From a trickle of an idea, the ‘techlash’ first began percolating in social consciousness around 2019 and has today morphed into a widespread phenomenon. Trust in tech companies globally has fallen from 77% in 2012 to 68% in 2021. From the corridors of power, within policy circles, in mainstream media discussions, to a wider social conversation, it would seem that Big Tech has become a ubiquitous talking point of our times.
But, as the old adage goes, talk is cheap. Platitudes about the doings of big bad corporations, even with the advantage of high social currency can do precious little to dent the structural power and reach they command. Which is why, in 2022, Big Tech’s fall from grace is not and should not be merely empty rhetoric.
Indeed, a substantive beating on the stock markets has tarnished their infallible aura. World over, various jurisdictions, particularly in the Global North, where there has been a historical reticence to regulate tech, are moving forward on regulation with actual teeth. We were witness to the passage of key legislations, such as the European Union’s Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act this year, which particularly address the disproportionate power of large platforms. In July 2022, the US House of Congress passed legislations that cede authorities greater resources to scrutinize anti-competitive mergers, even as it attempts to move forward on more ambitious laws. Even California, the original home of Big Tech, has been turning the screws on the tech industry, passing laws on gig workers’ rights, and more recently on children’s privacy on platforms and tech services. Countries like India and South Africa, outliers in the developing world, are also taking on the titans with antitrust reform and action. India, notably, has been modeling digital public goods initiatives in areas of finance, health, and agriculture.
But while governments make all the right noises in favor of strengthening regulation and laws, and televising hearings that seemingly make tech moguls squirm and sweat, they are still balancing a tightrope on the policy front. Proposed laws across jurisdictions continue to be insufficient in curbing predatory and exploitative practices — a hallmark of the unequal platform economy. Albeit marking a departure from historical action paralysis, they do not come close to dismantling the control and influence of the Big Tech ecosystem, which has been able to capitalize on a decades-long regulatory vacuum and convert its first-mover advantage into near totalizing market control.
Without real and viable exit pathways to opt-out in meaningful ways, most of the world remains resigned to a ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ approach to the omniscient presence of Big Tech. Evidently, despite the diagnosis about the digital economy needing a makeover, the political-economic status quo at play makes it an uphill path towards global digital justice.
In this context, the State of Big Tech, an endeavor of IT for Change, is an effort to map the maneuvers and machinations of Big Tech, take stock of the adequacy and appropriateness of institutional-political responses to rein in its excess, assess the agenda and strategies of peoples’ mobilizations against Big Tech power, and provide clear and bold perspectives on course corrections to move the needle towards democratic governance of the digital economy.
We invited activists and scholars alike to take up the mantle of unpacking the misdeeds of tech behemoths, chronicle their role in the political economy of development, and formulate a clear and strong vision for the future towards global digital justice. Under the theme of ‘Dismantling Digital Enclosures’, the essays in our debut edition pack a powerful punch. In a penetrating state of play, our essays and interviews break down various phenomenon, such as the creeping onslaught of edtech into public education, the digital capture of food systems, Big Tech’s attempts to monopolize research and corner innovation networks, to their Trojan-horse proposals for instituting their power in multilateral spaces, to the questions raised by web3. But going beyond detailing the problem statement, our contributors also capture attempts at popular mobilization, and bold visions for alternative digital futures that aim to break out of the privatized status-quoist enclosures.
Here, we summarize key reflections from the State of Big Tech compendium.
A Diagnostic of the Digital: Enclosures all Around
Why and how does Big Tech come to be the way it is? And what are the consequences? The essays in the State of Big Tech compendium bring into focus the excesses of current platform capitalism by analyzing the models, strategies, and ideological maneuvers at play. While some trace the broad historical constellations that steered the course of the digital economy, others analyze the contemporary waves of disruptive digitalization across, and in particular sectors. Several key threads emerge from this analysis.
A State of Unparalleled Intellectual and Resource Monopoly
Big Tech has worked to concentrate and monopolize the resources of the digital economy. And indeed, this happens at the explicit cost of impoverishing the commons, people, communities, and nations. In their essay, Reijer Hendrikse, Farwa Sial, Rodrigo Fernandez, and Tobias J. Klinge identify the phenomenon of ‘big-techification’, the entrenchment of first-mover advantage and capture of key infrastructural nodes that allows a handful of corporations to increasingly shape the evolution of particular sectors. Similarly, Cecilia Rikap and Cédric Durand highlight the rise of enclosures in the domain of knowledge and intangible assets, with the growing capture of data flows, public research networks, and intellectual property within the fiefdoms of Chinese and American tech giants. In their piece on taxation for the digital economy, Abdul Muheet Chowdhary and Sébastien Babou Diasso point to the funneling out of wealth from public exchequers through the circumvention of taxation by Big Tech.
