Parminder Jeet Singh
From the outset, 2021 was marked by the shadow of the preceding year’s crises, with most of the world still reeling from the social, economic and political aftershocks of a pandemic that is far from over. In what seems like a parallel universe, the overlords of Big Tech went toe-to-toe in a privatized space race to see who had “the biggest rocket” as human rights lawyer Renata Avila describes it.
Within this disparate context pivotal milestones in the fight against Big Tech were achieved in the year – from decisive regulatory actions, inspiring local and global civic activism, and critical policy evolution.
In a bid to map the canvas of digital justice in 2021, we reached out to 21 experts from across the world for their perspectives on the major developments against Big Tech this year, as well as what they see as opportunities for progressive action and causes for concern in the year to come. In this series of short interviews, they offer us diverse trajectories of resistance, opportunity and defiance in the steady march against Big Tech capture.
Also check out their reading and media picks, curated in Bot Populi’s 2021 recommendations list.
A pivotal moment in the fight against Big Tech in 2021
The pathbreaking cases against Uber in the UK and Netherlands are well worth watching and of course I’ve said lots about those in my blogs and podcast. What’s happening there: UK-based Uber drivers are arguing they have the right to access their data AND the codes behind automated decision-making. They have filed this suit in the Netherlands as Uber has claimed that its Dutch-based headquarters is the geographic locus for its data. The drivers are using EU’s GDPR to assert this right.
I am actually more interested in this case than the earlier UK case on employment status, given its implications for how we regulate worker rights in the digital economy. Employment law issues are hard to apply around the world and especially in contexts where gig, or informal work is the norm. We need more robust frameworks than what’s present in Europe’s GDPR (which essentially casts this in a privacy rights framework), when what we really need is a data sovereignty framework.
But I think other countries can leapfrog and pioneer strong protections for workers’ collective right to their data. Spain’s new Riders Law is a good example of what’s possible anywhere. It establishes that algorithmic decision-making constitutes formal management. Anyone thus managed is an employee, and any organization representing them has the right to know how terms and conditions of work are being determined.
A moment for intervention in the year to come
Given that we have been living in a complete regulatory vacuum when it comes to data governance, there are SO many issues to choose from! But beyond the ‘policy wonk’ questions and issues, it’s time to look at the challenge and opportunity for worker organizing. In particular, right now the tech workers movement is an incredible opportunity.
Over the past few years we’ve seen fantastic, heroic organizing efforts among US-based tech workers, using their voice to go beyond the ‘bread and butter’ issues of their own working conditions. In January 2021, Twitter and Facebook employees were instrumental in convincing CEOs to de-platform politicians that were planning and abetting violent insurrection. Prior to that, employees had already been active in sending sign-on letters to execs at those firms pointing out the need to control inflammatory political speech. At Google and Amazon, employees organized and circulated sign-on letters to push companies to take a meaningful stand on climate justice. At Google, employees also organized to protest the use of their labor to create codes that perpetuated human rights abuses, such as the notorious Dragonfly project supporting China’s surveillance of activists, and contracts with the US government agency that was detaining migrant children.
In some of the cases I’ve just mentioned, the companies have indeed changed their policy. For instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously put out a well-publicized climate pledge after employees released a letter with 8,000 signatures. Google dropped Project Dragonfly. However, the organizers of both actions were fired. The fired workers’ cases are now before the US National Labor Relations Board, and this will be a testing ground to see how far companies can go in suppressing the free speech and freedom of association rights of their employees. It’s a moment when these workers can use the solidarity of others around the world.
Bama Athreya has more than twenty years of experience on international labor issues, gender and social inclusion, and business and human rights. She is the host of The Gig Podcast and a Fellow with Open Society Foundations. ↑
In Canada, the federal government finally began to introduce long-promised legislation regulating online social media companies. Canada has been a laggard on digital issues, so this was a big deal. That said, the Fall federal election killed the bills; but they will likely be reintroduced in some form in the new year. Although the government has started to move on these issues, the opposition to these bills, centred on a discourse of internet freedom, suggests that the question of whether the government should regulate in this area remains highly contested.
I am not a believer in predictions, but I will say that my hopes for the new year with respect to Big Tech regulation involve two things. First, a continued emphasis on tech companies as monopolistic economic actors, and a focus on addressing the harms caused by their surveillance-driven, data-gathering business models, not just on the consequences of these models. Second, a move away from the freedom-versus-authoritarianism framing of many of these issues. The world is much more nuanced than that perspective implies.
