Time and again we see history repeat itself – histories of empires, wars, victories, failures…and histories of colonies – albeit in different ways. Certain patterns are inevitably reproduced more commonly than others.

The global periphery, wherever it is located on the globe, has been fighting colonialism and imperialism since time immemorial. Through extractivism of raw materials, unequal trade, subjugation through debt, and the appropriation of the commons through property and intellectual property (IP) regimes, many influential entities in the Global North have consolidated their power.

These methods have been carried over into the digital era. Digitality has been naturalized to the point that we can no longer separate everyday life from a cell phone and its thousands of functionalities when connected to a network. Furthermore, although the digital era began in a deregulated way, simulating a ‘free’ platform where everyone played and participated equally, it swiftly became yet another space of structural inequality, with a few countries and private powers monopolizing its structures and resources.

In a world that cedes more and more absolute power over the internet to Big Tech corporations, the regulation of digital markets, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce is an urgent need. Indeed, countries are beginning to discuss how to regulate new technologies, and the EU, for example, has achieved success with regulations targeting digital markets and services that have tried to bring some order to the internet.

In Latin America, countries such as Brazil are already working towards regulating the production and use of artificial intelligence (AI). Increasingly, states are becoming aware that their regulatory capacity can rebalance the equation between corporate power and citizen power. For the same reason, more and more companies are looking to lobby states to sign commitments on trade issues.

In a world that cedes more and more absolute power over the internet to Big Tech corporations, the regulation of digital markets, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce is an urgent need.

However, one might think, what does trade have to do with ethical algorithms or taxing Big Tech? A lot, as it turns out. Trade commitments are supranational and tend to place severe preemptive limitations on the regulatory capacity of states. They have thus been seen as a convenient way to deregulate digital markets to the advantage of corporate powers.

How to Explain the Digital Trade Agenda in a Nutshell?

The digital economy comprises algorithms, data that travel across borders, digital goods and services that are bought and sold over the internet, security measures, encryption of information, and many other elements that seem incomprehensible to the common denominator of people. Trade rules, currently being negotiated in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other Free Trade Agreements, seek to liberalize these elements, prohibiting states from charging taxes, establishing standards and norms, or levying penalties and transparency measures. The result: the digital economy remains what it is – a ‘free’ world where the most powerful win.

Diversity in digitalization is not a luxury that would be nice to have. It is an absolute necessity. Indeed, digital technologies today shape the economy, culture, education, health, democracy, and life itself, including our intimate and interpersonal relationships, across the globe. Do we let all this social value be captured by a handful of companies from countries of the Global North?

So-called peripheral countries have shown great capacity in the creation of alternative technologies: state development, private initiatives, strategic public-private alliances, etc. Countless examples can be found of any of these options and even of cooperatives, unions, and other initiatives premised on the logic of solidarity. This is where the answer to achieving a more plural and inclusive world lies. In other words, we need rules that place limits on monopolies, and ones that allow states to regulate and shape the digital economy so that diverse initiatives can emerge in a competitive ecosystem. We need rules that can balance the power in favor of the people and democracy, resulting in equality. The digital free trade agenda, however, seems to run counter to these objectives.

What is Happening in the Latin American Region?

In Latin America, the digital free trade regime is making steady advancements. The EU has already signed an agreement with Chile that includes liberalizing clauses on digital matters. Mercosur has signed an agreement among its members that seeks to liberalize digital markets. A negotiation agenda is being imposed that has little to do with the interests of Latin Americans and one that repeats the colonialist and imperialist patterns that we have been resisting for several centuries. Increasingly, countries in the region are involved in negotiations of digital trade agreements under the guise of strengthening e-commerce. But these clauses have nothing to do with buying and selling on the internet, but rather with deregulating digital production and taking power away from the state to establish rules that control what tech companies can do.

Diversity in digitalization is not a luxury that would be nice to have. It is an absolute necessity.

Indeed, Latin America is today a data powerhouse as well as a source of innovative ideas for the development of technologies that are being funneled into the IP of large transnational corporations. The region’s tech professionals are highly sought after by foreign companies: Latin Americans sell their programming products, which are then imported back to the region canned in a cell phone or electronic device. As in colonial times, we are once again exporters of raw materials and importers of added value.

Digital Free Trade Agreements place limitations on governments’ ability to stop this plundering of resources: whether it is data, ideas, or labor. The region will find itself unable to generate digital added value without access to data. It cannot be home to competitive foreign companies if the domestic industry cannot be protected from external takeover or the appropriation of homegrown intellectual property.

In this sense, almost 70 Latin American civil society organizations have jointly signed a letter asking their governments to stop these negotiations and to seek a common regional sovereign agenda that will lead Latin America to be the architect of its own digital future.

It is possible. It is now. The periphery has much to offer as a powerhouse of alternative technologies, however, this cannot be achieved with Free Trade Agreements.