Q&A: Councilmember Sawant on public broadband and a socialist Microsoft

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There are politicians who seem to inspire strong reactions in people almost exclusively, with little ground between full-fledged supporters and opponents. In Seattle, that politician is council member Kshama Sawant, outspoken socialist and representative of Seattle's District 3.

Polls bear this out, with few in city government capable of eliciting higher numbers in both the “strongly favorable” and “strongly unfavorable” camps. Another gauge was reaction to my story last week, which covered her thoughts on the tech economy and municipal broadband. In both our comment section and my inbox, opinions ran hot and cold. The councilmember was both insulted and praised. I was bashed for running a puff piece by some, a subtle hit job by others.

That piece clocked in at over 2000 words, but only scraped the surface of my discussion with Sawant. For years, I’ve been genuinely interested in discussing tech issues with the councilperson. Given her background in the tech industry, her past proposals to take Amazon and Microsoft into "public ownership," and her involvement in a current campaign to create a municipal broadband network, I believed she would have unique opinions on the sector driving Seattle’s growth. Her views on tech were seemingly absent in all previous coverage of her.

Sawant sometimes seems frustrated by how she is portrayed in the media. Speaking with her, it’s easy to see why. Say what you will about her, but she does not respond to questions with bland, safe talking points. A question about her priorities can start with a 300-word preamble, which Sawant believes is necessary context before offering her opinions on the question at hand. Watching these answers get condensed into 15-word quotes must be frustrating, compounded by the fact that Sawant clearly knows how to write (or employs good ghostwriters).

Since my piece was published, readers have inquired for more details on the subjects it covered. Particularly, they wanted to hear more about Sawant’s plan to create a municipal broadband network through City Light, and her thoughts on the place of tech companies in the local economy.

For those interested, therefore, I offer some segments of our conversation below. I was warned before our meeting that Sawant was under the weather, and would therefore only be able to offer me 15 minutes or so. The conversation nonetheless went for 50, spanning a wide range of subjects. To include the entire interview would create an article double this size, so this abridged Q&A focuses on her ideas for a municipal broadband network, and what a socialist tech economy looks like. Given we would circle around and back on subjects during our talk, I’ve organized things a bit for readability.


Q: There are a lot of issues competing for attention in the city right now. You have a reputation for focusing on those issues related to income inequality and the less fortunate. How did you decide to rally behind municipal broadband?

I would say that in general, if people share my vision, and I know a majority of people do in recognizing that we have a lot of work to do to address the existing inequalities – the racial, social, and economic injustice, which is the motivator for me to even be here at City Hall. To address those concerns. Certainly from that standpoint, we can be in agreement that there’s a lot to be done, and it’d be difficult to choose which battle to pick, because there’s so many battles to fight.

I use the word “battle” very consciously, because I know and many people who fought with us on $15 an hour (minimum wage) measure know that when you’re addressing the questions of social justice, it’s not something automatic, in the sense that it’s not just presenting really good rational ideas to big business and the political establishment. And them saying, “Oh yeah, let’s do it.” That’s not how it works. You have to really fight against the powers that be to make that happen.

From that standpoint, those of us who are challenging the status quo, one of the main parameters in deciding which of those battles we should undertake at that moment, is what are the current concerns, the burning issues, on the top of people’s minds, to such an extent that an issue will be taken up in a mass, broad base, and we’ll generate momentum around it. $15 an hour was one of those things.

Q: Sure, but with the $15 an hour minimum wage campaign, there was a clear connection to helping those who are less fortunate. Why are you advocating for the city to spend between $480 million and $665 million on municipal broadband, and how does that square with your priorities of fighting income inequality?

It’s a good question. What I was saying first is necessary background on where I come from to decide which issues to fight on.

I think what’s been apparent on the question of internet access and municipal broadband is that there’s a real base of Seattleites who (are) extremely frustrated and fed up with the options they have from the private corporations of Comcast and Century Link. What really brought this to the fore was the major outage on April 9. Small business owners, tech companies, restaurant owners – all of them were severely impacted. Does Comcast care? No.

To me, that’s a really powerful starting point for a campaign. Entities that would otherwise be on opposite sides, like business vs. labor, this is something that unifies so many people. Because decent quality Internet access, you end up paying at least $100 to $130 a month, and that doesn’t even give you reliability.