Blayne Haggart is a CIGI senior fellow and associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. His research focuses on the global political economy of data and intellectual property, online platforms, internet governance, and North American economic governance. ↑
When we talk about regulating Big Tech, we always rely on Europeans and Americans, so I think an important moment was the Save WhatsApp campaign. It was a very efficient, targeted campaign. My organization is in the US and I have to say, there wasn't enough interest from the US groups on this issue, because Americans don't use WhatsApp. Only Hispanics or the immigrant communities in the US use WhatsApp. But it is an important technology for the Global South. The global campaign worked really well and I think that there was a lot of momentum.
Wherever, I go around the world, people have expectations from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on these issues. I was like, “Really? We have no expectations from the FTC.” You know, why can't we regulate these companies? I mean, they have millions of users in our countries! So, why not? The competition investigation started with Turkey and India, and then other competition authorities followed their lead. I think the campaign also made it clear that we can't leave WhatsApp to Facebook. It was a very big warning to Facebook from WhatsApp users, saying, “Look, you know you can do whatever you want with Facebook, or even Instagram, but when it comes to WhatsApp, be careful, because we are ready to push back.”
A moment for intervention in the year to come
There is more awareness on these issues than before and there is also a need to introduce regulations. The question is what does that regulation look like? For instance, in November, Republicans in the US introduced a data bill. But the bill was written for the 1990s. It could have been effective then, when technology was not as developed.
I expect more enforcement actions fromthe FTC, because the leadership is really informed and dedicated. But in terms of the global issue, I feel like what we did with the Save WhatsApp campaign was a good, quick way to pick a small issue, a small battle, and then push back. I don't think that you can go to Turkey and tell them to break up Facebook. But you can ask them to take action against something that Facebook has been doing.
Burcu Kilic is a practitioner fellow at Digital Civil Society Lab, Stanford PACS. She has researched and written extensively on intellectual property, innovation, digital rights and trade, and provided technical advice and assistance in numerous countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa. Burcu directs the Digital Rights Program at Public Citizen. ↑
In the US, the pivotal moment in policy came when President Biden announced several high-level appointments of antitrust advocates to key positions, most importantly that Lina Khan would be the Chairperson of the Federal Trade Commission. This re-positioning of the federal government away from decades of pro-merger policy to crack down on corporate monopolies in Big Tech should lead to the unwinding of several of the current monopoly roll-ups. It represents the first time in decades that serious anti-monopolists have been at the helm of key regulatory institutions. The main shortcoming remains in his hiring for positions within the US Trade Representative, as Biden seems to recognize the threat of Big Tech to our economy generally, but not specifically with regards to trade policy.
There are so many key moments for intervention in the upcoming year. First, of course, would be trade policy - whether governments are able to agree on a blueprint for digital trade rules in the WTO, and whether these same pernicious rules will be included in other trade agreements under negotiation. Second would be tax policy – we have to see if the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tax agreement from this year will really bear fruit in forcing Big Tech to pay their fair share, and to reduce their size over the economy. Third will depend on the actions of workers – can they succeed in forcing Amazon, Uber etc. to treat them fairly and recognize their humanity and human rights moving forward? And will legislatures around the world level the playing field by enforcing the collective bargaining rights of workers over the ability of corporations to define the relationship between employed and employer on their own? Fourth will be rolling back Section 230 in the US, which allows the wholesale impunity of Big Tech for the harms caused by their business models.
Deborah James is the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and coordinates the global Our World Is Not for Sale (OWINFS) network. She has over twenty years of expertise working on issues of trade and democratic global governance. ↑
As someone predominantly interested in labor rights, two things stand out for me in terms of action against Big Tech in 2021. The first one is the raft of legal actions we saw against ride-hailing services, such as Uber, across countries such as Canada, Netherlands and the UK, among others. Through these cases we are seeing a global recognition of labor rights in the gig economy space – an emerging consensus that Big Tech cannot wash their hands off the responsibility they owe to the people working for them by simply designating them as ‘independent contractors’ and not employees.
The second piece of legislative action that I was excited about was gig economy (and migrant) workers in India winning the right to social security. This is ground-breaking and can not only have a huge impact on reducing the precarity faced by gig workers in India, but it can also become a model for other countries in Asia and around the world.
There is another area of opportunity that is very exciting – new organizing modes and methods being used, often very successfully, by gig economy workers. There is so much innovation there, not only in terms of the tools they are using, but also in the way that peer-to-peer organizing is happening outside of a union structure.
I work with industrial sector trade unions and I see a lot of stagnation in terms of thinking on how to engage members or mobilize for effective action. If there is one intervention that I could choose for next year, it would be enabling mutual-learning between traditional trade unions and the new generation of organizers in the gig economy space.
