What do you think is the contemporary challenge posed by Big Tech? We hear a lot about the transformation of the digital economy, but what shape is it taking at the moment?

We are at a stage where Big Tech and its phenomenal power undermines democracy and the rights of citizens and workers. The first step is to understand the forces we need to challenge. To this end, we must realize that imperialism has a new route. It is based on the usurpation of the data commons – not only your data and mine and the patterns coming from our preferences – but also digitized data from the Internet of Things that is brought into the data market. Real economy value chains are getting intermeshed with data value chains. What this means is that the business of agriculture, education, health, and every other thing is now completely transformed. The way you produce, the way you plan production, the way you take it to the market, the way you market, how you manage your workers – all of this is embedded – partly or wholly – in the digital. Another way to put it is that economic activity is going platform: from farm2table platforms, platform marketplaces for retail commerce, and digital labor platforms, to the platformized delivery of critical public services such as health and education. Without becoming part of these platform ecosystems, it is not possible for women to fully participate in the digital paradigm. Without participating in Amazon, how can a woman-run enterprise expand its market linkages today? What do you do as a small farmer if a new platform company providing an end-to-end farm to table channel is on-boarding farmers in your village? Are you compelled to join because you know that if you don’t, you may be left out of this narrative?

How do we begin to challenge this shift towards wholesale platformization?

Digital platforms have attained the status of essential utility infrastructure today. But the problem is that this essential infrastructure is controlled by a handful of powerful companies who call the shots, set the rules, use their gatekeeping and protocol power to determine entry and exit and shape the terms of economic and social interactions.

This is a huge problem for democracy, particularly for economic democracy. To overturn this state of affairs, we need to recover the ideas of digital, data, and platforms and reinstate them within the ambit of accountable governance. We also need re-imagine how digital, data, and platform infrastructures can be public goods that promote local economic sovereignty and equitable and inclusive development, while also serving as the backbone for social and solidarity economies.

In this new imaginary, what are some of the structural interventions we can consider?

I think there are quite a few immediate interventions we can consider. One is preventing platform companies providing essential platform infrastructure from operating in multiple parts of the digital economy. Today, the power of platforms comes from their dominion over large swathes of economic activity through multi-sector vertical markets and data-based horizontal markets. So, for example, Amazon is in retail commerce and it does brick and mortar business in organic foods and it runs e-pharmacies. Similarly, on the data side, Amazon provides platform marketplaces and constantly collects data, along with providing analytics services and cloud storage. So, it has a monopoly over horizontal data markets. We may, therefore, need to look at how competition law can force Amazon to choose between Amazon Web Services and its e-commerce marketplace, and divest stakes in one of them. Similarly, we need to have Facebook either run its social media platform or run digital payments solutions. The fact that Facebook is able to capture a new vertical due to its monopolistic position in messaging services, creates a market consolidation that clearly undermines the tenets of competition and diversity in the marketplace.

This pushback is important because the big fish will do all the pink washing possible – invoking gender inclusion – while elbowing out women, who constitute the largest majority of small producers and small retailers. Those who survive will be co-opted into these infrastructures. The point is fundamental because it is about reclaiming the space – it is about asking who can belong in the digital economy.

Secondly, mainstream policy thinking has been to break platform monopolies by arguing for interoperability rules. For instance, data interoperability between platforms. This approach is rooted in the belief that digital innovation can flourish with greater competition. But most big platforms, because of their first mover advantage, tend to trap users. Once in, users find it hard to leave. Under these circumstances, interoperability rules may not really help and could even benefit the first mover. Rather than benefit from the data they have amassed, small start ups or businesses may end up just losing their edge. So competition policy is one route – but in a free market that has gone wrong – awfully wrong – we need to have other kinds of approaches. We have heard about tax, labor laws and something about data flows, but there is a strong role for a new approach to digital infrastructure – the public route. It follows that the second structural change we need is building public options to dominant platforms. Governments need to establish and finance models to build public platforms, like e-marketplaces, and ensure that women producers and service providers are able to benefit from these infrastructures.

The problem is that this essential infrastructure is controlled by a handful of powerful companies who call the shots, set the rules, use their gatekeeping and protocol power to determine entry and exit and shape the terms of economic and social interactions.

The third policy change we need is the establishment of seed funding mechanisms that can help cooperatives and social enterprises backing women producers build their own platforms. These can’t become an alternative to Amazon, and, in fact, they should not. These platforms can be hyper-local, but they need to be able to survive and that is where public support is needed. This can be in the form of standards and protocols that are public. So, this is the fourth area, where public platforms and support for women-run platforms connect to public digital standards. Standards are also public goods.

