Trickle-Down Ethics: Why innovation won’t save us.

Ruth Coustick-Deal
6 min readSep 25, 2017


Created by the talented Marianela at @undazedandsuch CC-BY

Capitalism has entrenched itself in Western digital rights activism, in the adoption (conscious or not) of “start-up” ideology within our organizations. Tech businesses and the digital rights movement are so tightly tied together, sometimes it is hard to see where one ends at the other begins.

Working alongside these businesses in the fight to save the Internet, we have ended up too comfortable framing our battles in terms of saving ‘innovation’, not people. We justify it to ourselves in the guise that once these battles are won, the benefits will ‘trickle down’ and turn themselves into human rights. Why?

What does it mean when we are forced to shift from ‘this policy will harm our rights’ to ‘this policy will harm innovation’?

Here’s some quick examples of this framing.

Let me begin by saying, none of these arguments are wrong. In the above occasions the organisations are talking about making sure that big companies are not given positions that mean they have life-long hold of power. We/They intend innovation to mean real disruption; breaking apart stagnation; creativity; a new and better world, one less dominated by a few monopolies, one more focused on people-power.

However, we cannot naively pretend that its use is not also a “dog-whistle for capitalism”, as a friend put it. Of course, innovation in the dictionary means coming up with new things, “a new method, idea, product, etc”. Innovation is what got us toilets, lasagna, and the Internet itself. But capitalism has stolen the concept. These days we know it as an industry buzzword. It means “new business”, not new ideas. It is part of an ideology that favours the pursuit of money above all things — and that is what I am talking about here.

We mostly use the arguments and lines of persuasion about defending “innovation” when fighting disastrous laws because they work with politicians.

Governments like start-ups because they generate money, not because they disrupt monopolies.

In using the innovation-dog-whistle liberally as a reason not to pass laws and regulations, we risk encouraging a framework that can very easily be turned against human rights.

After all, usually the digital rights movement is at odds with the giants of digital business; the telecos, At&T, Facebook, Google, the Copyright Alliance etc. However, start-ups are framed as the good guys in this equation. We imply that when the private sector comes up with something, so long as the business isn’t ‘Big Telecom’ we’ll be in favour.

But why do we express this deep trust for the private sector, when at the same time we end up fighting them as soon as they are comfortably rich?

Netflix is the perfect example of this. We stood shoulder to shoulder with Netflix on defending net neutrality because it would protect “innovative services” like theirs. But the moment they got big enough that they wouldn’t need it, that they could afford to pay for faster services, they stopped caring about the principles. (Sure yes, eventually they decided they would recall where they came from but they were not afraid to recognise that they have gone from ‘disruptor’ to ‘insider’) Or look at the news from the World Wide Web Consortium that they are adopting DRM.

EFF responded to say that “somewhere along the way, the business values of those outside the web got important enough, and the values of technologists who built it got disposable enough, that even the wise elders who make our standards voted for something they know to be a fool’s errand.”

These companies all benefited from “disruption” of the web, from “innovation friendly” policies — but when it comes down to it, they care about what is good for them, not good for people. They favour digital rights, and web freedom when it worked for them, but very few are in it for the long game.

When civil society use innovation as if it is on a par with basic principles of human rights we are falling into the trap of believing that it is Good. We’re making points which tie us into a capitalist framework, where making money is seen as equivalent to a moral imperative.

It reminds me of the “but we will lose jobs” argument that’s thrown around when it comes to tackling the coal industry or banning fox hunting or the arms trade. Just because something employs people is no guarantee that it is worth perpetuating. Similarly “it will help innovation” cannot be enough of a reason to support something.

We can lie most of the problems of digital rights at the feet of unregulated capitalism:

It’s unchecked capitalism that means we are all but powerless to stop bad behaviour of monopolistic entities like Microsoft, Visa, PayPal, Facebook, Google and Amazon: they sit on a seat of power knowing that almost no scandal, no public pressure can touch them because they have complete control over their market.

Innovation doesn’t change that. Those companies just buy up the next thing every time it comes along. Instagram got bought by Facebook, it didn’t disrupt it. Innovation at Facebook means acquiring a company to develop ways to monitor how your eyeballs move on the screen so they can keep you in their bubbled Internet forever.

What would actually end monopolies is stricter regulation. It takes regulation from the Government to give us things like seatbelts. No one just came up with seatbelts for the sake of customer demand. This is the same for the internet. Businesses don’t do what’s right for balance and equality when left to themselves.

In “Blight at the Museum” an article about how the Smithsonian museum has been taken over by corporate interests — presenting the history of America through the eyes of its business successes — Colette Shade notes the use of “innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship” repeatedly throughout as “the watchwords of capitalism.” The history of labour struggles, of corporate murders, and of forced occupation is buried. We run a similar risk of undercutting workers’ movements and community action when we privilege the success of start-ups in our story-telling.

Taking our talking points from the capitalism playbook is a dangerous line that can get us caught in tangles of hypocrisy.

Belief in “Innovation”, in the concept that has been co-opted by capitalism, is not a philosophy we can rely on to always be on the side of right. It is not a principle, like free expression or the right to privacy.

By choosing capitalist arguments over human rights ones we’re enabling a system that will not return the favour. When it comes to backing human rights over capitalism, we will be lucky to find friends amongst businesses.

Ultimately, we are making a mistake in becoming complicit in the messaging of our downfall, becoming indistinguishable from the lobbying arms of the start-up industry. So let’s make arguments that are based in the principles of human rights, and be experts at standing up for people, and not jumping to business-language first when we’re trying to save the Internet.

Thank you to Andy and Marianela for late night discussions on all of this, and for their thoughtful and inspiring editing.

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Ruth Coustick-Deal

Interested in all things tech + inclusion | Co-host of The Intersection of Things podcast |