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Socialist councilmember Sawant calls for a new tech revolution

Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant Credit: Eino Sierpe/Flickr

With the exception of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant is the most prominent socialist in American politics. In her years of campaigning, which paid off with a council seat in 2013, she has as built her brand as a fighter for the working class, exemplified by her successful crusade for a citywide $15 minimum wage.

Sawant – whose forthcoming memoir was originally titled The Most Dangerous Woman in America – makes frequent and strident attacks on her fellow council members and Mayor Ed Murray. On the council, no one is more aggressive in condemning income inequality in the city, where the rich are getting richer at a faster pace than anywhere in America. She was highlighting Amazon’s harsh treatment of employees and “bullying managers” long before the New York Times opened the company to national scrutiny this month.

The fact that Sawant is a former software engineer, supported by many in the tech industry, is not a big part of her image.

The tech boom has been pegged as the prime driver of the widening income gap, and the reason long-time residents are being priced out of the city. And the council member most vocal on this issue happens to be the one who can discuss different coding languages, Microsoft’s internal culture, and the needs of tech startups as they scale up.

As such, Sawant has become the candidate of choice not only for the working class, but for many in highly paid tech sector. Looking at donation records to her campaigns, support largely flows from teachers, nurses, union organizers, and the like. But she’s also received a good deal of funding from the area’s programmers and engineers, from such companies as Amazon, Google, Adobe, Zillow, and Microsoft, which was the second biggest employer of her donors in 2013, after University of Washington.

Sawant has never hidden her strong opinions about the tech industry. Her past campaign platforms, after all, include bringing Microsoft and Amazon “into public ownership under democratic workers’ control to be run for public good, not private profit.”

But now Sawant is actually taking the first steps toward a new tech revolution, based not on game-changing innovations like the iPhone, but on ejecting “profit-making billionaires” from the industry, and shrinking the “digital divide” between big tech companies and small ones, the rich and the poor. It begins by targeting some of the most hated companies in America: telecom giants Comcast and CenturyLink.

For nine hours this past April, the Internet blacked out across much of Seattle, due to a damaged Comcast fiber line. Businesses ground to a halt, employees were sent home. Two months later, on June 1, it happened again.

For most, these outages were a reason to collectively gripe about Comcast and its famously abysmal customer service. To Sawant, they were last straws. To use time-honored political parlance, it was time to “throw the bums out.”

“Small business owners, tech companies, restaurants, ordinary working people – all of them were severely impacted,” says Sawant. “Does Comcast care? No. To me, that’s a really powerful starting point for a campaign.”

Internet service in Seattle – and many other major cities – exists in a “duopoly”, in which only two major companies have near-exclusive dominion over the entire market. In Seattle, this is Comcast and CenturyLink, another company with a horrendous customer service rating. That arrangement, aided by the considerable political influence of telecoms, leads to a lack of competition over price and service, and little incentive to upgrade infrastructure. It’s a big reason American cities often trail most of the developed world in both Internet quality and cost.

“We deregulated high-speed Internet access ten years ago and since then have seen enormous consolidation and monopolies,” said Susan Crawford, former advisor to President Obama on innovation and tech issues, in an interview with the BBC. “Left to their own devices, companies that supply Internet access will charge high prices, because they face neither competition or oversight.”

To Sawant and her allies at the advocacy organization Upgrade Seattle, the solution is to create a city-owned broadband Internet utility, as Seattle once did for electricity. This municipal network would utilize and expand the city’s existing fiber network, bringing gigabit speeds to homes and businesses across the region. In the process, Sawant says, service would improve, low-income areas would receive infrastructure upgrades, and the city would push Comcast and CenturyLink from the equation, demonstrating to the rest of America that telecom giants could be beat at their own game.

But for this to happen, Sawant faces an uphill battle on many fronts. According to a recent city-commissioned study, the municipal network would require as much as $665 million to build, and over 40 percent of the city’s internet users would have to sign up for a $75 monthly bill for it to pencil out.

Additionally, telecoms would not take this threat lying down. When the companies haven’t been able to convince politicians to outlaw new competition – more than a dozen states have passed laws hindering or preventing the creation of municipal networks – they’ve slashed their prices, making it difficult for new services to attract new customers, and essentially smothering them in the cradle. City of Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller suggests these factors make a municipal broadband network too risky to build with traditional funding. The interest is clearly there – the city has studied the issue seven times over the past decade, and many council members and candidates express support – but the specifics remain foggy.

Alternate funding paths include either a partnership with the private sector – for which Sawant expresses zero enthusiasm – or removing the need for the service to attract customers, at least initially. This is the council member’s proposed path, accomplished by funding the project through a citywide property tax hike.

“We have to start with a model that doesn’t have that subscriber dependency,” says Sawant.

Seattle has a seemingly bottomless appetite for property tax hikes, which politicians use year after year to fund massive programs. Should this be the chosen road to municipal broadband, it provides less of a replicable model for other, more tax-adverse cities. But then again, some argued that Seattle’s minimum wage hike wasn’t doable in other locations. It has nonetheless inspired movements and new legislation nationwide.

In discussing her campaign, Sawant drops many of the same terms used in her minimum wage fight. There are the repeated references to the city’s “corporate politicians.” There are thinly veiled digs at the mayor for the contributions he’s received from Comcast, suggesting he is “beholden to them.”

