Union campaigning in the social media and advertising age: Perspectives for a digital labour union

Global advertising investments have in 2013 amounted to US$ 513.4 billion, up 9% from 2008, the year the new world economic crisis started. The share of Internet advertising has in these years increased from 12% to 27%, making this realm the second largest sphere of ad investment after television. In the same time period, ad investment share in newspapers has dropped from 25% to 16%, contributing to the survival crisis of news journalism and print media. Online advertising allows targeting consumers based on constant surveillance of their online behaviour. Especially in times of crisis, when businesses worry more than usual about bankruptcy and losses, such a shift from print to online advertising is therefore likely to take accelerated pace.

A commodity is a good that under capitalist conditions is sold on capitalist markets in order to achieve profits. Wherever there is a commodity, there is labour that creates it. Google, Facebook and Twitter are no commodities because there is “free” access to them. But this freedom comes at the (zero) price of digital labour: There is a data commodity created by users’ digital labour that online advertisers exploit in order to achieve monetary profits. In the case of Google and Facebook ,this strategy works: Google in 2014 was with profits of US$ 13.7 billion the world’s 39th largest company, Facebook with profits of US$ 2.9 billion the 280th largest. Don’t be mistaken: These two Internet giants are not communications companies, but the world’s largest advertising agencies. The WWW is a global information and communication space dominated by advertising that reduces us to the status of digital workers and consumers. This model is however not universally successful: Twitter is making loss after loss, increasing its losses from US$ 132 million during 2014’s first quarter to US$ 162 million in 2015’s first three months. Targeted advertising is a volatile organisation model.

Labour unions fight for workers’ rights vis-à-vis capital. The most common tradition in this respect is making demands for wage increases. Advertising relates to consumption and has therefore not traditionally been an issue that unions care about. It was rather predominantly left as political field to consumer organisations. But if consumers more and more become workers, then the situation changes. Union activities and demands then have to change.

But social media’s digital workers do not get wages, which is why Facebook and Google’s profits are so large. Imagine a strong and powerful digital labour union having many social media users as committed members. Should it demand wages for social media use? The problem is that such demands do not foster alternatives to the corporate Internet and leaves existing and future alternatives in a precarious state. So what should a digital labour union do and demand?

Corporate taxes are extremely low today. But capitalist companies massively exploit unpaid and paid labour, including unremunerated labour that creates commons such as communication, social relations, knowledge, education, culture, etc. A basic income funded by corporate taxation is a social wage. But basic income can be made up of different components. One of it can be a wage for the creation of the information and communication commons that advertising-funded media exploit.

Let us assume the world’s advertising revenues of US$ 513.4 billion are charged by an ad tax of 10%. The resulting US$ 51.34 billion could via participatory budgeting be distributed to the Earth’s 7.2 billion inhabitants. A media cheque of US$7 per year could be generated that citizens could collectively use for funding alternative, non-commercial, non-profit, community-community/worker/user/consumer-owned media projects. Further corporate taxes could be added in order to increase this amount. The concrete use of this money could be decided in local or regional assemblies. Work in non-profit cultural and digital co-operatives funded by a participatory media fee could take on new qualities, could reinvigorate critical and investigative journalism, public engagement, political and cultural community life, etc.

The struggle for a participatory media fee and an alternative, post-capitalist media landscape that combines public power and civil society power could be part of what the a digital labour union considers as feasible demands. Wages for Facebook is a too limited demand. A social wage for the creation of the communication commons at large is possible.