Democratic Socialists of America-Backed Candidate Julia Salazar Is Challenging Silicon Valley with Her Ambitious Tech Agenda
Half a year ago, Doug Schifter was at his wits’ end. The 61-year-old livery driver had seen a respectable livelihood gutted by deregulation and felt abandoned by his representatives. As ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft replaced a once-thriving industry with precarious and unprotected “gig” employment, he was pushed to work 100-120 hour weeks just to make end’s meet.
Schifter penned an emotional Facebook post early on the morning of Feb. 5, 2018, claiming that he and his fellow cabbies were being “driven down into the streets [they] drive.” Several hours later, he drove a rented Nissan sedan up to the eastern gate of New York City Hall and shot himself in the head. His was one of six city cab driver suicides in the first half of 2018 – another casualty of “disruption.”
Schifter’s passing was an ominous warning: Something has gone terribly awry with our technology. Networked smart devices mediate something of a collective experience of reality, but there is a growing sense that their designs work to shape it against our common interest.
Beyond destroying livelihoods and introducing unsustainable modes of employment, privatized tech platforms convert our most intimate moments into generative labor, trapping us in closed-circuit filter bubbles while ensuring we see none of the profits. Meanwhile, data-hungry corporate surveillance readily translates into punitive state power and discriminatory tools for law enforcement. And uneven access to broadband infrastructure — an essential utility in the 21st century — crushes any remnants of progressive techno-utopianism by ensuring that the internet will sustain, rather than subvert, rampant wealth inequality.
These are structural problems without easy answers, and a local election might seem an unusual place to look for guidance. But Julia Salazar, a Democratic Socialists of America-backed challenger running to represent New York’s 18th State Senate district, is not a usual politician.
Salazar started attracting broader attention on the heels of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory, but is not running on comparison alone. She is heading a movement campaign with bold ideas about criminal justice reform, healthcare, housing and transit — and how to recoup a lost tradition of leftist tech optimism.
“As socialists,” she said in an interview with Salon, “our priorities are to empower the working class and marginalized people and to fight against the exploitation that we see in the capitalist system.” This philosophy is laced throughout a new tech policy platform that was just released on Salazar’s website. Her campaign provided Salon with an advance copy, which is reproduced in full at the bottom of this article.
The platform was created in consultation with NYC-DSA’s Tech Action Working Group, a task-force that meets every month and falls somewhere between a democratically-controlled think tank and an issue-focused organizing team.
“For years (the tech industry) has evaded political attention by putting forward a problem-solving, altruistic face,” said Will Luckman, a member of the group’s organizing committee who helped coordinate the drafting of the platform, in an interview with Salon. “Meanwhile, they’ve been massing a huge amount of capital and power. They’ve been undermining the broader physical and metaphorical infrastructure that our society runs on. Our goal is to drag that into the light, to have a public conversation about it and to apply a socialist analysis to figure out how to challenge and democratize (the tech industry).”
These issues might seem burdensomely wonky to drag into a local election, but Salazar noted the precarity of “gig economy” employment as an especially pressing issue in her district — and an occasional opportunity to bring up the platform in everyday conversation with voters. But extending traditional labor protections to platform workers would not only be a boon to Uber drivers and Wag walkers — it would also directly benefit workers in the industries they have disrupted.
“The New York Taxi Workers Alliance feels understandably threatened by the proliferation of black cars on the road, and Uber and Lyft having all of this power and influence in the city,” said Salazar, noting that she has largely echoed the demands of their "Protect Full-Time Jobs" campaign. If Uber drivers were protected as regular full-time employees, the company would find far less room to undercut the better-regulated taxi industry.
The platform also addresses this issue through its support for the formation of platform co-ops, or worker-owned applications that cut out the middleman by giving communities direct control over the technologies that connect them. In a political landscape where tech issues are often expressed in terms of infringements upon individual rights, these proposals stand out for their emphasis on collective ownership. For example, take the idea of a right to privacy. “Surveillance is still really important to us,” Salazar explained, “But we see it less through an individual liberties framework and more in terms of confronting forces that are consolidating power.”
