What does a social contract mean in the age of data? Could you start by giving us a broad overview?

I want to look at this from a feminist perspective and place it within the domain of public services. Let me start by saying that it’s an important moment in history for us to be thinking about what the social contract means, given everything we’ve been going through during the pandemic. It’s a moment where we’ve witnessed the consequences of the eroding social contract the world over. One of its key revelations has been the consequences of under-funding public services, and, in particular, public health. This is a key aspect of the way in which the social contract has been completely undermined as governments outsourced responsibility to act on risks to the private sector. In reality, of course, the absence of a government safety net means that risks are being borne by individuals.

That said, when we look at Big Tech, it becomes clear that the problem goes far deeper. The influence of Big Tech has — to an extent — changed the nature of governance itself and what it means for a government to extend the social contract. It has changed — and continues to reconfigure — what it means to ‘have value’ in the economy. Let me explain what I mean by this. The history of negotiating a social contract has generally centered around the relationship between labor and the state. What we now have is a whole new component of the economy that we haven’t really factored in — the commercialization of every part of our lives, every interaction we have through digitalized data. This is something we really need to explore. Digitalization of data is increasing the centralization of power, knowledge, and resources.

At the other side of the equation is the question of ‘what we want’. I think as feminists we are looking for a redistributive social contract: a social contract that would redistribute power between men and women but presumably also between countries and between the poorest or the least wealthy in our societies. We’re also looking for a redistribution of power, wealth, and information that can be accessed by all. That is the type of social contract we’re striving for. Needless to say, this type of redistribution requires good quality, gender-responsive public services. We know that women are more negatively impacted by austerity and similar measures to reframe the economy. So, this is a key requirement of a new social contract that I would want to push. We need decent work, effective regulation from the government, an accountable democratic process, but we also need greater shared commitment to the concept of solidarity. All of this is undermined by Big Tech.

Can you talk a little bit more about how Big Tech and the digital economy are impacting public services?

While public services can benefit from digital data and the capacity to aggregate it, they are also increasingly dependent on data that may be held by the private sector. For instance, data from health and the delivery of our energy resources, to our predictions on climate change. If this data is also privatized, we forfeit a great deal of power over our public institutions to corporations. These are the dangers of privatized digital data.

A key role of government is to both provide and collect information – and to use that information for both individual and public good. That information ranges from health data required to understand public health risks, demographic, personal work, tax, education, and family status data required to make welfare decisions, and utilities and legal systems data – the list goes on to every role of every level of government. If the private sector, rather than governments, builds the capacity to collect, analyze, and act on that data, there are serious consequences. First, governments become reliant on Big Tech to operate. The financial costs of that dependency are both large and indeterminate. Second, once Big Tech play a determining role in public data processing, design decisions are directed by profit, rather than public good. Third, public collective data is retained by corporations who can potentially profit from aggregated data, sell it back to governments and restrict public access to data because of commercial interests.

We are also seeing Big Tech moving into welfare delivery and driving out public service employees. This goes hand-in-hand with the under-funding and under-staffing of the public sector, ultimately leading to outcomes where, for example, welfare decisions are made by an algorithm. In Australia the Federal Government deployed an algorithm to determine possible over-payments of welfare and automatically issued debt notices to 433,000 people. A class lawsuit challenging the system resulted in a record $1.8 billion settlement with a judge describing it as a “massive failure of public administration”.

You might have heard of the smart cities initiative, under which cities across the world are integrating digital technology into their public infrastructure. Those cities have been built entirely by corporations with the result that municipal services are designed to collect data, but in ways that only the wealthiest benefit from. Most recently, in India, in a particularly famous smart city called Gurugram, workers living in slums on the outskirts of the so-called smart city were evicted and their housing burnt down during the pandemic because they were no longer seen as necessary. So, inequality takes new forms.

It is useful to see how this dynamic plays out in the health sector. Health data is now a commodity. The pandemic has accelerated pace of digitalization, tracking of health data, and the adoption of tele-health technologies. While many of these services have been useful, very few have been publicly developed and owned. They are opening the door for the commodification of health data. The controversial data harvesting company, Palantir, now has a contract with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide an app and cloud services to log all test results, Covid infections, bed use, etc. Another company, TriXNet, collates the data of 50 million patients and sells access to pharmaceutical companies. While patient data might be used to generate new treatments, there is no right for patients to benefit from the developments. If these processes were developed as a public service, the benefits could be shared, rather than commercialized. Or if governments adopted data sovereignty policies, patients could license their data if they thought it would contribute to greater public goods.

