Can’t pay? Don’t play: New ethical models for digital business

Politics & Society
re:publica 2014

Short thesis: 

Reactions are emerging to online economic disparity. Cooperatively-run startups and new forms of the mutual society may be an answer to exploitative digital business models. Social surges like the freelancers’ rights movement are building real world political pressure. Companies that don’t pay will be told they can’t be in business.


Today’s social crisis of inequality has a digital corollary - online businesses getting rich off the back of poorly paid precarious workers. And just as society will search for radical rebalancing solutions, so too will digital businesses be challenged by reactions to online economic disparity.

New models of online economic participation are emerging, some that involve their workers and users as co-owners - a remixing of the concept of the cooperative. Digital co-ops could be the answer to startups run by armies of unpaid interns, or digital workers slaving on micro-tasks for micro-money.

Old concepts of collective support - such as mutual benefit societies and credit societies - are resurfacing, enhanced by innovations like crowdfunding. With governments worldwide in austerity-driven retreat, self-built support networks may be the most viable form of social security.

Such nascent reactions are dovetailing with other social surges such as the freelancers’ rights movement, which is building real world political pressure. In Europe, the freelancers’ movement will run its first major mobilization campaign ahead of the EU elections in May. In the US, the Freelancers Union is calling for an explosion of cooperatives and new mutual societies.

Businesses may find themselves under pressure from rival worker- and user-owned cooperative startups. They will also face campaigns to meet ethical hiring and contracting standards, such as a “freelance friendly” accreditation scheme. Companies relying on unpaid workers will be educated that if they cannot afford to pay staff, they cannot be in business.

stage 5
Thursday, May 8, 2014 -
11:45 to 12:15