Farzana Nawaz is an independent labor rights expert, her research covers labor rights in supply chains, corporate accountability, gender equity, and sustainable development. ↑
I think that an important moment in Latin America was when we saw delivery service platform workers organizing strikes in the pandemic context of 2020 and also managing to increase their momentum in 2021. This was happening everywhere, in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador – it’s a fight against Big Tech and dominant platforms. In Argentina we don’t have a legal normative framework for platform workers, but they are organizing on the streets. We must also never forget the possibility to internationalize the fight against Big Tech. We’ve seen anti-Amazon protests in Europe and the Global South. It’s very crucial to connect these local strikes to the international context.
In the case of Argentina, we don’t have many options in the labor market and platform work creates opportunities for young people. This makes its more important to reinforce the need for social security and labor rights. Here, we are presented with a good opportunity to link academia with work on the ground.
The business model of e-commerce grew and grew, now we are at a stage where Mercado Libre controls everything. They span many areas – access to credit, e-commerce, fintech, and logistics too. Now is the time to talk about public platforms, because if we don’t, Mercado Libre wins. If the state doesn’t support platform cooperatives and doesn’t regulate Mercado Libre, the former have no chance to grow or survive.
What we also need is more attention to shown to care workers on platforms, who are mostly women and barely have any security nets. In this case, unions need to reach out to such marginalized groups. The future of work is now, and the most precarious workers are women workers. There needs to be linkages between the feminist movement and labor rights.
Flora Partenio is lesbian and feminist, a member of the Executive Committee of DAWN and the Director of the Bachelor’s Degree Program in Labor Relations at Arturo Jauretche National University (UNAJ, by its Spanish acronym), Argentina. She has a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires. ↑
Perhaps the biggest moment this year was the Facebook papers, with whistleblowers like Francis Haugen and assorted journalists really laying bare the deep problems inside Facebook. These were systemic failures to address some of the most important issues that a global social network should be prioritizing. I think it has helped further solidify a consensus of skepticism against the ability of Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants to really take on the enormous responsibility of running multiple global social networks.
Ultimately, it leads to a sense that there needs to be a division, at the very least, between Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram, so there's just not one person with that much power over social media real estate.
The problem though is that Facebook’s great lobbying prowess – its ability to interact and address politics, directly donate to politicians, and the general libertarian ideology – will slow things down. The bottom line is that the first major step has to be splitting up this company, and I think that the Facebook papers really demonstrated that just as dramatically as the Panama Papers or other leaks have done in the past with respect to global financial flows.
I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be ensuring a robust European EU AI act. It's clear now that Europe is really accelerating with respect to a number of initiatives in digital services, AI, and platforms, leaving the US, in particular, in the dust. We see this advancement toward modernizing regulation in China as well, which is emphasizing a lot on regulating Big Tech, and bringing in antitrust and privacy law enforcement. I think that the real moment for intervention in the year ahead will be keeping up the pressure in European governance institutions to make sure that a robust AI act emerges.
Frank Pasquale is a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, and the author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (2015, Harvard), and New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI (2021, Harvard). ↑
In 2021, coordinated global civil society mobilization against WhatsApp’s attempt to force users to accept a change in its practices regarding the use of personal data pressured national authorities to act in countries like Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Beyond state action, the campaign reached wider audiences and there were concrete possibilities of users leaving, to date, the most popular messaging app in the region. In response, Facebook had to refrain from its original plans. The message sent was clear: global tech corporations cannot treat us as second class citizens who are ready to passively accept any type of condition to continue being connected. It is true that our power of choice is limited in an extremely concentrated market, but we are ready to continue defending our rights, our autonomy and our sovereignty. More than that: we have allies all around the world and we can learn from each other.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how cruel global tech corporations can be. While our countries struggled to adapt to the new conditions of remote interactions and faced the impacts of economic deterioration and increased inequalities, they were quick to offer “generous” solutions built upon a hidden business model, based on the extraction of our data and the deterioration of our rights. In cases such as with the quick advance of corporate educational platforms, agreements implied pure capture and privatization, destroying previously existing alternatives. While our countries impoverished, global tech companies gained more profit. There is an urgent need to limit such power. Development of regulation at the local and global levels is key in that direction, but it is also necessary to foster local tech development based on different models.
Jamila Venturini is the regional coordinator of Derechos Digitales, a Latin America-based non-profit organization that defends and promotes human rights in digital environments. Jamila is a member of the Latin American Network of Surveillance, Technology and Society Studies. ↑
I am answering from Whadjuk Noongar boodjar – Perth, Australia; land of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, whose culture, knowledges, and sovereignty I acknowledge and respect. My pivotal moment is that in 2021, Australia emerged as a challenger to Big Tech. It did this from seeds laid in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) magisterial 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry. First, the News Media Bargaining Code absolutely startled Google and Facebook, though ultimately stopped short of what could have been its true legacy: pulling back the hood of these firms’ algorithmic war-chests. Second, the ACCC won a world-first case against Google for misleading conduct in its unclear location-tracking controls, paving the way for further challenges. Third, and uniquely, the ACCC held out on Google’s takeover of Fitbit because of deep concern about Google dominating new markets through sheer data concentration.
