Aral Balkan

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Have you heard about Silicon Valley’s unpaid research and development department? It’s called the EU.

Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme.

You… yes you.

Who should you thank for Facebook’s Libra?

And, if you’re an EU citizen who pays their taxes,

Surprised? Don’t be.

None of this was unforeseen

Today, the EU acts like an unpaid research and development department for Silicon Valley. We fund startups, which, if they’re successful, get sold to companies in Silicon Valley. If they fail, the European taxpayer foots the bill. This is madness.

Slavery 2.0 and how to avoid it: a practical guide for cyborgs

So what should we do instead?

Let’s instead invest in many small and independent not-for-profit organisations and task them with building the ethical alternatives. Let’s get them to compete with each other while doing so. Let’s take what we know works from Silicon Valley (small organisations working iteratively, competing, and failing fast) and remove what is toxic: venture capital, exponential growth, and exits.

Instead of startups, lets build stayups in Europe.

Instead of disposable businesses that either fail fast or become malignant tumours, let’s fund organisations that either fail fast or become sustainable providers of social good.

The EC must stop funding startups and invest in stayups instead. Invest €5M in ten stayups in each area where we want ethical alternatives. Unlike a startup, when stayups are successful, they don’t exit. They can’t get bought by Google or Facebook. They remain sustainable European not-for-profits working to deliver technology as a social good.

Furthermore, funding for a stayup must come with a strict specification of the character of the technology it will build. Goods built using public funds must be public goods. Free Software Foundation Europe is currently raising awareness along these lines with their “public money, public code” campaign. However we must go beyond “open source” to stipulate that technology created by stayups must be not only public but also impossible to enclose. For software and hardware, this means using licenses that are copyleft. A copyleft license ensures that if you build on public technology, you must share alike. Share-alike licenses are essential so that our efforts do not become a euphemism for privatisation and to avoid a tragedy of the commons. Corporations with deep pockets must not be able to take what we create with public funds, invest their own millions on top, and not share back the value they’ve added.

Slavery 2.0 and how to avoid it: a practical guide for cyborgs

Sounds great, wish you’d told someone about it…

When I mentioned this plan several years ago at the European Parliament, my words fell on deaf ears. It’s still not too late to try. But every day that we delay, surveillance capitalism becomes ever more entrenched within the fabric of our lives.

Slavery 2.0 and how to avoid it: a practical guide for cyborgs

But sometimes you have to repeat things before people take notice…

We must also start to fund ethical, decentralised, free and open alternatives from the commons for the common good. We must ensure that these organisations have social missions ingrained in their very existence that cannot be circumvented. We must make sure that these organisations cannot be bought by surveillance capitalists. Today, we are funding startups and acting as an unofficial and unpaid research and development arm for Silicon Valley. We fund startups and, if they’re successful, they get bought by the Googles and Facebooks. If they’re unsuccessful, the EU taxpayer foots the bill. It’s time for the European Commission and the EU to stop being useful idiots for Silicon Valley, and for us to fund and support our own ethical technological infrastructure.

Given how much information Silicon Valley, and thus the US government, has on EU citizens, this is not just a matter of our human rights and the future of our democracy, but also the national security of European countries and that of the EU. This isn’t to say that we must wall ourselves off or create a European silo. On the contrary, we must ensure that the technological infrastructure we fund and build is free and open, decentralised, and interoperable so that anyone, anywhere in the world can use it.

Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag: We’re not sleepwalking into a dystopian future, we’re there today

If only we knew how to fix this…

If only there was an Ethical Design Manifesto that initiatives like DECODE could have adopted that would have prevented this.

If only we knew the general shape of the solution so we could invest EU taxpayer funds in projects that fit it.

If only there were Small Technology principles that clearly stated how to fund and build technology that Facebook would never want to buy.

Oh, wait, we did know but we were so busy being arrogant…

“Small tech” cannot afford to be so small-minded.

Evgeny Morozov

… that we ended up being the useful idiots that helped out Facebook.

A key component in Libra comes from an EU-funded academic startup recently acquired by Facebook. (It was apart of the Decode Project, on whose advisory board I sit). Ask yourself how Europe can compete with US/China when Facebook can simply snatch such R&D

Evgeny Morozov