In this vein, Salazar is less interested in securing state control of technology than in creating mechanisms for direct democracy and public oversight. That is why she supports algorithmic transparency requirements for government tech contractors, particularly around the area of law enforcement. Salazar told Salon that this “isn’t just about protecting New Yorkers from predatory corporations but also in some cases the state,” adding that greater transparency could help curtail discriminatory algorithmic decision-making in areas like predictive policing.
Salazar also discussed a need to bridge the digital divide by securing more equitable internet access. “There are so many New Yorkers who have no broadband access at home," she told Salon. "There are so many young people who have to go to the library to do their homework. That might not sound like a big deal, but I can only imagine having to — as a college student, for example — having to leave my house to do work or access services or check my email or apply for a job.”
That is why Salazar wants to force internet service providers to supply competitive connections in areas where it might not be profitable to do so, as well as to expand state funding for publicly owned broadband projects.
“The central problem that we’re addressing is industrial control of our society’s infrastructure,” said Will. “Our goal is to increase democratic control of these systems, to make them more transparent, to release them from the profit motive.”
“We do believe that technology has some of the liberatory capacity that the Silicon Valley evangelists claim,” he continued. "But when it’s just in the service of profit and controlled by a small number of private companies, those dreams are not going to be achieved."
Extending this philosophy of democratic ownership from networked broadband infrastructure to the data it carries, Salazar’s tech platform is not just a laundry list of policy positions but an articulation of a broader vision for a tech industry that works for all Americans.
This totalizing approach might seem overly ambitious — and ambitious it is — but emphasizing the interlinkages between hardware, data and platforms might be the only way to root a network structure back in the real-world communities it connects.
“There are an increasing amount of tech critics out there, but not a lot of solid suggestions for how to fix things,” said Will, offering that “[the NYC-DSA Tech Action Working Group’s] socialist analysis acts as a roadmap to press for fundamental structural changes that don't seem to come from a lot of other corners.”
On tech issues, progressives often find themselves as junior partners in hodgepodge coalitions with individual rights-minded libertarians. By shifting to a focus on collective ownership, the left gains an opportunity to assert its values in the realm of tech regulation, paving a concrete path to achieve stated goals of a more just technological ecosystem.
The late Michael Harrington once prophesized that, "if there is technological advance without social advance, there is, almost automatically, an increase in human misery.” Answering the core of this dilemma, Salazar claimed that her platform’s foundation is “about proposing ways for the State of New York to finally catch up with technological changes in our society.”
With the rise of the internet, apps, smartphones, and social media, new technology is radically changing the way we live—from how we communicate to how we shop, how we access government services to how those services are provided, not to mention how we earn a living and take part in a shifting economy. In many ways this technology represents both the physical and economic infrastructure on which our society runs. Unfortunately the State of New York has not kept up with these rapid changes, and has both failed to provide equal access to the benefits of this new technology to all New Yorkers, and failed to protect regular New Yorkers by properly regulating the predatory tech industry. It is important to act now to modernize New York State and achieve technological independence for the years ahead, so that innovation can be put to use for the widest public good. As State Senator I would:Require that high-speed affordable internet access be made available to all New Yorkers, at the expense of the Internet Service Providers (cable companies), and I would provide State funding for the build-out of neutral, high-speed, publicly-owned and operated municipal/rural broadband infrastructure.Advocate for the rights of “gig” and contract workers by extending them collective bargaining rights, minimum wage, and other attendant protections and guarantees.Provide resources for the formation of “platform co-ops”: apps to compete with Uber, Seamless, or TaskRabbit, but owned and operated by the workers providing services through them, to avoid extractive and exploitative conditions for both workers and consumers.Help pass a modern NY-Electronic Communications & Privacy Act to reign in the electronic surveillance capabilities of law enforcement in conjunction with cable and social media companies.Ensure that technology companies contracting with NY State abide by standards of algorithmic transparency and data privacy (e.g. requiring open-source code and bias screening), so we can be sure that no New Yorker is paying taxes to be discriminated against or spied upon.Demand that tech companies pay their fair share in taxes. Instead of giving the tech industry tax breaks and incentives and getting little in return, these companies must contribute like the rest of us. We should then reinvest that money in public tech jobs, infrastructure, and tools that allow the State of New York to compete technologically with private companies and become self-reliant.