The most exciting area of expansion is Big Tech’s civil and criminal liability. I hope that this cracks open debate in new areas, beyond your typical privacy, consumer protection, and competition law challenges. We know that Big Tech facilitates and enables harm. We also know that the leaders of these companies and the systems they implement embody the spirit that there will necessarily be harm as a by-product of growth. But what if maintaining such systems and having this attitude in itself made the companies morally blameworthy and culpable – whether for hate speech, human trafficking, money laundering, or incitement to genocide? Private law professor Elise Bant’s model of ‘systems intentionality’ offers an approach to naming Big Tech’s operational choreography as intentional, either in its reckless indifference, or its active facilitation of harm. This gives regulators the ability to answer the call of tech whistleblowers with heft.
Julia Powles is Associate Professor of Law and Technology at The University of Western Australia. Scientifically trained and experienced in national and international policy-making, Julia’s research focuses on civic and rights-based responses to emerging technologies. ↑
I think it is important that the three Farm Laws in India are being repealed, it really provides the momentum to continue challenging Big Tech forces. Particularly, organizations like Facebook are trying to invest a lot of money in the retail sector in countries like India. I think the farmers’ protest in India can be a big lesson for many others, and that's why it's a very big victory not just for India but for people across the world. It really showed that the power of the people can challenge these big corporations, you just need to be persistent. Why is it important to challenge corporations like Facebook? It’s because they're taking control, they're owning your data, but they also want to control production to consumption. Farmers have fewer choices to sell where they want to sell and the prices are being controlled by the tech companies. We must also realize that the consumers are being given even more limited options. Of course, there is the illusion of choice, but in reality Big Tech is nudging you to buy certain things from certain companies.
One thing that we've come across very clearly this year is the increased role of Big Tech in agriculture. For instance, the UN Food Systems Summit in September, which appointed Agnes Kalibata of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as the special envoy, an organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I think that is part of the efforts of Big Tech in claiming bigger space in agriculture. We also see people like Jeff Bezos jumping into agriculture. What we've noticed is that many of these efforts benefit their own corporations or their own interests. Take, for instance, Microsoft’s FarmBeats, which offers technologies to monitor soil, water, and climate in Africa. They have also set up something called Microsoft4Afrika, which is really a service for big agriculture companies rather than the people on the ground. Amazon Web Services are also getting into precision agriculture technology with users such as the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative. At the same time, there is also more understanding and awareness of the role Big Tech plays in agriculture and the way it alters food systems to benefit its own interest. So, more people have been standing up to these challenges. I think this is why it is important to share information with common people about these developments and continue to build momentum against Big Tech in the coming year.
Kartini Samon is a researcher at GRAIN. She is actively involved with the peasant and rural movements in Indonesia, as well as in the South East/East Asia region.↑
Amid many recent regulatory developments, some indicate a more assertive approach to regulate platforms’ enormous influence on our social, political, and economic relations, but many have demonstrated to be mere announcements. The EU, despite presenting itself as a regulatory powerhouse and having some very refined legislation, has been incredibly timid and lethargic when it comes to enforcement. Of note are enforcement actions taken by some national data protection authorities. For example, the decision of the Italian Data Protection Authority (Garante) on food delivery services and their algorithmic rating systems, regarding transparency and explicability. Perhaps surprisingly, the most noteworthy recent developments, both in terms of policy development and enforcement, came from China. Strong sanctions have been taken on several national tech giants, and China is proposing algorithm regulation, which is an initiative that deserves particular attention. Algorithmic decision-making is a cross-cutting issue in platform regulation and the Chinese proposal is the first of its kind, bringing to the fore relevant and still unanswered questions that directly affect users' rights.
The coming year is poised to see the definition of some important ongoing developments. Crucially, we will see if most of the announcements made by countless regulators and legislators around the world will lead to concrete actions. BRICS countries, which are particularly interesting for my work, are going to acquire an even stronger relevance, not only due to their national digital markets but for the increasing relevance of their (sometimes nascent) regulatory structures. In Brazil, the Data Protection Authority (ANPD) is one year old and has started its normative efforts with public consultations, while also forming partnerships with other Brazilian authorities and foreign regulators. Its enforcement activities and placement in the broader institutional scenario in the country are yet to unfold. Similarly, the South African Protection of Personal Information Act recently came into effect and its application shall become clearer and more concrete. India's draft data protection law remains under discussion, with crucial matters to be defined by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. If adopted, it will lead to the creation of a new data protection regulator for 1.3 billion individuals. China and Russia have similarly had recent legislative developments, with important drafts still under consultation in China, especially regarding transnational data transfers, and an increasing tendency towards the implementation of “Internet sovereignty” in Russia.