How technology is deployed is directly related to the political model underlying it. It’s an endlessly fascinating thing to me, as a socialist. It’s not that Comcast doesn’t employ talented and creative engineers. I have no doubt, and I used to be an engineer myself. I know there’s dedicated, creative individuals. But does Comcast, as a corporation driven by profit-making billionaires, have the incentive to put in place the redundancies that would be necessary to prevent such major outages? No. That’s the sort of thing you get from Seattle City Light, which is a public utility.

How technology is deployed depends on the politics that’s driving it. For a lot of people who may otherwise be on different ends on issues, for municipal broadband it’s clear to them that it’s time we got this public utility.


Q: If you look at South Korea or other countries with strong network infrastructure, it’s largely of benefit to businesses, startups, and the tech industry, who need the sort of gigabit speeds it offers. Do you see a municipal broadband network as being a big benefit to the local tech economy?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, I want to address another point about South Korea, which is related to a lot of what we’re saying. Something a lot of people point out is that Seattle is supposed to be a high tech hub. How is it that we’re struggling with such outdated, backward tech on something we all consider basic? That’s Internet access. That point should be emphasized. Internet access isn’t considered icing on the cake anymore. We need to think about the needs of people today.

One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as Internet. At the time, electricity was the up and coming technology. And the idea of making that publicly available was just starting to come out in the public. But now, anyone who is even applying for jobs know that you need access to the Internet. If we are really trying to build a city of the present, of the future, we really need to get out of this last century thinking.

Getting electricity through a public utility was a dramatic thing at that time. Now we need to start thinking about this in terms of a technology utility, that delivers electricity, Internet access, upload and download capabilities. Quick upload. A lot of that is a backbone for many small businesses, and large businesses. For the tech sector there’s no question. But in general, if you think about Seattle, who are the people who make Seattle what it is? It’s independent filmmakers, musicians, this is what makes Seattle a vibrant place. And if you talk to musicians, and television companies, and in fact reporters who work for King 5 and so on, will tell you this is a daily issue.

 Q: The tech sector is seen by many as the reason people are being priced out of Seattle. Some might see municipal broadband, and especially gigabit speeds, as something that will entice more tech companies to come here. How should people look at actively growing this industry, and the perception that the industry’s growth is creating a city only affordable to the well-paid?

Exactly. I totally agree with you. One of the main concerns that’s been on our mind is that Seattle, even though it’s a beautiful and booming city, is quickly becoming a city where only people with very high salaries can live. We don’t want that to happen, obviously. But at the same time, are we against having an economy that’s doing well? Of course not. 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. We have to attack this on a number of fronts. One front, which isn’t necessarily directly related, is affordable housing. That needs to happen regardless of if we end up winning municipal broadband or not.

As far as that is concerned, not having a reliable and technological backbone affects all tech companies. In terms of how much wherewithal you have to sustain periods of outages, days where you have to send your workers home because they’re not able to work. If you look at that, the effects are disparate. The effect on small and medium companies is much more than Amazon.com or Expedia, because they have more of a buffer to absorb those periods.

From that standpoint, I have no doubt municipal broadband will help bridge that divide between small and big companies. Because they are able to survive and sustain better, that also helps the jobs economy. The base of independent artists, restaurant owners also. They may not be tech companies.


Q: One thing I found interesting in your early campaigns was the proposal that Microsoft and Amazon be taken “into public ownership under democratic workers’ control to be run for public good, not private profit.” That’s not something I’d heard before. What does that look like, and how does it fit into the city?

A good starting point to think about that is to say, when people ask me what it means to be a socialist, what does that world look like – my vision, as a socialist, is to have a world, a global economy, that provides a high standard of living for all human beings in an environmentally sustainable way.

Now, if you ask the average person, “Is that a laudable goal?” Yes. The question we run into is how is that possible? My conclusion is that it’s not on the basis of capitalism. Capitalism tends towards those who already have a market share and political power, making people who are powerful more powerful. That’s why you see people who are rich getting more rich. More consolidation of wealth.

The question I’d ask, as an economist, is can you achieve a high standard of living for everyone while sustaining an increasing number of billiaires? No. Contrary to what the Chicago School of Economics will tell you, capitalism is a zero sum game. You see more of a sliver becoming wealthier, that means there are more people becoming poorer. They aren’t unfortunate juxtapositions, they’re related to each other.

