by the grace of digital landlords. We have to make platforms meet the needs of the public, not the other way around. Otherwise their cut of the economy will only grow larger and larger until there’s nothing left to extract.
Rather than viewing digital platforms as a great break in society — unlike anything that has ever come before, as both disruptors and their critics are fond of asserting — we should simply see them as the latest case of out-of-control landlords who must be reined in. Responding to public pressure, politicians have begun conducting antitrust investigations into tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. This is a good place to start, but breaking up giant platforms while leaving the core rentier features of their business model untouched risks leaving us with a group of somewhat smaller landlords still divvying up ownership over society’s infrastructure. To truly redistribute power away from platforms, we have to focus on the foundation of the digital economy: data.
We can begin by crafting policies that impose data controls on platforms that are inspired by already existing policies of rent control and capital control. The latter should also be greatly expanded at the same time. With rent control, governments put hard limits on the amount of rent that landlords can demand from tenants, whereas capital control governs the flow of money into and out of markets. A policy of data control should do both: restricting the conditions, purposes, and uses of data that corporations extract from people, while also overseeing the flow and exchange of data across different markets and industries.
A policy of data control would target the core imperative driving many corporations today: capturing all data, from all sources, by any means possible. What’s more, it would actively prevent that data from being used to build even more socially harmful technologies at some point in the future. “People tagging online photos of themselves and their friends in 2009, for example, could not have known that companies contracting with law enforcement in 2019 would use such information for facial recognition products,” explains legal scholar Salomé Viljoen.
Data controls are crucial for reversing the vast political and economic asymmetries that currently exist in our system while delivering more power over platforms to the public.