Luca Belli is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) Law School, where he heads the Center for Technology and Society at FGV and the CyberBRICS project, and associated researcher at Centre de Droit Public Comparé of Paris 2 University.↑
India's Data Protection Bill offered new hope for the Global South in terms of protecting the data of users and their rights to determine how their data should be stored, collected, and used.
Though there are criticisms that this could lead to data being exploited by the government, which already faces a trust deficit, pronouncing offenses and imposing penalties is a welcome first step on keeping Big Tech accountable as nation states struggle to find a solution on the containment of the unethical and unaccountable practices of Big Tech as they continue to exploit the legal loopholes.
One of the biggest challenges is that the legislators and regulatory institutions are yet to be empowered with the capacity and power to act proactively. Regardless, the political will in recognizing the issues pertaining to Big Tech offer hope to protect not only the users, but also the institutions and democracy as a whole.
The economic governance of Big Tech has evolved to be the biggest challenge facing nation states, democracies, and individual users in the 21st century, after climate change. Profit maximization at any cost is its mantra. But legislators around the globe seem to be slowly waking up to this nightmarish reality we all are caught up in, especially given that the pandemic has further increased our dependency on Big Tech companies and digital devices.
Continuous investment in building capacities not only for damage control/cleaning up their mess, but proactively preventing harm should take the forefront of the discourse, especially with the advertisement-based model. This push should come from every direction – from governments, civil society, media, to individual users – to move away from the ad-based algorithms to one that also integrates human rights and values to help preserve the social fabric.
How Facebook was forced to invest on market operations for Sri Lanka, following the anti-Muslim riots in 2018 is a result of the strategic intervention of aforementioned stakeholders.
Mahishaa Balraj is the Co-Founder of Hashtag Generation and was one of the two youth delegates from Sri Lanka to the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Mahishaa, an Attorney-at-Law is currently involved in litigation – Human Rights Law, Family Law and Administrative Law. ↑
I would say one of the pivotal issues on Big Tech and policy in 2021 was the debate on misinformation, as seen in the Big Tech hearings in March 2021 when Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, and Google's Sundar Pichai appeared virtually before the House Energy and Commerce Committee of the US. The massive spread of misinformation has proved to be a harmful and threatening reality We could raise the issue of the menace it was for public health and for democracies. In my country, Brazil, a massive dissemination of false information about treatment against Covid-19 backed by key political actors, was one of the most important elements in the mishandling of the pandemic.. It is’ still an unresolved issue that societies seems to struggle to find an adequate response to, including to what extent companies like Facebook should be held accountable for their part in the circulation of disinformation.
I see the concentration of economic power of Big Tech as an important matter of concern. We can see that traditional tech and communications companies, like Google and Amazon, are joining the pharmaceutical and healthcare markets and exploring the potential financial outcomes of the use of personal health data. The recent acquisition by Google of the smartwatch producer FitBit, questioned worldwide by civil society organizations also points to this problem. In a geopolitical sense, we see Global North companies holding data from the Global South and having control over all their processing. Concepts like data colonialism and benefit sharing of financial outcomes should therefore be included into the political agenda. In addition, states have now the opportunity to develop strong and resilient ICT systems to sustain national needs and keep their sovereignty against global private economic power.
Matheus Falcao is a researcher at the Health Law Research Centre, University of São Paulo and the People's Health Movement. ↑
Given that my primary interest is in the agriculture sector, I would say that the farmer agitations in India have been extremely important to pre-emptively, and partially, reign in Big Tech in the agriculture space, apart from having other far-reaching implications. In light of developments taking place on the India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA), the farm laws that the farmers successfully got revoked would have furthered an enabling policy environment for monopolistic control of agricultural markets, including those online. The protests were primarily against the deregulation of markets, which are increasingly becoming digital, underscoring the fundamental demand for oversight and accountability of economic actors.
While this is a huge victory against laissez-faire approaches, it is limited to transactions in the post-harvest sector of agriculture. Interactions and exchanges (economic or otherwise), especially in the digital domain, continue to remain under-regulated not just in other facets of agriculture but across domains like health and education.