Importantly, the essays in the volume make the necessary connections to the policy missteps in allowing such practices – whether it’s the fact that the effects of concentration of vital knowledge-resources remains woefully side-stepped by market focussed antitrust measures, or that tax evasion, far from simply being a by-product of their business models, actively deploys strategies of tax-evasion and lobbying against regulatory interventions. The role of the multistakeholderism model, often championed as a vehicle for greater democracy, is also critiqued for widening the entry-point for private lobbies and stakeholders to exert greater influence at multilateral forums, disproportionately shrinking civic space in the process.
The Big Tech Project as an Imperialist Project
The authors in our volume do not shy away from acknowledging the neocolonial and imperialist under currents in digitalization. A much-needed historical perspective to this phenomenon is offered by Luca Belli and Richard Hill in their contributions, as they trace the evolution of the laissez-faire regulatory landscape granted to digital platforms, and the US centered geo-political motivations that have informed them. In her essay on digital trade, Deborah James critically analyzes Big Tech’s current massive lobbying efforts to lock in deregulation, minimal corporate accountability, and unquestioned data extraction through trade rules in the multilateral World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as bilateral and regional agreements around the world. The active role of international financing institutions and development aid in shaping pro Big Tech environments in developing nations is also highlighted.
The Imminent Infrastructural Takeover
The pandemic has been instructive in highlighting the ease with which large, private platforms were able to integrate themselves into our most vital public infrastructures – including health, education, payments – especially in the developing world. This, however, is only the acceleration of a process that has been well underway. Milford Bateman, in his contribution outlines a critique of fintech as a development solution and exposes the underlying nexus of corporate interest and entrenched international development ideology that has enabled its uptake. In unpacking the incursions of digital platforms into food-systems and farming, contributions from Felix Maschewski and Anna-Verena Nosthoff, GRAIN, and Sofia Monsalve Suárez and Philip Seufert detail how knowledge systems, land, and natural resources become objects of datafication, and by extension, objects of corporate capture. GRAIN’s contribution, for instance, discusses the “ongoing efforts in many places for a digital redesign of land use that focuses on individual private property — and land regularization — based on individual titles to consolidate property rights. The outcome is that millions of hectares are injected into the land market in global value chains and in the stock market since it is now possible to sell and use land for debt collateral.” This is a process that has gone under-researched, but may be responsible for the displacement of numerous indigenous communities and small farmers who could be dispossessed for lacking adequate legal titles to the land they have tilled for generations.
In their essays, Nicoletta Dentico and Matheus Falcao, address the Big Tech’s growing centrality within global healthcare systems and the datafication of healthcare and associated harms. Matheus Falcao analyzes the longer-term business models that the increasing use of data is likely to portend, particularly those of the insurance industry. There, data brings the potential for tailoring premiums to individual health profiles, and in doing so, exacerbating existing inequalities.
|Zoom in: The EdTech Leviathan
|The impact of the pandemic on education has been colossal and has precipitated the largest global education emergency since the second World War. Millions of students are losing out on multiple years of learning or being forced to exit the school system altogether. In the pivot to remote education, we have witnessed massive inequalities of the digital divide playing out, with some parts of the world managing a fairly smooth transition to online learning, while others stumbling into chaos without adequate connectivity, infrastructure or resources to cope with this process adequately. The crisis has served as a turning point towards massively accelerated digitalization, with large tech corporations reaping the biggest gains from this shift. There is a widespread effort to make this shift more permanent, pushing for learning models that eliminate teachers from the process. This stems from and is in the best interest of the same corporations that benefited from the pandemic’s disruptions, and in the absence of proper regulation, it raises the same serious issues of data governance and sectoral capture.
Speaking on these and more in an interview for the State of Big Tech volume, Wayne Holmes argues there is a significant pedagogical loss in this new paradigm. “Phrases like, ‘through the use of data, we can know everything about how a child learns,” are simply not true. This is because we can only learn about what the child does when they’re engaging with an electronic system. Therefore, if the child, is using a computer and they visit Facebook, that is recorded as data about their learning. Yet if they walk away from the computer, and pick up a book, or have a conversation with their friends or maybe they go out of the classroom to work in the fields to do research on insects, flowers or wildlife, none of that is collected by Big Data systems. So all of those types of learning, which in my opinion are really important, get omitted from the discussion. Governments might be making decisions about the way forward with incomplete data, while believing that they have all the data.”
