Ethical Platforms - A guide for organisations using technology for social good

Humans are a social species and almost everything we do, both in our working lives and personal lives, involves the linking up of two or more parties for a mutually beneficial exchange.

Nowadays online platforms often do the job of creating these matches, whereby they’ve quickly transformed and disrupted many industries.

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear that these platform behemoths are causing real damage to the social fabric through value extraction, exploitation of workers, rampant collection and monetisation of user data and negative effects on whole markets and the environment.

As social organisations we have a special responsibility, but also a huge need for the services these platforms offer, e.g. social media for communication or crowdfunding for financing.

That leaves us with the question under what circumstances we should still use online platforms after all.

Who runs the platform?

Many of the platforms that dominate today’s digital landscape are built by private companies, which sub- ordinate social issues to their unconditional quest for profit.

But there are alternatives – created by social entrepreneurs, hackers and activists (and also national governments) who have the use of digital technology for social causes at their core.

One example is the search engine Ecosia which uses the ad revenue from the searches to plant trees where they are needed the most.

What about business practices?

Platforms could distinguish themselves through a commitment to ethical business practices, for instance:

  • fighting exploitation by ensuring fair payment to workers and providers of services through the platform
  • a rejection of surveillance by refraining from collecting and monetising user data
  • or pledging a significant portion of generated revenue to pro- social causes.

Over the years, alternatives have been created on the model of already successful platforms, differing only by their ethical principles.

FairBnB, for example, offers a similar service to AirBnB but with a commitment to the principles of platform cooperativism with the vision of a more community- centred kind of tourism.

Is it for a tangibly “good cause”?

Some platform functions – for instance donations to charitable causes (e.g., matching volunteers to projects (e.g. All for Good), or the sale of fairtrade or sustainable versions of consumer products (e.g. Toms) – have an especially clear pro- social purpose.

And even if these are operated by for profit companies, they are characterised by a strong propensity for ethical business practices.

Could you build your own platform instead?

There are scenarios where the market doesn’t offer an ethical platform for your organisation to use.

Disillusionment with the capitalist giants could create a demand for more ethical alternatives. As indicated above, social organisations may attempt to compete with corporate platforms and use their ethical credentials as a competitive advantage, to lure away ethically conscious consumers.

But beware, ethical platforms will not have access to resources that are remotely comparable. In other cases they may be able to thrive free from competition from
profit-driven alternatives if there is no clear business case to the platform. If, to put it another way, it’s not possible to extract monetary value from the platform’s interactions (or at least not enough to finance the platform’s operations).

There might be a need of such a platform nevertheless, so that funding and cross-
financing could be worth considering. In any case the simultaneous development of the same idea for a platform by different organisations should be avoided.

Instead, this could be an opportunity for cooperation. Public Spaces (internet for the common good) for example claims to build and support a software ecosystem that takes care of the users instead of the stakeholders.

The emergence and increasing monopolisation of online platforms comes at a significant social cost. This has less to do with the nature of platforms per se, but rather the way that platforms are run and by whom.

As a user and organisation, we have the choice to whom we give our money, our attention and our data – as long as we are willing to make compromises in our pursuit of efficiency.

Resources for further information:

Our trend analysis “Ethical Platforms” is about efforts to use the power of the platform model, but in ways that are maximally socially beneficial and ethical, working to cure some of the pathologies we are currently witnessing in “platform capitalism”.

The biggest repository of resources on Ethical Platforms comes from the global “Platform Cooperativism” community, whose intellectual leading light is Professor Trebor Scholz. The organisation’s website contains not only articles and information about events, but also a directory of currently active platforms globally.

Learn more about how digital technologies can enable us to tackle social challenges in areas ranging from healthcare and education to democracy and the environment at DSI4EU.

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