Transforming ‘Digital Labor’ Theory into a Political Project: A Critical Digital Communication Policy Framework

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This paper argues for the necessity of a critical approach to communication policy research in order to generate insights into the role of policy in what C. Edwin Baker termed the distribution of communicative power. I insist on the need to link the study of communication policy to the critical study of the political economy of communication, which is precisely concerned with the distribution of communicative power. As an example of how a critical approach to policy research that is informed by a critical political economy of communication can, in fact, contribute to a practical, political project, this paper considers how such a critical approach could transform the growing research into the political economy of “digital labor” into a political project. Digital labor research has provided critical insight into the relationship between digital media companies and digital media users and has specifically helped clarify the unequal distribution of communicative power between those companies and users. However, that research has not closely examined the role of policy in structuring the relationship between digital media companies and digital media users. Critical communication policy research can transform digital labor theory into a political project aimed at creating a more equitable distribution of digital communicative power. The focus is on the policies that affect the distribution of power to consume digital content — conceptualized as digital audience labor. The policy context considered is the U.S.

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