My point in saying that is, I’m certainly not advocating for a low-tech or a backward economy. When I say high standard, that implies a future economy. It’s a life that gives all opportunities that are possible, given developments. We’re for every tech development possible.

The problem is that the tech does not drive itself. It’s a neutral thing. But what technologies develop, what tech is deployed, who has access to it? Simple example: I often ask my students, what is one of the most impactful technology coming today? They will say a new phone app. I say actually washing machines. The reason I say that, given the advancement of the human race, washing machines are actually a backward technology. It’s so easy to produce washing machines, they take basically nothing to produce. And yet, we have entire continents where 100s of million of women don’t have access to it. That’s a reflection of how tech is accessible or not, given the political situation.

I’m all for tech conveniences, it’s a question of who gets to benefit. I'm fine with online marketplaces. Can we have that only when we have people at Amazon with low wage jobs like security, for whom the paid sick leave law is routinely flouted? Where Amazon.com’s executives bully them? No, they don’t have to go together. We can have workers that are living and have workforce protections.

Q: But what does a Microsoft or Amazon run for the public good look like? How could that happen? Given the competitiveness of the tech industry, a focus on the public good could definitely present disadvantages in the market. 

The story of capitalism could be just told in contradictions. 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.Some of it may be beneficial in terms of what research happens, but for the most part it is not socially beneficial.

Q: They answer to their shareholders.

Exactly. 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? Rather than having those resources dedicated to solving the basic problems of society? We’re in the 21st century, but we have expanding problems of malnutrition, starvation, entire continents without basic tech conveniences that could save backbreaking labor for large swaths of humanity.

In my view, as a socialist, it’s not a question of morality. It’s a question of absurdity. This is an absurd waste of resources. A glaring example of this: through the 90s, one thing Microsoft was infamous for was dirty competitiveness, trust battles, bundling of applications. Imagine the 100s of millions they spent using those shady tactics, fighting those battles. That’s not necessary to providing good technology. When you’re in that position, your goal is to drive for the largest possible share for your company. The largest possible dividends for your shareholders. So you engage in this cutthroat competition. That is not only shady from legal standpoint, but is not socially beneficial. That’s what happens.

Q: So you’d want them to no longer be public companies, to take themselves off the stock markets?

Let me arrive at it from this analysis. If the story I’ve told is appealing to people, if they say, “Yes, I agree, this is a waste of resources.” 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. The same as technology resources like broadband. We all have an interest in a humane society, and we’ll make rational decisions. It’s not about good or evil, it’s about how can we create an economic model where our self-interest is bound up with our public interest. The interest of the billionaire CEO or shareholders is not bound up with public interest. That’s why we see what we do.


Q: You've mentioned transforming Seattle City Light into a "technology utility", to accommodate the creation of municipal broadband. Will you be pushing on this issue during the selection process for the (next) leader of City Light?

I do plan to use this as one of the parameters to see the direction City Light goes. It has to include municipal broadband. The study says because we have a public electricity utility already, this would be a financially efficient way of doing it. City Light is already putting in fiber, already in this business to some extent…. Starting with a pilot project as proof of concept, that’s what we did last year with pre-school. We started with a pilot program.

Q: Are there any legal hurdles for City Light using ratepayer money for a purpose like this?

I don’t know. It’s occurred to me, but I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ll be looking into that. Conceptually speaking, we haven’t done any research on this. But if we had a technology utility, then it wouldn’t be illegal to use ratepayer money to do this.

Q: Something separate from City Light?

Or something City Light morphs into. The next generation utility. But we might be going too far ahead of ourselves.

Q: What are the lessons we should take from Tacoma on this? The municipal network they build out isn't doing so well. 

Yeah, um… I think that… (pause) I’ll have to think about that. I’ve been focusing so much on what has become successful. I’m not ready to answer that question.

Q: Let's end on this subject where we began. You're known as a fighter for economic equality, social justice. Some people I've spoken with, including the former (chief technology officer) under Mike McGinn, are surprised you're turning this into a cause. You've mentioned shrinking the divide between those with access to the Internet and those without it. Why not subsidize low income people and small businesses to expand  their access? It'd be much cheaper and would leave money for human services. Why is this a major social justice issue? 

