Partner story
By Nkirote Koome

The Markup: Data-driven journalism holding big tech to account

Over the past decade, large technology companies have flourished with little formal or structured oversight from industry and government, causing severe breaches of user privacy and, in extreme cases, interference in democratic processes. Existing laws are not enough to hold these institutions to account and protect users from online harm. Creating new regulation is challenging - rapidly evolving innovations in the sector make it hard for regulators to keep up. 

To fill this gap, civic actors (citizens’ movements, non-profit organisations, and independent media) play a key role in advocating for improved accountability at tech platforms, promoting less biased, more inclusive design, greater transparency, and optimisation for users, communities, and democracies (beyond just shareholders). One such organisation is The Markup, a non-profit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions use technology to change society.

The Markup is led by Julia Angwin and Nabiha Syed. The team pursues deeply data-driven investigations that serve the public, demonstrating how technology impacts our daily lives and particularly our privacy. Their method of investigation is unique: in the words of the team, “Our approach is scientific. We build datasets from scratch, bulletproof our reporting, and show our work. We call this The Markup Method.”

Our approach is scientific. We build datasets from scratch, bulletproof our reporting, and show our work. We call this The Markup Method.

The Markup recently launched its first custom-built tool, Blacklight - a ‘real-time website privacy inspector’ that identifies user tracking software used by different websites. It also developed the Citizen Browser Project, designed to measure how disinformation travels across social media platforms over time. At the heart of this project is a custom web browser to audit the algorithms that social media platforms use to determine what information they serve their users, what news and narratives are amplified or suppressed, and which online communities those users are encouraged to join. 

The Markup’s work has already resulted in enhanced scrutiny on corporate practices. In July 2020, the Markup released a data-driven investigation demonstrating the unfair practices Google uses to dominate search results. This led to the Chair of the US antitrust sub-committee, Rep. David N. Cicilline, directing sharp criticism at Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, about these practices during a hearing examining the dominance and market power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Luminate is providing flexible, unrestricted funding to The Markup, to grow operations and internal systems primed for scale given the rapid evolution of technology. The Markup also intends to use Luminate’s funding to better understand audience preferences via custom-built, privacy-respecting tools that minimise user surveillance and unauthorised data collection. This will help them develop content that is more meaningful and relevant to their readers. 

At Luminate, we believe in supporting organisations that advocate for policy reform and action that will help people participate in and shape the issues affecting their lives, and make those in power more transparent, responsive, and accountable. Support to The Markup advances Luminate's strategy that supports investigative journalism as a tool to improve accountability of those in power. We believe that by supporting The Markup, we can showcase the ability of data-driven journalism to build a community of citizens interested in safeguarding our collective rights to data privacy, open up new spaces for privacy-centric innovation, and advocate for greater corporate responsibility by tech companies.