The popularization of blockchain technologies is forcing governments to consider the economic implications of digital technologies. Being distributed ledgers, by definition, blockchain technologies are fundamentally decentralized in nature and I think the way some of them are being developed have lessons for economic governance of Big Tech. Governance tokens allow those who hold a particular ‘crypto’ asset to have a say in the way a particular project is being developed. Similar measures, where people whose data is processed by a service are given a say in the way that service is being developed, could be advocated for Big Tech governance as well. When people who are using a particular digital service are given a say in the way that service is being developed and implemented, unfair exploitation of people and their data will be less likely.
Nachiket Udupa is a social activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) working in rural Rajasthan.↑
The roll out of the OECD-led digital tax deal will be interesting. I’ll be particularly keen to find out if, and how, these globally negotiated approaches to taxing Big Tech/tech multinationals across jurisdictions will play out in developing countries. It is worth noting that some – like Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – did not join the agreement (despite engaging in the negotiations), and there is very little reporting on why they opted out. In the case of Kenya, the regulatory authority has indicated discomfort with some clauses, which would essentially require them to drop the country’s digital services tax – a bird already in hand.
It’s a salient example of the challenges ahead in global governance of digital technologies. The global digital tax may be one of the most advanced interventions on governing how Big Tech profits are distributed across countries; but without understanding and addressing the concerns of developing countries in signing on to global agreements, the burden will continue to be shifted to users, thus widening the digital divide.
Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, policy analyst, and advocacy strategist who works to understand the intersection of information and communications technology (ICT) adoption with governance, media, entrepreneurship, and culture through a gender lens. ↑
The appointment of anti-trust expert Lina Khan to head the US Federal Trade Commission is a welcome sign that the Biden administration will take the problem of platforms like Amazon acting as monopolies seriously. While antitrust actions that may break apart the constituent business operations of large platforms (think Instagram and WhatsApp, each separated from Facebook), these efforts alone are not sufficient to reign in Big Tech’s considerable economic and social power. What is needed is a concerted effort to regulate the data-intensive business models common to many platforms, including their dependence on advertising. Such efforts could involve social media platforms employing subscription models that don’t rely upon pervasive data collection to fuel ad placements.
The global Covid-19 pandemic illustrated the degree to which Big Tech companies have become socially, economically, and politically entrenched in many countries. For Big Tech, the pandemic has been an opportunity to increase their online provision of services and further expand into healthcare , for instance,by providing Covid-tracing technologies. The decision to shift a core public-health function (epidemiological tracking), involving sensitive health data, to private-sector apps raises critical questions about the role of governments in governing Big Tech. Among other social problems, the pandemic has highlighted the inadequacy of focusing solely upon privacy when concerns of equity, fairness, and social justice are marginalized. Instead of ‘privacy’, the term ‘data justice’ enables more fruitful and wide-ranging debate. Data justice (associated with scholars Linnet Taylor and Lina Dencik) takes as its starting point that ‘privacy’ is too limited a lens when considering ever-increasing surveillance practices by states and companies.
Natasha Tusikov is an assistant professor of criminology in the Department of Social Science at York University and a visiting fellow with the school of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. ↑
I say this cautiously, but the last year did see more people joining discussions on policy and internet governance. Usually, these discussions are limited to those who are accredited with the United Nations, and in the case of in person meetings, the costs become prohibitive and prevent people from participating in the discussion. The online nature of these forums in the past year has ensured that more people can participate than earlier. Of course, that’s just a surface level impression – you still have to be registered, and quite frankly, the online mode can be quite alienating. It is like watching a K-drama, or a soap opera, you know? You feel like you are participating, but you are not really participating at all. The UN, over the past year, likes to count the ‘warm bodies’ For example, they might say 400 people participated in a discussion, but perhaps only 10 people were actively engaging in the conversation. To me, this is comical and I feel like we are regressing to the past where participation simply meant cold numbers. We’ve lost a lot, and we must question if this is the kind of participation that we want? That is my reflection on the past year. You do tend to e-meet people more often, but that’s just not the same as meeting in person, having in-depth conversations, and forging real connections.
There are tons of opportunities that the pandemic has opened up in the field of food and agriculture. In the past we were facing the usual enemies, like big agri-chemical corporations or big seed companies, but that has now changed. There are new players that were not there before, like Amazon, which has become a very big player in food retail. In India, for example, Walmart bought Flipkart, trying to establish itself as the biggest corporation in food retail in response to the threat posed by Amazon. Also, behind the scenes, there are things that we don’t see, with companies like Facebook and Amazon buying a lot of shares in Indian companies. Facebook, for instance, has bought large shares in Reliance, trying to control the entire supply chain – these connections are important. Microsoft’s memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian government, Agristack, is another example.