A number of Big Tech companies have attributed the projected increase in their income from big health to the proliferation of devices used in digital health diagnostics etc. Wearable sensors and health apps are collating more health data than any government has. Nine out of ten health apps collect and track data. Of course, the potential dangers of this development have generated a lot of debate and discussion, warning against the possibility of individuals having their health data commercialized or sold to insurance companies who can make discriminatory decisions against them. What doesn’t get as much attention is that this development also undermines public services, in that the data that we might want for public health is no longer available to governments to make public health decisions. If governments want access to it, they will have to purchase it. Besides, companies are collecting data not on the basis of what’s good for public health but what’s good for their bottom lines.

This threat is very real. Wearable sensors are seen as one of the largest growth areas in mainstream business. Samsung, for example, sees it as a major expansion area in coming years. Similarly, reports indicate that health companies themselves — not necessarily Big Tech companies but regular companies that are engaging in health — see big data analytics as the largest area of potential growth.

The most significant problem is that all this is going on without adequate regulation. Digital companies have recognized a huge opportunity here and there might be a need for discussions with governments, but digital companies are largely writing the rules of digital health regulation themselves and then approaching states to tell them what they think those terms should look like.

Is advocacy for regulatory reforms the right answer to this?

That is one part of the problem. The other has to do with government systems themselves. Public administration or state, local, and federal/national administrations are increasingly relying on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and other large cloud services to hold public data. Other branches of the public sector are doing this too. Educational institutions, for example, are increasingly using commercial cloud infrastructures rather than producing their own. What this means is that they cannot mandate that this data be held onshore. As a result, most of our public sector data will go into data havens, often in the US. This is actually the largest area of Amazon’s profits, 65% of which come from AWS.

In fact, this incursion of tech companies into governance infrastructure doesn’t stop here. In some countries, test-and-trace apps were outsourced to Amazon for development, and stored offshore on Amazon’s cloud. There is no guarantee that governments can access that metadata now. There are a number of other examples of public services being outsourced to big corporations that are potentially very dangerous. For instance, predictive policing tools offered by commercial data companies are increasingly being used by a number of countries to predict or profile potential offenders. In the Netherlands, these tools were being used to actually predict who might commit a crime. The profiling tool was sending the police to particular locations when the profiles of people were identified by this commercial app. Unsurprisingly, the tool was found to be racially discriminatory.

So, better regulations are an important part of the answer. Better regulations start with governments retaining the capacity to regulate – a capacity that is being eroded through trade agreements. But equally important is the role of governments in building their own data capacity. Public services can be enhanced by well-designed data systems, but they should be developed, owned, and operated by governments, not large multinational corporations.

You talked about commercialization as a new factor to be taken into account in negotiating the social contract. Can you elaborate on how it is influencing the digital economy, particularly with respect to the condition of women?

The neoliberal ideology requires everything with any form of value to be financialized – meaning that almost all aspects of life become transactional. It is private capital, and not democracy and public good, that is determining who can access, use, control, make decisions over any resource, service, or information.

Knowledge has been increasingly financialized since the globalization of intellectual property rules through the World Trade Organization (WTO). Digitalization of knowledge, particularly collective data, has accelerated the financialization of knowledge. Our collective metadata is important for the planning of a wide range of public services. It is used for public health planning, city planning, water and energy needs, and distribution, to name a few. All public goods and services require access to data. When Big Tech is awarded the exclusive right to monopolize collective data and to financialize it, governments or public agencies will need to purchase information.

It is private capital, and not democracy and public good, that is determining who can access, use, control, make decisions over any resource, service, or information.

What is more concerning is that private sector data may control decisions over access, distribution, and even safety. Financialized water usage data could direct scarce water to where it is most profitable, rather than where it is most needed, for example. Private sector applications employed to make decisions about welfare eligibility and replace workers, if necessary, will be designed to prioritize efficiency over compassion or human rights. These apps are also likely to promise large cost savings while collating detailed intelligence on the population, which can be financialized.

Governments’ increasing reliance on Big Tech to provide digital services — whether in the form of algorithmic decision making, applications for public information, public data management, digitalized service delivery, use of digital health diagnostic tools, etc. — increasingly acts to privatize and financialize public services.

These practices are also gendered. Gender-responsive public services are essential for reducing all forms of inequality. Because women have less financial power, privatized public services deepen gender inequalities in two ways. First, women are less likely to access these services. Second, privatized services are necessarily designed to extract profit and, therefore, serve those with capital.

What are some of the countermeasures that can be deployed? What do you think can be done to mitigate the accelerating control of Big Tech over social infrastructure and institutions?

I think the solution lies in the public sector. Unions need to think about and work hard on what it could mean to reshape the ideas of what data is, who owns it, and what the purpose of collective data is? We need to popularize the idea of data as a public good. This is the time to do that because the pandemic has triggered a realigning of what’s important in terms of public services and public sector workers.
But it won’t be easy since the rules currently being proposed have been written by Big Tech. There is a lot to be done here, and we have been trying to work on it. We’ve published two papers on the topic, and one of them is specifically about how we can move to the idea of data as a public good. The other looks at the trade rules that are currently being suggested at multilateral forums and critically engages with them from the standpoint of public services.