The discourse around technology’s transformative potential might itself be the most detrimental force, as it erodes conventional arrangement and institutions in favor of digital solutions that are far from proven. With education, the risks are not limited to learning platforms alone. Caught up in the evangelism of Big Tech’s promises, developing countries have started linking access to social schemes, including public education, to badly managed digital ID systems, further exacerbating the challenges of remote and marginalized populations.
The Unmaking of Worker Rights
The advent of digital platforms has reshaped work in the contemporary world, with ‘gig-work’ rapidly becoming a key source of livelihood for millions around world, cast into precarity through a history of economic crises, de-industrialization, and globalized production networks. Authors in this compendium have engaged with the current state of digitally-mediated work, the unique challenges of platform-based exploitation, and the struggles of workers towards claiming their rights within this novel terrain. A lack of strong regulatory constraints on platforms in their treatment of labor, and the increasing impunity with which they are able to transfer costs onto their workforce and quell significant challenges to their power are common observations that run through the essays. Jai Vipra provides a breakdown of the difficulties faced by the platfromized workforce – misclassification, poor conditions of work, unaccountable algorithmic management and data extraction, the absence of social security, or the acute atomization that fractures worker solidarity. All of these, Vipra notes, end up being additional burdens on the workers, aggravating conditions of precarity and weakening an already diminished capacity to organize and effectively uphold their interests.
In their essay, Uma Rani and Rishabh Dhir uncover the global value chains of microwork and content moderation, often located in Asia and Africa that form the tail end of the world’s largest AI empires and analyze the questionable potential such work has for the Global South’s development.
|Zoom in: E-commerce, Fast Fashion and the Rejigged ‘Just-in-Time’
|Shedding light on digitalization in the garments sector, Paul Roeland in his interview for the State of Big Tech compendium, foregrounds the trends affecting workers. Through datafication and fast-fashion, e-commerce retailers have been able to take ‘just-in-time’ logistics to a new level, with much of the fallout of such an aggressive production cycle falling on the shoulders of informal workers, often working in sweatshop-like conditions.
Roeland captures the model that fuels platforms such as Shein, a large e-commerce website. “They launch thousands of products every week but don't actually produce them, they just make the design. In fact, production only starts once these designs are online and they see that consumers have begun to place orders on them.” Chanelling demand based on site engagement and other metrics, platforms such as Shein then make small-scale producers compete with each other for low bids on production orders, and meet extremely tight deadlines that inevitably squeeze workers.
The Cooption of the Alternative Imaginary
The battle to dismantle Big Tech’s hegemony is as much a discursive and ideological undertaking as it is institutional, as contributors in our compendium reflect, and no battleground is as key to victory as that of the future.
Through effective ideological maneuvers, Big Tech has been working to even enclose the visions of alternative digital futures. An apt illustration of this discursive gymnastics is in the current narratives being built around ‘Web3’ and other constructs such as the ‘Metaverse’. James Muldoon, in his contribution, unravels the ways in which these projects enmesh themselves in rhetoric of subversion, practically reiterating Big Tech’s biggest critics, noting that “the narrative of web3 is built on a critique of a specific understanding of the problems of web2.0, in particular, its tendency towards platform monopolies and extractive business models.”
Yet, instead of offering genuine alternatives to follow on from such critiques, what is offered as the solution is always newer technology that is subject to the same machinations of the investor class, as the recent crypto crash illustrates. What is particularly destructive about this dynamic is that it leads to a situation where the accumulated discontent for contemporary capitalist reality gets mobilized towards options that are only masquerading as novel ideas, when they are just as wedded to the current system. In the same way, political will and resources, lobbying efforts, and large-scale movements are neutralized by this diversion, and truly significant alternative projects end up crowded out or stunted in their capacity to grow.
Much in the same vein, Michael Kwet critiques current discussions about breaking up Big Tech for completely overlooking the potential of federated social media platforms that have a rich history of test-cases.