For example, payment standards that make for secure payment gateways avoid transferring risks of cyber fraud on women producers and sellers who run small platform co-operatives. Another digital public infrastructure that can help women’s businesses is the idea of a public cloud.

Can you elaborate on the idea of a public cloud?

In a tourism study conducted by IT for Change, we found that Make My Trip, an India-based travel platform, would share ratings and rankings with the small hotels and properties it on-boarded on its platform and advise these businesses on how to do better. If the government were to be able to support small businesses with analytics, mentorship, and market intelligence, it would be possible for big data to be truly socialized. Public cloud projects in sectors like agriculture can also be enormously useful for public-community partnerships. So, you can be a women farmers’ cooperative which uses an app providing meaningful advisories, connecting the cooperative to credit and banking services, connecting local suppliers and buyers, etc. Such a service can be based on a special agriculture public cloud infrastructure for analytics.

These models can decentralize the benefits of a digital economy. But we do need to put these digital public systems within a strong accountability framework. Today, most governments are digitizing their data and creating public data pools in social sectors such as health, and opening up such public data for open public use in a machine readable form. This can, of course, lay the foundation for startups and enterprises to build applications and services. But, we do need to put these digital public systems within new institutional frameworks for accountability.

How would we go about having guardrails for such digital public systems?

Right now we see that governments are also creating non-personal data pools about natural resources and infrastructural artifacts that are valuable for economic and social development initiatives. We need to be watchful about how these so called public resources end up in public-private partnerships – what are the access and use conditionalities of these? What public licensing conditionalities exist on AI solutions developed on top of public data pools? These are important questions. Public data pools created from the public health system have not really furthered the cause of people’s science or public health. Typically, they become easy avenues for free riders who just use these data sets for commercial purposes. In July 2019, the UK government announced a partnership with Amazon so that people can have their medical questions answered by the company’s virtual assistant until 15 October 2024. It allows Amazon to use content from the National Health Service (NHS) website to give reliable and informative answers to basic health questions asked to Alexa. The move was expected to take some burden off of the NHS as people would look up to Alexa rather than calling the NHS hotline. Privacy International has cautioned people saying that the NHS should not be allowed to turn into another advertising asset for Big Tech firms. Furthermore, it has also underlined why traditional helplines and sources of information should continue being accessible to those who cannot afford or decide not to have an Alexa device. Governments are also using digital identification (IDs) to ensure platform and data interoperability in digital interactions. For example, digital IDs do have the potential for enhancing women’s financial inclusion through opening up credit access, among other things. On the negative side, the rapid growth in the use of digital financial services, especially mobile money, tempts governments to try to raise revenue easily and at low cost by imposing taxes directly on mobile money and similar transactions, taking advantage of digital ID fingerprints. Governments including Benin, Kenya, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have already imposed taxes on mobile money, and, in some cases, also on over the top (OTT) media services. Such taxes risk reducing the adoption of digital financial services, and therefore threaten financial inclusion, along with undermining the potential for revenue collection these instruments could enable. Such charges might also bear particularly heavily on poorer, or more vulnerable groups, including women. Even as we think of the public paradigm and rescuing it for women in the data age, we need to simultaneously be vigilant about the hegemonic nature of the state and why the stories that data tell often carry an absolutism.

We have heard about tax, labor laws and something about data flows, but there is a strong role for a new approach to digital infrastructure – the public route. It follows that the second structural change we need is building public options to dominant platforms.

Without digital IDs and enrollment in platformized service delivery programs of the government, how can women claim their rightful entitlements? Digital IDs may be useful for financial inclusion of women, but whether we need to rank women through social credit scores, and use digital IDs to evaluate if they are responsible, are important questions to consider. In this new phase of globalization, we need to deeply think about what kinds of slippery slopes in data determinism societies may descend to while granting simple rights and claims. We do need privacy guarantees and personal data protection, but an overall debate on how the development meanings of data can be harnessed and the institutional ethics that will form the basis of this process need robust feminist engagement.

Finally, women must articulate clearly what they want from Big Tech in a binding treaty on TNCs. Women from the Global South must also build a groundswell for a new binding international treaty on data that recognizes the sovereign right of states to evolve national policy frameworks for the governance of their data resources. Such a treaty should work within the larger rubric of a data constitutionalism that respects, protects, and promotes the civic-political and economic rights of individuals and communities in data resources. We must move to a new framework that recognizes people’s sovereignty over data resources.

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