For Investors / For Startups / Open Call
August 22nd, 2019

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: Platform Accountability in the Age of Big Tech

By Julie Menter

The Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5 billion for violating user privacy. Most observers saw the fine as grossly inadequate for a company that raked in $55 billion last year and collected vast amounts of data without adequate protection. This brings up a fundamental question that the progressive movement must address: with the government unable, or unwilling, to regulate technology platforms so far, how do we hold them accountable while recognizing they have been an effective tool for organizing in the past?

On the one hand, major tech platforms enabled groups like Pantsuit Nation to take-off. This 2017 NMV portfolio organization started as a private Facebook group with 30 people and grew to 3 million active users in a month, making it one of the largest Facebook groups of any kind on the platform. No place but Facebook could enable that kind of rapid scaling. Now, Pantsuit Nation is the digital core of Supermajority, the new organizing group focused on gender equity.

On the other hand, technology companies haven’t done enough to prevent their platforms from being used to breed misogyny, racism, and outright violence. This was most recently exemplified in a Customs and Border Patrol Facebook group, where CPB agents made hateful posts about migrants and Latinx people including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Freed of many of the regulations that govern other American industries, internet companies such as Facebook and Google have grown in wealth and unprecedented power. For too long, they have toyed recklessly with our private data, turned a blind eye to criminal acts such as trafficking, racism, and hate speech, and become incubators for misinformation campaigns that threaten the pillars of our democracy. The FTC’s insufficient fine on Facebook is the latest indication that government action in our current political environment is unlikely to change anything very soon. How then can the progressive movement hold these platforms accountable? 

At NMV we have seen organizations take two paths to fight for platform accountability: building their own technology and direct activism.  

In this year’s open call, we funded The Movement for Black Lives to help develop their App for Black Lives. While still in development, the app will have the ability to mobilize Movement for Black Lives supporters, increase leadership capacity, and move folks from online activism to organizing in their communities – all while keeping users’ data secure. However, the challenge with this strategy is one of scale. The Movement for Black Lives has to bring people to their app and build an online community, rather than going to a platform like Twitter or Facebook with an existing audience. This means that more resources will be needed to grow and activate their audience. 

Coworker.org, our 2014 investee, organizes to directly change tech platforms. They help employees build campaigns with their colleagues to improve their workplaces. The Coworker.org community has been key in successful movements like the Netflix workers’ campaign for an improved parental leave policy and the monumental Google Walkout in November 2018. 

And they’re not alone, just last week 1,000 demonstrators from #JewsAgainstICE shut down an Amazon Books store in New York City to protest Amazon Web Services’s cloud computing contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Mijente, another NMV portfolio organization, uses both strategies. Mijente organizes to hold some of the biggest tech companies such as Palantir and Amazon accountable while maintaining their presence on big tech platforms and building their own tools and technology. Mijente even started their own accelerator program, Mijentech, that helps create and scale independent technology in Latinx communities and movements for social justice.

What’s Needed

Despite these efforts and the efforts of many others on this issue, there is insufficient funding, coordination, and scale for this work to result in meaningful changes to the way the tech platforms operate.

It is crucial that as individuals, and as a movement, we address how we use technology platforms and what we demand from them. We need better coordination between everyone involved – from academia, think tanks, movement organizations, advocacy, and activists so they can speak with a unified voice. We also need more funders to join this work and provide capital so the groups that are leading the fight to reform big tech companies can scale. Finally, we need to recognize that the solutions will need to be at the scale and complexity of the challenges we are facing – it will likely require more than just boycotting those platforms or breaking them up into smaller pieces. 

Building the infrastructure, tools, and coalitions that can hold platforms accountable will take time. These are the corporate behemoths of our day, and they will not yield power easily. It’s time that we all start taking this work more seriously, as investors and founders, so we can build the necessary power to push for platform accountability. 

If you’re doing innovative work in this space, we want to hear from you. If you’re a donor or investor supporting efforts to hold tech accountable, let our investment team know, and if you’re starting a project to tackle these challenges head-on, tell us about your work