States do have to step in and regulate Big Tech, but how do states regulate something they don’t quite understand? How do developing countries grapple with the questionof reigning in Big Tech? Even the World Trade Organization (WTO) has faced this issue with regulating e-commerce. I think, in this context, the Just Net Coalition’s efforts to inform and engage activists in the field of agriculture and food actually presaged the digital capture we are seeing right now. The data that is gathered from consumers on where they are buying their food, or farmers who share their seed and soil data, are harvested by these digital platforms. Does the farmer or consumer have any ownership over this data? This data has become the source of wealth and also fomented the inequality that we are seeing right before our eyes in the past 18 months of the pandemic. Those white males who run Big Tech companies have increased their wealth because of data gathered from people and that’s a huge issue. We cannot just ignore the way these developments affect our politics and our culture, so there are lots of opportunities in the wake of Big Tech capture. The year-long fight over the farm bills in India was truly inspiring in this respect.
Neth Daño is a researcher who has extensive experience in development and policy work on issues in agriculture, agricultural biodiversity, biosafety, climate change and environmental governance in Southeast Asia. She is the Coordinator and Asia Director of the ETC group. ↑
When we talk about pushback against Big Tech, there’s generally a larger geopolitical phenomenon at play. On the global policy side of things, I think the big moments were the Data Governance Act and The Digital Markets Act by the EU and the European Commission. These draft laws seek to go beyond the usual privacy and freedom of expression issues that the GDPR tackles and directly address issues of economic governance. So, I think that’s pretty big news. Then, of course, there are Joe Biden’s legislative principles for his Build Back Better package. When the US gets into this kind of thing, it is very important to mention it. Since all Big Tech companies are US-based, they are instruments of US economic, political, social, and cultural power. To see that last bastion being threatened is pretty significant. However, I’m not too sure about how far the Biden administration will go, and I’m pretty doubtful, but it’s noteworthy. There was also the global Save Whatsapp campaign, which was very successful in making Facebook backtrack on its manoeuvres. Coming to India, I still think it is the Non-Personal Data Governance Framework committee report, which was the biggest moment. Its second draft came in December and the final one should be out very soon. Another important development was pushing back against the privatization of India’s financial payment system, the Unified Payments Interface (UPI). Very few actors spoke against this. Then, there was the repeal of the farm laws in India, and if you read between the lines, this was a fight against the digital capture of the agrarian system.
The pushback against the privatization of UPI actually opens up many opportunities. So far, the Indian startup ecosystem and National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) had defined how policy is framed in these matters, but they didn’t win with UPI. It’s quite possible that they will not set the terms for the cryptocurrency debate either, as we will probably see in the coming weeks. Another crucial development is that we are going to see increased pressure from those not in the tech policy space on all these policy issues, be it edtech, agritech, or fintech. I think there was a honeymoon period with these Big Tech companies in the initial years, but now everyone is affected by them. These days, someone from the finance community might hit out against cryptocurrency, not because they prefer traditional financial systems but because they can objectively understand how this affects them. Globally, a negative development has been these alliances that are being forged in the Global North, effectively aiming for a consolidation of Western values to Internet governance. In response, China will probably end up forming its own alliances after they manage to wean off their dependence on Western countries for their critical digital supply chains. These spheres of influence will probably be a net negative, all things considered.
Parminder is executive director of IT for Change, and leads the organization’s work in the areas of internet governance, e-governance and development in the digital age. At the global level, he has played a major role in shaping a Southern discourse on global internet governance, and a positive rights-centred approach to cyberpolicy. He is a founding member of three key global coalitions in the internet governance domain – Just Net Coalition, BestBits, and Internet Rights and Principles Coalition. ↑
The increasing use of impact assessments as a regulatory tool in proposed regulations for AI systems, especially in the EU context in 2021, seems pivotal to me. The EU regulation is, of course, far from being legislated yet, but it does account for differentiating between AI systems based on the potential risks they pose and the industry sectors they operate in. However, it is still unclear whether such regulations would only amount to the creation of a compliance regime for Big Tech. What methods are used to evaluate algorithmic harms? Who gets to have a voice in an impact assessment process? How do we balance between promoting a market for AI systems and protecting the rights of people who may become subject to such systems? These are all open questions that need to be resolved in years to come. However, I think impact assessments do provide scope and opportunity for enacting accountability for algorithmic harms.
There is an increasing focus on how to create markets not only for AI systems, but also for data in different countries. How to regulate these markets to ensure that they truly remain competitive is also an open challenge, given the concentration of personal data in Big Tech companies. However, I also think we have an opportunity to reimagine what these markets look like. Advertisements are not the only currency of operation for the internet; sharing a certain amount of computing power available on a user’s device can also create a different sort of market for data-driven technologies that does not have to rely on extraction of personal data to be successful. I think a consequential moment of intervention in the economic governance of Big Tech will come about when we are able to reimagine its currency from data to other forms of exchange. It will probably not happen in the year ahead, but it is a possibility that I look forward to.