There’s an optimism, a focus on possibilities instead of potential hurdles. She and other advocates repeatedly point to Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an example of a municipal network that works. Asked whether there are lessons Seattle should take from failed municipal networks – like the one in Tacoma, which ratepayers are subsidizing at about $9 million per year and the city is trying to sell – she says she needs to read more about it, and is “not ready to answer that question.”

And there are the repeated mentions of the campaign’s “social justice” aspects – in this case, expanding Internet access to low-income households, and therefore “bridging the digital divide.”

There are many potential benefits of a municipal broadband network, but there are less complicated, cheaper ways to bridge this divide. One option, proposed by recent Seattle CTO Bill Schrier, is to subsidize Internet subscriptions for low-income individuals and small businesses. This, he argues, would immediately eradicate the “digital divide” at a fraction of the price of a municipal network, and without a lengthy battle with telecoms.

Sawant dismisses the option out of hand, even as a stopgap measure.

“If you offered subsidies, what options would they have? You’d be subsidizing them to use Comcast,” she says. “What does that achieve anyway?”

With this statement, Sawant hits on the central drive behind her municipal broadband campaign. The core purpose isn’t necessarily to expand Internet access, or make it cheaper, though both are desired outcomes. It’s to diminish the influence of powerful, profit-oriented interests in tech.

There’s an old joke about Soviet Russia: if you wanted a car there, pick out a color. Because there’s only one model to choose from.

Listening to Sawant describe her vision of a new tech industry, one might be excused for remembering this old cliché. To hear her tell it, much of the competition and innovation within the industry is “an absurd waste of resources.”

“Does it benefit us to have an endless range of phones where, actually, we could have a few models of really well-functioning smartphones, and not have all these massive resources being devoted to having a little bit of an edge here, a little bit of an edge there?” Sawant asks. “Rather than having those resources dedicated to solving the basic problems of society?”

In Sawant’s vision, the overhaul of the tech industry is one of the most needed revolutions in America today. Technology, she says, is inherently neutral. There are smart people at Comcast and CenturyLink, same as at any major company; the problem is that their intelligence is misapplied, and the resources of their companies are misused.

“How do we bring the global economy to function in an efficient way, where resources are directed to the most pressing needs, rather than this nonsense of competition? The alternative would be these technological companies, or any other company really, being democratically owned by humanity, by people, precisely because we all have an interest in solving these basic problems.” Those problems, she says, include “malnutrition, starvation, (and) entire continents without basic tech conveniences that could save backbreaking labor for large swaths of humanity.”

Sawant’s allies in the municipal broadband fight, Upgrade Seattle, has said private partnerships could help make the public networks a reality. Sawant expresses deep skepticism toward any involvement from private interests, particularly large tech companies. The interests of top brass at Comcast and CenturyLink are intrinsically tied to the leaders of Amazon, Microsoft, and the rest of the tech titans, she says. To take one of them down a peg – through a public Internet option in a major American city, for example – is to loosen the grasp of all “profit-making billionaires” on the IT industry.

Instead, Sawant describes only a “cheerleader” role for major tech companies in the campaign, “though for a tech company that’s highly successful and profitable, municipal broadband will make a lot of sense.” This cheerleading, she believes, will only come following a large grassroots campaign, similar to the city’s minimum wage movement.

“The story of capitalism could just be told in contradictions,” says Sawant. “Chapter One: Contradictions. Chapter Two: Contradictions. And one of those contradictions is, on one hand, the entire ruling class and multi-billionaire class is completely united in their self-interests, and being bound together, in suppressing the interests of the working class. But amongst themselves, they’re in intense competition. A lot of what Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon do is decided by competitiveness.”

But contradictions exist for Sawant as well. She decries competition in tech, but that’s often what is missing in the Internet provider space. Further, the gigabit speeds of the proposed municipal network are way beyond what most people would need. The network would offer an option to escape the crappy service of Comcast and CenturyLink, sure. By introducing more competition to the market, it’d likely bring Internet costs down, and quality up. It would keep the money of many Seattle Internet users in Seattle.

But a gigabit speed network would arguably be of most benefit to the area’s tech economy, particularly those companies on the smaller and medium-sized end of the spectrum, which are themselves trying to become the next Microsofts and Apples.

Sawant acknowledges this, saying the network would “bridge the divide between small and big tech companies” and that gigabit speeds are beyond the needs of most individuals. She says the network could inspire more tech companies to set up shop in the city.

“Are we against having an economy that’s doing well? Of course not,” she says. “We need that to sustain jobs. The question is how we sustain that economy and keep the city livable for more people. Municipal broadband would be big step forward for emphasizing Seattle’s status as a tech hub.”

Most wouldn’t imagine Sawant as a fighter for Seattle’s tech hub status. Many in the city’s working class, looking at the rapidly rising price of living, increasingly see the sector as the enemy. But to her, this view is narrow-minded. Socialism isn’t tech adverse, she says. She is “for every tech development possible.” It’s just a matter of taking the industry’s resources out of the hands of the few, and putting them into the hands of the many.

The tech industry is a big part of the future, for the nation and the city of Seattle. The question, in Sawant’s mind, is whether it can be radically remade before it’s too late.

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