We need to popularize the idea of data as a public good. This is the time to do that because the pandemic has triggered a realigning of what’s important in terms of public services and public sector workers.

We believe this kind of research is crucial. The current state of things demands that we have these conversations and start thinking about the fact that we’ve entirely shifted the type of economy we have and that means we need to be part of deciding what a social contract is. From a union perspective, of course, we’ve gained. Whatever we did gain in the post-Second World War era as a social contract was not as a gift, but the result of struggles of workers and communities. That needs to be part of our work even now — building on the engagement and understanding of these communities.

Finally, I’d say, from a strategic point of view, we need to understand what governments are doing, how decisions are being made, and how to make the stakes and ramifications of what is happening in the digital economy evident to them. This is hard but crucial because Big Tech is aware and they even brag about how governments didn’t have any idea about cloud technology. They did not understand the need to move their data onto the cloud in private hands, and neither did they think that it would be feasible or possible to make the public accept that. Yet, governments are now working with Big Tech to rewrite the rules and appropriate the data that was once in public hands. We need to find ways to stop this from happening, and get government policy to work in public interest again.

What do you think is the main cause of this knowledge gap, where state actors are ill-informed about the frontiers of the digital economy and allow Big Tech to preemptively exploit opportunities, and how might it be rectified?

The neoliberal order has become so hegemonic that it’s almost impossible for anyone, state actors included, to imagine an alternative to a private sector-led approach to digital services. Big Tech has convinced governments that regulation will deter innovation. Of course, the paradox is that the majority of innovation has come from public sector research, which has then been commercialized in different forms and sold back to us as private sector innovation.

Governments have signed on to international rules to restrict Big Tech regulation and digitalized data without deeply analyzing the implications. The erosion of public service as a source of policy analysis and the dependence on private sector management consultants for ‘technical support’, produces predictable results.

You mentioned that the pandemic has significantly undermined the prevailing social contract, especially with reference to public services. Do you think it also holds the potential for movements to secure positive change? How might it be leveraged in this direction?

Yes, the pandemic has provided an unfortunate illustration of the dangers of neoliberalism and the importance of public services and workers who deliver public services. But it is also an opportunity to galvanize public support for public services and public goods, including the knowledge and information that serves the public good. This means that political leaders have to recognize the political, social, and economic benefits of increasing funding to services that equip societies to deal with a crisis, increasing secure work, and changing the rules. This will ensure that governments have the policy space to secure supply chains and access the information required to address societal needs, including for crisis response.

But we can’t assume any of that will happen without a major struggle. The reality is that despite widespread public support for workers and public services, workers have lost USD 3.7 trillion during the pandemic while billionaires have gained USD 3.9 trillion.

Leveraging public support requires us to build awareness that this massive transfer of wealth is not inevitable, but rather a political choice that can only change through collective, sustained action. Given the appreciation for front-line workers, Public Services International (PSI) aims to amplify their voices and demands in the struggle to change global rules.

What would be the tenets of the kind of redistributive social contract you envision? What kind of policies can push it in this direction?

The first tenant of a redistributive social contract would be to reorient public policy and economics. Instead of setting objectives around economic growth and inflationary limits, the purpose of economies and all economic actors should be to contribute to public good, or what civil society in the Asia Pacific region has called development justice.

The most significant barrier to development justice is corporate power. The digital economy is being built to serve and sustain corporate power rather than public good. We need to rewrite global rules currently oriented toward expanding the globalization of corporate power through deregulation, privatization, and liberalization. We also need to restore the capacity of governments to regulate and plan economies and develop industrial policies that deliver new digital public goods.

Currently, Big Tech and other corporations are able to escape their obligations to workers, pay taxes, and be accountable to people and governments by constructing the convenient fiction that multinational corporations operate independently in each country. Based on this misrepresentation, Big Tech seeks global rules to protect it from regulation. It wants the ability to pretend that each national entity operates individually, thereby enabling tax avoidance, but also insists that governments cannot require a local presence to operate in a country. We need to urgently put in place global regulations ensuring that corporations pay taxes and are held accountable for their actions, and workers enjoy decent work.

The fiduciary obligations of corporations currently necessitate exploitative and expansionary behavior. Ultimately, a redistributive social contract will need corporate actors to have fiduciary obligations to workers and the public. At the same time, it will require the state to cease outsourcing its obligations to the market and ensure digital economies contribute to public good.

This is the third interview from our special issue on A New Social Contract for the Data Age.