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Causal Factors

Inequality in the Digital Economy

Blogging Our Great Divide
June 05, 2015

by Sarah Anderson

A new special issue of The Nation brings an inequality frame to our current cyber world.

Reams have been written about the implications of our Digital Age for personal privacy. If you don’t feel you have much to hide, here’s another giant reason to care: our current cyber world is a major driver of inequality.

That’s the premise of a path-breaking new special issue of The Nation, “The Digital Crush.” Through six special features, the magazine brings a fresh inequality frame to the whole range of digital revolution topics.

The standard argument has been that digital technologies have reduced inequality by democratizing the media and expanding access to information. By contrast, the Nation contributors argue that the current policy approach to the Internet is undermining privacy, labor, equal opportunity, and consumer protections for ordinary Americans—while elevating those at the top.

“We’ve entered a new Gilded Age, with its own cutting-edge variations on yesterday’s robber barons,” write co-editors Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor.

Long-time labor and national security journalist Tim Shorrock takes a deep dive into one segment of these digital age robber barons, what he calls “The New Cybersecurity Elite.” He describes how those in the top tier of the national security class have merged government careers with jobs in the private sector, where many of them continue to have high-level security clearances that allow privileged access to information, which they then sell to clients at a high price.

“The cyberintelligence-industrial complex is qualitatively different from—and more dangerous than—the military-industrial complex identified by President Eisenhower in his famous farewell address,” Shorrock writes. “This is because its implications for democracy, inequality, and secrecy are far more insidious.”

Much of his article is based on Shorrock’s observations and conversations at a dinner hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a coalition of National Security Agency contractors. Something tells me he won’t be invited back.

Astra Taylor and Jason Sadowski bring a different inequality angle to their article, “Digital Redlining.” For decades, many banks drew red lines to mark certain neighborhoods (usually communities of color) as “no lend zones.” After much hard work by anti-discrimination activists, laws were passed to prohibit those racist practices. But thanks to the vast quantities of data online, there are now companies that sell marketing scores designed to predict an individual’s spending capacity and are devised to evade those anti-redlining laws.

What’s the solution to the many ways the digital economy is dividing us? In a debate that has been so dominated by personal privacy concerns, the co-editors stress the need for collective action. They urge readers to add to the many proposals in the special issue, from anti-trust action against the info-monopolies to boosting union demands against worker surveillance.

“By understanding the digital landscape, we can better organize for a system that benefits us all,” Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor conclude.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

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