In Support of Alternatives to Big Tech

Posted January 11, 2022, 9:19 PM

Dear Members of Congress:

We are organizations that believe technology should be used to uplift and empower marginalized communities, rather than oppress and exploit them. We’re alarmed that Big Tech’s business models are fundamentally at odds with justice, democracy, and human rights.

With its rebrand to ‘Meta’ and interest in creating its own digital currency, Facebook has now set its sights on dictating the next generation of the internet, aka Web 3. This must not be allowed to happen, and you must take action. Recent attempts to regulate decentralized Web 3 systems, notably those that presently use blockchain technologies, show that there’s a need for increased scrutiny and thoughtfulness about how we approach emerging technologies. We do not want to further entrench the monopoly power, data harvesting practices, and discrimination of Big Tech companies like Facebook—we must encourage alternatives.

We call on Congressional lawmakers to approach legislation related to Web 3 technologies carefully, and consider the impact that any potential regulation might have on communities of color, low income people, and others who have faced discrimination from traditional, and often predatory, Big Tech companies, banks, and financial services. 

In particular, we urge lawmakers to ensure that any potential legislation:

  1. Does not stifle the creation of Web 3 systems that benefit marginalized people.
    Nearly one out of every four US residents is either unbanked or underbanked. These overwhelmingly low income, young, mostly Black and Latinx people face huge costs in terms of both high fees and time when they try to perform even the simplest financial transaction, like cashing a paycheck. Underbanked Americans are forced to rely on predatory services that not only charge exorbitant fees, but also have a history of discriminating against frontline communities. If trends continue, the median Black household will have zero wealth by 2053. Early Web 3 systems such as cryptocurrencies are already providing solutions to financial exclusion around the world. A recent Harris Poll survey found that in the U.S, 30% of Black and 27% of Hispanic investors own cryptocurrencies, compared with just 17% of White investors.
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  3. Does not undermine the privacy benefits of decentralized Web 3 projects, thereby centering the needs of marginalized people.
    Marginalized people face systemic and discriminatory surveillance from both corporations and law enforcement. Any legislation should not undermine the potential of decentralized technology to enhance privacy and freedom, departing from the harmful violations of megacorporations like Facebook. Data stored in a decentralized digital system should be subject to the same constitutional protections as data stored in physical form. Further, the right of people in the US to opt-out of financial surveillance from credit card companies and other predatory entities by using cash has long been enshrined in law. Any legislation of decentralized payment systems like cryptocurrencies must ensure people enjoy as much privacy as users of cash in the analog world.
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  5. Does not benefit Big Tech at the expense of alternatives and public interest.
    Adherence to well-intentioned laws is often expensive to the point that only the largest corporations can comply. For example, Facebook has shown great interest in dominating and co-opting cryptocurrencies for their own gain. Legislation that raises expensive barriers to entry and insulates the biggest players from competition could cement Facebook’s monopoly into the next generation of the internet. Our laws should be designed both to encourage competition and to accommodate future, novel uses of the regulated technologies.
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  7. Distinguishes between regulating major decentralized payment brokers and big tech monopolies versus other projects using Web 3 technology.
    The most high profile uses of Web 3 technology to date have been as mechanisms of payment. But the most promising uses have little to do with financial transactions. Because of this diversity, so-called “digital assets” cannot be regulated as a monolith. For example, blockchain networks provide file storage, computation, or validation—similar to other, more familiar types of software like spreadsheets or databases.
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  9. Does not criminalize or overburden the creation or exchange of digital tokens.
    Digital tokens are essential for almost every project built on blockchain, whether it’s a file storage service or a social media app, to function properly. Tokens have become synonymous with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but that is far too narrow an understanding. Unlike Bitcoin (which is only a particular token created by one blockchain network), many tokens do not represent money or a share of ownership at all. Rather, they may be used to activate services provided by the platform that created them, or they may be a type of digital ‘coupon’ that gives the holder a discount when buying services for the platform. This is analogous to a grocery co-op offering discounts for members who help to stock the shelves—certainly not an activity we would think to outlaw. Further, regulations that were created for cash transactions prior to the existence of the internet cannot be workably applied to tokens that represent the rights to or ownership of a work of art like a song.
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  11. Does not have a chilling effect on justice, free expression, and civil liberties.
    You must ensure that the constitutional, civil rights, and human rights protections of the analog world are preserved in cyberspace. Legislation should explicitly affirm that the simple act of writing code is protected speech. Many projects in this space were developed by networks of volunteers (as were valuable innovations of the past like Linux, Unbuntu, and Firefox). Legislation must not subject the activities of volunteer creators and developers to the fear of prosecution.

We cannot overstate the transformational power of building more online spaces free from the surveillance, manipulation, and exclusion that are undermining basic human rights today. Democratized technologies have the potential to allow us to break our reliance on central repositories of our personal data, such as those maintained by Facebook or Amazon. This transition may enable us to store personal data securely and in a decentralized manner, rather than on a server owned by a single corporation. In this way, each individual would be able to decide who has access to what pieces of data and when—a choice that marginalized communities in particular are denied today.

We urge you to tread carefully for the sake of our democracy, the struggle for equity and inclusion, and the future our kids will grow up in.

Sincerely, 

The Undersigned.

Access Now
Adalah Justice Project
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
ARTICLE19
Assembly Four
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Ethics in Technology
Fight for the Future
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Global Voices
India Civil Watch International
Indigenous Friends Association
Justice for Muslims Collective
Majal.org
MediaJustice
Organization for Identity and Cultural Development
Presente
Ranking Digital Rights
Reframe Health and Justice
Restore The Fourth
RootsAction.org
SWOP Behind Bars
The Greenlining Institute
The Pacific NW Rural Broadband Alliance, LTD
The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center
X-Lab
Yale Privacy Lab