Fair and Open IT

This is the sixteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


IT: Systematic Exploitation

The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.

Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.

This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.

The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.

At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.

Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.


Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.

We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.

Fairness and Open Supply Chains

In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”


There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.

Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”

It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.

Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.

The Power Relations of Openness

The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.

At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.

Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.


In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”

Openness is a Business Model

This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.

Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.


Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.

All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”

Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.


Fairness and Openness Together?

“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”

For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”

Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).


Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.

Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.

Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.

Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.

Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.

Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.

There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Fair & Open IT >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Jakob Isselstein