Ranjit Singh is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the AI on the Ground Initiative of Data & Society Research Institute. His research lies at the intersection of data infrastructures, global development, and public policy. ↑
I think there are two moments I want to highlight from this year. One was actually defeating the narrative that you cannot change the course of action when Big Tech decides to move forward with a policy. I was involved with the Save WhatsApp campaign, which was a wonderful moment proving that organized activism in the Global South still works. This showed us that when we work together with authorities instead of against them, and when we work together with those whose mandate is to protect us – like the competition authorities, or consumer protection authorities in this case – we form a very powerful block. The interesting thing was that by opening potential cases in so many jurisdictions at the same time, in a coordinated effort they [Facebook] got scared and backtracked on imposing the abusive data conditions. The second thing is the Make Amazon Pay campaign. I am co-founder of the Progressive International and we launched this multi-jurisdiction effort with platform workers and unions to expose the human side of the platform economy. It not only showed the multidimensional damaging effects of tech giants, but also was a moment of convergence among workers, and environmental, digital, social justice, and tax justice activists, all coming together to expose the multiple vices of the platform economy.
I think that it is important to realize that half of the Global South is still disconnected. But we are more connected than ever before. As digitization increases slowly, we are going to see more and more of these moments. Because when the Global South is connected and organized, it starts achieving amazing things, and we will see these movements evolve and improve.
I think that 2022 is going to be a year of continuing the momentum we’ve built up. I don't see tactics drastically changing but we are bringing more people in and we are getting stronger on the ground. Things like addressing platform power, addressing tax justice, and the environmental impact of Big Tech, will continue to be the focus. What we have now that we didn't have before is general public awareness on how far reaching these companies are and how powerful and nasty they can be. Big Tech’s lack of solidarity and their complete disconnection from reality is an advantage for us. We are seeing this competition of who has the larger rocket among Big Tech millionaires. Psychologically, it's very interesting to analyze how disconnected they are from the tragedy, poverty, and deprivation near them, even in their own factories. A bit like Marie Antoinette eating cake while other people suffer? Something very promising to me is the increased literacy of politicians about these issues. They understand that Big Tech is a direct threat to them, they know that these companies can flip any moment and affect their political plans. The last thing that I see as promising is that is that we are no longer this tiny little silo as digital activists. We need to come with humility to be part of larger movement for social justice and equality because our campaign will be meaningless without the far more experienced workers or environmental movement. So, we come humbly, and we integrate to a larger effort to build a better world.
Renata Avila is a Practitioner Fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab in Partnership with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford PACS. She is an international Human Rights lawyer, specialising in the next wave of technological challenges to preserve and advance our rights, and better understand the politics of data and their implications on trade, democracy, and society. ↑
I think what we saw clearly in 2021 was the increased consciousness and awareness of the critical importance of ICT in general, but the internet in particular. The pandemic really highlighted this, not just because we were all able to continue working somehow, but because of the very negative effects of disinformation and fake news, even if that is a phenomenon that had always been there before. This was made even clearer by the various whistleblowers pointing out that in order to maximize its profits, Facebook is actually actively contributing to the propagation of fake news. It's just not an accident. It's algorithm driven, and algorithms maximize profits. This is a feature of the corporate capitalist system. So you can't blame Facebook for maximizing its profits, that's what it's supposed to do. You have to blame the governments, meaning us, because we elected democratic countries. We didn't put in the safeguards and the guardrails that prevent this kind of extremely negative behavior.
A moment for intervention in the year to come.
Everybody now realizes that the internet is everything. So if you control the internet, you control fisheries, or agriculture, you control everything. It has been fairly easy to sensitize broad social movements about the importance of internet governance issues. They are aligned to these values, so we are having a growing civil society movement. I don't think we'll have a sudden turning point next year or even in the next five years, but we will have a steady march. However, I think the important point for the following year will be to watch the negotiations in the WTO. The US is an influential country and the political situation is extremely unstable. If they do not enact the OECD agreement on taxes, the whole thing will just explode, there will be in an economic war between Europe and the US, and everything will become very unpredictable. What we have to do is simply keep growing our movement with people who understand these issues.
Richard is the president of the Association for Proper Internet Governance (APIG), a non-profit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is involved in discussions on internet governance both in Switzerland and at the international level. ↑
This special interview series is part of DataSyn's year-end issue. Check out the media and book recommendations on all things Big Tech, and illustrative essay chronicling the stories of resistance against Big Tech from this issue.