For some people, when they hear about some bad corporate practice, their first reaction is to consider cutting ties to the company. So it is not surprising that each time I discuss the democratic dangers of Facebook, Amazon, or Google, people always bring up personal consumer choice. Instead of policy (antitrust, data rules, outlawing arbitration), the conversation veers quickly into pride or guilt. One woman worries she can’t leave Facebook without leaving her social life. One man sheepishly says he quit Facebook for a few weeks and crept back when he missed his friends. At the heart of this conversation is a thesis: Using a service is an endorsement of its business model. Or more pointedly: If someone is not strong enough to boycott, she lacks standing to object to the behavior of lawmakers and petition them for change.
This belief is wrong, bad strategy, and dangerous for democracy. It is based on a confused idea of our obligations as consumers. This belief does not lead to more boycotts, but radically dampens activism: Guilt gets in the way of protest, and complicated chains of self-justification take the place of simple chains of democratic demand. This consumer model is most problematic when it comes to the biggest monopolies. Most people can’t boycott them, precisely because they are governmental and provide infrastructure services. We don’t ask people to boycott libraries in order to change library rules; we don’t ask people to boycott highways to ask for them to be safer; we don’t demand that you buy only bottled water while protesting water-utility governance.