Even when more radical projects find a space to experiment, Big Tech has many other means to sabotage or contain these efforts. Stefano Bocconi in his interview recounts a powerful anecdote from the DECODE initiative, where the cryptography team was acquired en masse by Facebook. “There was a full takeover of the team and they all went because, at the moment, Facebook was developing the Libra currency, and it was going around ruthlessly buying out whatever it needed. This was a complete takeover of this technology that we were working with,” observes Bocconi. This coup demonstrates the stark difference in market power between any small-scale alternative digital platform and mainstream behemoths.
The Way Forward
Governance mechanisms around the world, both at a national and international level, have in recent years focused on accommodating a changing technological landscape and the influence of Big Tech. The essays in the State of Big Tech compendium not only highlight and analyze the grave impact of Big Tech excesses, but also offer insight from their unique positions of expertise, into the ways in which laws and policies have emerged to meet the challenge of the day.
These challenges range from accounting for resource monopolization, to the complete technological takeover of Big Tech, and the impact of data colonialism on every facet of people’s lives. What this means is that the solutions to each of these concerns, as highlighted in the essays here, have often been sectoral and piecemeal. We have witnessed increasing use of antitrust mechanisms to tackle the size and business of Big Tech firms, and the increasing role of the state to mediate the market. It has also led to the realization that alternative models of digital infrastructures and public cooperatives are needed to break the monopolizing hold that Big Tech has garnered over the last decade.
Market Power as the New Policy Target
The first line of defense in addressing potential market distortions due to emerging business models of the Big Tech is a set of rules and regulations to protect the market, and eventually, consumers. In the case of Big Tech, that has been seen through antitrust laws. As a system of maintaining a competitive market, antitrust served as a major guiding principle in the industrial era. However, in the data-driven era, with elements of data-concentration and vertical consolidation, antitrust has often fallen short of providing a holistic solution in taming Big Tech.
This is also pointed out by authors in this collection. One of the bigger developments of note is the adoption of the Digital Markets Act in the EU. Reijer Hendrikse, Farwa Sial, Rodrigo Fernandez and Tobias J. Klinge offer a detailed analysis of the law and its ability to address the concerns that Big Tech firms bring. The DMA, while an important effort, ultimately fails to move the needle beyond the limited purpose of limiting the power of large US-based tech companies.
The DMA, as well as laws in other jurisdictions, fail to commit to the full extent of regulating Big Tech monopolies. For instance, the US has introduced a slew of laws to address Big Tech’s monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. Deborah James, in her essay, highlights some of these US laws, which aim at regulating self-preferencing by platforms, mandate rules on data portability, and prohibit discriminating against other participants in their services. However, even with such a multi-pronged approach, the laws are unable to account for all the emerging concerns and run afoul of overarching trade rules. “It seems that some of these pro-competition new rules would be incompatible with the market access provisions in the e-commerce negotiations, which are intended to constrain states from regulating which products and services companies can offer, leaving that up to the companies themselves to decide,” James notes.
Some Wins and an Updated Agenda for Labor
A recognition of deep-seated issues such as data extraction, rampant privacy violations, anti-competitive markets, and erosion of worker rights have catalyzed newer solidarities among workers who have begun to explore worker-owned alternative models that can realize greater agency and autonomy over data. Of particular note has been the push towards collectivization of labor over the past couple of years. Earlier this year, in 2022, in a first, a majority of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, USA, voted to unionize, despite severe opposition from the tech giant. This was seen alongside a string of union representation petitions in the US between October 2021 and March 2022, including 54 Starbucks-owned stores and a small Google Fiber contractor. In February 2021, drivers for Uber cabs won a major victory after the UK Supreme Court declared them workers and not independent contractors of the global taxi aggregator. Shortly thereafter, in September 2021, an Amsterdam District Court also found that the relationship between Uber and its drivers was that of an employer-employee. These movements indicate a shift in the discourse on labor and must continue towards a more egalitarian system of work and employment that is divested of exploitative practices.
Jai Vipra, in her analysis of the platform economy, highlights key labor rights issues that will have to be contested in the coming years. Labor will have to negotiate issues of regulation of algorithms, increased data sharing, remote work rights, financial rights, and emancipatory automation with the government and Big Tech companies who employ gig workers.
Strengthened Human Rights Instruments
The duty of the state and businesses to uphold human rights has long been enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles. In the last few years, these guiding principles are slowly being formalized and made mandatory to ensure that both the state and businesses do not evade responsibility for any adverse impact on human lives because of their actions.