Would you consider subsidizing electricity to companies or a large group of people in this day and age? Yes, we have a utility discount program, but it’s not something a large majority of people use. I would say it’s a question of looking at what are the technologies today that have become necessities, as opposed to 50 years ago. From that lens, I think there’s a good argument to be made that internet access should be something that’s not a question of subsidizing, it’s a question of delivering to everybody. If you offered subsidies, what options would they have? You’d be subsidizing them to use Comcast. What does that achieve anyway? You're just giving your money to a profit-making company.


Q: If the city were to build a municipal broadband network, Comcast and CenturyLink may try to drive them out of businesses with slashed prices. Does that take the options of financing it with revenue bonds and general obligation bonds off the table? Make them too risky?

They are risky. We have to discuss various pricing and financing models. People who have looked into municipal broadband nationally will tell you that any model that depends on having a critical mass of subscribers, to prevent that kind of undercutting, you’re in the danger zone, because Comcast is in a position where they’re so big, they can overnight change their pricing mechanism. We have to start with a model that doesn’t have that subscriber dependency. You know what I'm saying? We have to look at other financing mechanisms. One option suggested by the study was having a property tax mechanism where subscriber fees are low enough that more people would sign up, and Comcast wouldn’t be able to sustain it. 

Q: Does it make it hard to build a mass movement when the average consumer doesn’t really need gigabit speed Internet? That’s more of use to businesses.

It is fast. That’s true. But I think the city is also in a good position to…you know how corporations spend 100s of millions advertising their product. The city is a big entity. It’s entirely possible to make the citizens of the city know this is a service that’s available, and do a massive outreach and get subscribers. There’s a public education aspect of it. If you’re furious at Comcast, stop fuming in private. Let’s do this.

Q: Lots of people hate Comcast. But do you worry that they don’t hate them enough to agree to more property taxes for this? We’ve got Move Seattle (the over $900 million transportation levy), we’ve got a housing levy coming up that will be huge. We have education levies. We have human service levies. Do you worry a municipal broadband levy could could create a burnout on property tax hikes, and hurt some other priorities?

If we don’t have mandate of people we can’t do it. The mayor’s office, their response to the study was "case closed." In my view, that’s not a serious approach to political leadership. If I know this is in the public good, I have to strive for it. Closing the chapter on it when most people don’t even know about it, that’s not correct.

I think if people see the numbers, it’ll make its own case. I understand not everyone needs high speed. But if we have a critical mass that do, and they see they can get this with a property tax, but in the net will be paying less, and on top of that is I get robustness and reliability, I’ll take that.

Q: Closing the case had to do with the amount of people this system would need to sign up according to the study (over 40 percent of the city's Internet users), plus the amount (of money) that is needed for it. It's a question of budget priorities. There's transportation, there's housing, there's education, there's a human services levy that's only about $100 million for the whole county. What's your argument that municipal broadband is right up there with those issues?  

That’s a very important question. First of all, at this moment we’re talking about budgeting $5-6 million for a pilot project.

Q: You see that as the next step. 

I see that as the next step. Not only from a financial standpoint, but from a standpoint of technological experts on municipal broadband saying this is a good way to go… From a standpoint of public education, it also seems like the right way to go. Let’s see how it works out. So from that angle, I don’t see that it’s a major investment. But I will say that there’s fundamentally much more important political point to be made here, is that these same people who say that maybe we shouldn’t do this, they’re the same people who have been a roadblock for every aspect of addressing income inequality. It’s only when we fight for it that we get it.

It’s politics that decides whether you’re willing to fight on the side of the public. I don’t see municipal broadband as anything unique. I say we have to fight on all of these fronts. And another thing about Comcast. Expect politicians whose campaign coffers have Comcast and Century Link PAC contributions to be resistant to this. Because they’re beholden to them.

The argument I’d make is that Seattle is an extremely wealthy city. It’s awash in wealth. What is that wealth being used for other than enriching very few people? Look at all these hundreds of thousands of people who go to work everyday, and what do they get out of it? I will throw down the gauntlet. If you’re saying that municipal broadband isn’t important enough, are you going to fight shoulder to shoulder with me on all the things you apparently think are more important? Are you going to fight with me for a city millionaire’s tax? Are you going to fight for rent control? To build thousands of units of city-owned affordable housing? To massively strengthen tenants rights, or generate a progressive tax to fully fund social and mental health services? If the answer to all of this is yes, I’d be happy to work on those first.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.