Chris Wiegman Chris Wiegman

The Futility and Possibility of Tech Boycotts

All tech is political.

We hear that statement a lot. It is, without a doubt, absolutely true but, what can we do about it?

As individuals one of the most common actions people take to express their politics in their daily lives is to boycott companies, whether Amazon or Google, a store or an entertainment venue, tech or elsewhere, it is difficult to turn on the news without seeing someone talk of a company they’re boycotting for one reason or another.

I’m not immune to this. For me my personal boycotts usually come down to one of two reasons: employee treatment or surveillance. As a result I haven’t shopped at Walmart in almost a decade, we’ve almost completely cut Amazon out of our lives, I don’t have a personal Google account or any Facebook account… the list goes on.

Yes, these boycotts make me feel better and in that there is some solace. The problem is, as a solution to the problems that need to be addressed, they’re worthless without further action.

Tech really is too big to fail

What would happen if Google/Apple/Microsoft/etc decided today that your account was a risk to it and closed your account accordingly? Would you lose a few contacts? What about photos? What about years or more of accumulated documents and other data that you need to function in our modern society?

For many it isn’t a hypothetical. You don’t need to espouse hatred to run afoul off big tech (there’s actually some evidence that being a right-wing bigot can insulate you from many of the problems of big-tech but that’s for another post), you simply have to offend the right algorithm.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the years helping people, individuals to be specific, restore important data and connections lost when something as simple as a missed $0.99 bill caused a major tech company to cut them off.

As bad as the data loss can be, the connections lost when cut out of a major tech platform can be even worse. Today, when Slack or GitHub goes down the company I work for and the companies many of you reading this work for can grin to a halt. Our very livelihoods are dependent not on the work we do as individuals but on the few massive tools organized by companies we have no control over.

It takes a lot to build a tech platform that is so big and important to our personal and work lives that its failure, even for just a few minutes, can make world-wide headlines.

It takes even more for newcomers to challenge these giants. This is why our current tech is really too big to fail. Not only is the investment in alternatives more than can be handled with volunteers and donations but the systems that exist aren’t just tools for many of their users but actual immutable parts of their lives. Just like cutting off a hand or a leg, cutting out a tool one uses to make their living and engage with their world can have nearly as big an impact.

Alternatives are not an individual choice for most

For much of the last five years I invested in tech that, as much as possible, avoided big tech companies such as Google or Apple. For my own purposes I did pretty well at it too. I had my data in NextCloud, my computer was running Linux and my Android was DeGoogled to a point where I couldn’t run Google Maps on it if I had wanted to.

It was a great bubble but, it was still a bubble.

When my wife and I traveled to some place new we went from me ordering an Uber or looking up a route to my wife having to do so as the alternatives to Google Maps I was using just couldn’t handle it. Beyond that, sending my parents a document or trying to video chat with them for the holidays was an exercise in futility. I’m not young, my parents weren’t all that young when I was born. Trying to get them onto alternative tech platforms for a call, to edit a document or anything else wasn’t easy and was made even worse but the maintenance required.

What brought me back to Apple was the requirement that all this tech work not just for me, but for those around me. When a NextCloud update took down my server it wasn’t just my data that was inaccessible but also my family’s data. When pi-hole or my complicated UniFi network setup failed it wasn’t just me who might miss a meeting but my wife as well. The list went on.

I’m not a novice when it comes to tech. I’ve built and maintained solutions for orgs that were state-of-the-art at the time and, even today, are far more advanced than what most people can handle. For most people the option to build such solutions isn’t an option at all.

It hasn’t been easy for me to say no to Google or Amazon. I still have required work accounts for the former and still have my Kindle for the latter. As much as I would like to boycott them completely I have no ability to do so short of quitting a job I love and hoping to find a company that uses neither. As for the Kindle, if I replaced it with a Kobo tomorrow I would lose access to nearly 600 books I’ve bought for over a decade as would my wife with whom I share a family account.

Big tech is big because it has embedded itself in the lives of most people and businesses. For many, if not most of these people, it is so embedded that a life without these low-maintenance services simply isn’t a possibility. Yes, there are folks who have cut all of these out of their lives but to do so isn’t just hard but requires great privilege, something that, by definition, cannot apply to most.

Without the ability to leave the services these companies provide, not matter what we think of their company, these companies only get bigger, not smaller. As a society we’ve let them extend their tentacles to ever growing aspects of our personal and work lives to such an extent that untangling that mess just isn’t doable and an individual boycott to “fix” that is more than likely to hurt you before it ever hurts the company you’re targeting.

Alternatives can be evil too

Beyond the inability to make a meaningful impact with individual choice we also must consider another fact: nearly all alternatives are evil too.

I came back to the Apple ecosystem last year in order to ensure the tech I was using, and that my family has to interact with, works for all of us. I agreed to do it because, naively, I let my guard down and bought the lie that Apple’s ecosystem is inherently more private than Google’s. Before I even finished replacing some of my devices Apple shattered that notion by announcing they would scan our photos on our devices before they’re sent to iCloud using a questionable database from a quasi partnership with outside organizations. That, along with Apple’s existing surveillance in various apps such as Podcasts, News and more eliminate any pretext that Apple cares about your privacy and, if you’re looking at Apple as a “private” alternative, you’re doing it wrong.

It isn’t just Apple though. From Amazon to Walmart and from Microsoft to Disney all tech (and really all companies) will spend the money they make off of you on causes that go against your beliefs. As a result, reactionary moves to boycott a company based on a headline aren’t just worthless, as the individual action is worthless, but also because the chances are high that any alternative you choose will be just as bad and you just haven’t heard why yet.

Boycotts can fuel action

So why bother at all with a boycott? The power of a boycott will rarely change an immediate policy but can serve two other purposes:

First, a boycott, if well organized, can get the word out and eventually influence public opinion. In other words, a boycott can be a powerful PR tool for activists. This can help fuel organized action down the line.

Second, a boycott can help you remember your own morals and, collectively, can help ensure your own activism on the issues that matter to you. I cannot justify building out an alternative tech ecosystem because it is too hard for my family but I can justify experimenting with other tools and use ethical alternatives to fill the smaller gaps. The very action of their pursuit reminds me of what I’ve been working towards all along.

Action leads to regulation

Once we’re motivated to act together we can, as a society, build towards regulating away the causes of the problems created by big tech and other firms that are too big to fail.

Big tech, in particular, has thrived via regulation designed to let it grow without limit as a cancer on our society. It will be the action of activists and other that can reign this in by making the choice to take such regulation in another direction where it can serve two functions. First, regulation can reduce monopoly and break up big tech to smaller components so that newcomers and ethical alternatives can compete on an even field. Second, regulation can encourage standards and funding models that can make the concentration of tech into a handful of a large actors obsolete.

Regulation can lead to a funding of tech for the commons

Without the monopolies of today’s big tech platforms and with the encouragement of ethical alternatives we can finally start to build tech for the commons. This means services that empower people over algorithms and give a voice to the experts in their fields over the noise currently favored today.

Imagine a world where it didn’t matter what tech company you chose and where you know your money is going back to the technology that empowers you. That is tech we can use to help build a society we can all benefit from.

In the meantime, don’t stop standing up for what you believe in but make your actions, such as boycotts, count. Remember that your $5/10/1000 per month is not going to affect the Google’s and Apple’s of the world. Instead use your beliefs and boycotts to educate those around you so that we may all collectively move to actions and regulations that will build the tech we can be proud of.