The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to radically reorganize our lives — from practicing “social distancing” to working remotely to shifting whole systems of K-12 education and universities from the classroom to the internet.
Online platforms like Zoom and Skype have become basic necessities in this time.
As the rest of the stock market has tanked, losing a third of its value in the last month, the fortunes of Zoom and its founder, Eric Yuan, have soared. Zoom stock is up 42 percent and Yuan has witnessed a personal increase of $2 billion in net worth since January. In contrast, the world’s richest ten individual have had an average loss of $5.32 billion (a combined $53.2 billion).
Zoom founder Yuan is now, according to Bloomberg, ranked as one of the top 500 richest people in the world — Bloomberg placed him at 207 as of March 20 on its Billionaire Index. We can reasonably expect for his position to continue to rise as the landscape of work, and potentially education, changes within the next few years through the increased use of video for remote meetings and collaboration.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of both the internet and video conferencing to both our daily lives and the economy. It has allowed those with the ability to work from home to continue to remain productive and enabled us to communicate with our friends and families irrespective of their location.
The question then arises: should vital digital technologies like the internet and Zoom remain privately for-profit delivered services, or should they be brought under popular democratic control?
Repurposing technology to guarantee universal access and affordability is not an unreasonable demand, especially when one takes into account the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that is spent on research and development and on our country’s digital infrastructure. Yet it is the private sector that reaps the financial rewards.
As the current economic crisis has demonstrated — and the past one did as well — corporations privilege maximizing short-term profits for their shareholders at the expense of innovation, wider coverage, and delivering better service to their customers. This explains why the United States lags behind many Scandinavian and Asian countries in internet speed and why tens of millions of American households, the majority in rural areas, are without reliable internet access. This hampers their ability to engage with crucial online platforms like Zoom at a time where learning, information flows, and economic activity have largely moved into the digital sphere due to the global health crisis.
And while Zoom took a step in the right direction by temporarily making use of its platform free to K-12 students, it does not address the underlying question of whether such an important public service should remain a privately-owned company where access can arbitrarily be obstructed.
Popular political control is essential for converting these two digital technologies into a public good, bringing it into the realm of the commons. It will give us the power to make decisions democratically, decide how public funds are spent and how resources are used, to expand access, share data, and unleash the full liberatory potential of our digital infrastructure. It ensures that everyone remains connected regardless of their geography and accomplishes a classic leftist goal: an increased and shared abundance.