In line with the Guiding Principles, countries, in particular EU and member states, have begun to introduce mandatory human rights due diligences and other compliance mechanisms, to foster accountability on part of businesses. The EU has its Non–Financial Reporting Directive, which requires large public interest companies to make disclosures about environmental matters, social matters, and treatment of employees, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery, and diversity on company boards. Similarly, in India for instance, the Union government through its market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), has introduced the Business Responsibility and Sustainability report, a mandatory disclosure exercise for top 1,000 listed companies.
Paul Roeland also highlights several initiatives across the EU and US for regulating industries that see a lot of exploitation, like the garment sector. These initiatives include the EU Directive on Supply Chains, the Californian law supporting garment workers, proposals to stop use of forced labor. “It will, unfortunately, take a few years before all these come into effect, and there will also probably be some big fights in the process, especially for agendas like getting access to remedy in place,” Roeland cautions, adding that, “On the whole, however, important things seem to be happening.”
Among the many human rights issues, closely associated with the platform economy, a key one is the right to privacy and personal data protection. A total of 145 jurisdictions had enacted data privacy laws, and 23 bills were passed on the subject, as of January 2021, Uma Rani and Rishabh Dhir note in their essay. There is also increasing focus on AI-based systems and their impact on human rights. Rani and Dhir highlight how China has moved to regulate AI through the Administrative Provisions on Algorithmic Recommendations for Internet Information Services, which covers “aspects such as transparent disclosure to users, ethical use of recommendation algorithms, protection of the rights of platform workers, as well as oversight, such as through establishing an algorithm classification, and classification security management system.”
International Trade and Taxation
International trade regimes are directed largely by multilateral groups like the World Trade Organization (WTO), where despite a 75% participation of Global South countries, policies are driven by those in the North given their economic, and now, data power. The skewed power relations in international trade can also lead to creation of new multilateral forums, note Shamel Azmeh, Christopher Foster, and Jaime Echavarri in their analysis of the digital trade regime and impact on international trade. In the State of Big Tech compendium, Abdul Muheet Chowdary and Sébastien Babou Diasso also highlight the failure of global model tax conventions to be effective against Big Tech.
Moving from Enclosures to Alternatives
Beyond policy shifts and labor action, the rise of decentralized platforms and other digital experiments in creating more ‘public-value’-centric models for the digital economy are an important part of changing the status quo. Essays in the compendium draw from unique stories of resistance and innovation of building back better, to showcase examples of digital alternatives in play.
In 2021, FIAN Colombia in collaboration with the Botanical Garden of the University of Caldas and Colombia’s National Network of Family Farming developed Lunagro, an app that provides daily information on the lunar calendar to guide agricultural and fishing practices based on agroecology. The platform also provides relevant information regarding the human right to food, nutrition, and food sovereignty, as well as information to identify the location of peasant markets held throughout the country. Other initiatives that aim to break the dependence on Big Tech and corporate-controlled digital agriculture, include FarmHack, a worldwide community of farmers that build and modify their own tools and share data, and Pasar ID, an online platform developed by traders’ cooperatives from a fresh market in Jogjakarta, Indonesia during the pandemic to connect with consumers.
A useful illustration of ‘people-centered’ fintech and its potential to achieve high development impact is observed in the city of Maricá in Brazil. The Maricá Model is based on two core interventions: a Community Digital Currency (CDC), and a local government-owned Community Development Bank (the Banco Comunitário de Maricá) that issues, manages, and regulates the community currency. Through an innovative Basic Income Scheme, the currency is digitally distributed and plays an important role in catalyzing local economic activity. Further, profits generated by the Bank are returned to the community to fund economic and social development, as opposed to enhancing wealth of foreign investors. While still a novel experiment, the Maricá Model affirms that it is possible to create innovative development solutions that are not built on an extractivist logic.
Such initiatives, small-scale, localized, and sustainable, prove to us a different future is possible to the one that is determined for us by Big Tech corporations. However, in order to truly work, they need to be underpinned by strong and systematic regulatory frameworks and have the full support of governments and civil society.
The contributions in the State of Big Tech compendium outline various pathways to break through the enclosures Big Tech has erected around various spheres of the economy and make possible new digital futures. These span local-to-global fields and range from policy reform, techno-design solutions, to defining new agendas for civil society action. A recognition of effective policy reform at various levels that unabashadely tackle resource and data concentration, an emphasis on data sovereignty, and faith in public goods/people-centered approach to digitalization that enhance social interest over profits emerge as key recommendations. What also echoes through the volume is the need for North-South and South-South solidarity and new synergies among civil society actors, workers, farmers, consumers, and academia.