Breaking the power of Big Tech
31 May 2022
This essay is part of TNI’s Digital Futures series on Technology, Power and Emancipation’ organised in collaboration with ROAR magazine
We can no longer ignore the role of Big Tech in entrenching global inequality. To curtail the forces of digital capitalism, we need an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal.
In the space of a few years, the debate on how to rein in Big Tech has become mainstream, discussed across the political spectrum. Yet, so far the proposals to regulate largely fail to address the capitalist, imperialist and environmental dimensions of digital power, which together are deepening global inequality and pushing the planet closer to collapse. We urgently need to build a ecosocialist digital ecosystem, but what would that look like and how can we get there?
This essay aims to highlight some of the core elements of a digital socialist agenda — a Digital Tech Deal (DTD) — centered on principles of anti-imperialism, class abolition, reparations and degrowth that can transition us to a 21st century socialist economy. It draws on proposals for transformation as well as existing models that can be scaled up, and seeks to integrate those with other movements pushing for alternatives to capitalism, in particular the degrowth movement. The scale of needed transformation is massive, but we hope this attempt at outlining a socialist Digital Tech Deal provokes further brainstorming and debate over how an egalitarian digital ecosystem would look and the steps we might take to get there.
This essay is the second part of two essays by Michael Kwet.
The first on digital colonialism can be found here.
Digital Capitalism and the Problems of Antitrust
Progressive criticisms of the tech sector are often drawn from a mainstream capitalist framework centered around antitrust, human rights and worker well-being. Formulated by elite scholars, journalists, think tanks and policymakers in the Global North, they advance a US-Eurocentric reformist agenda that assumes the continuation of capitalism, Western imperialism and economic growth.
Antitrust reformism is particularly problematic because it assumes the problem of the digital economy is merely the size and “unfair practices” of big companies rather than digital capitalism itself. Antitrust laws were created in the United States to promote competition and restrain the abusive practices of monopolies (then called “trusts”) in the late 19th century. Thanks to the sheer scale and power of contemporary Big Tech, these laws are back on the agenda, with their advocates pointing to how big companies not only undermine consumers, workers and small businesses, but even challenge the foundations of democracy itself.
Antitrust advocates argue that monopolies distort an otherwise ideal capitalist system and that what is needed is a level playing field for everyone to compete. Yet, competition is only good for those with resources to compete with. More than half the global population lives on less than $7.40 per day, and nobody stops to ask how they will “compete” in the “competitive marketplace” envisioned by Western antitrust advocates. This is all the more daunting for low and middle-income countries considering the largely borderless nature of the internet.
At a broader level, as I argued in a previous article, published at ROAR, antitrust advocates ignore the globally unequal division of labor and exchange of goods and services that has been deepened by the digitalization of the global economy. The likes of Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Nvidia, Intel, AMD and many other firms are so big because they own the intellectual property and means of computation that is used across the world. Antitrust thinkers, especially those in the US, end up systematically erasing American empire and the Global South from the picture.
European antitrust initiatives are no better. There, policymakers who huff and puff about the ills of Big Tech are quietly trying to build their own tech giants. The UK aims to produce its own trillion-dollar behemoth. President Emanuel Macron will be pumping €5 billion into tech startups in the hope that France will have at least 25 so-called “unicorns” — companies valued at $1 billion or more — by 2025. Germany is spending €3 billion to become a global AI powerhouse and a world leader (i.e. market colonizer) in digital industrialization. For its part, the Netherlands aims to become a “unicorn nation.” And in 2021, the widely-lauded European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager said that Europe needs to build its own European tech giants. As part of the EU’s digital targets for 2030, Vestager said the EU aims to “double the number of European unicorns from 122 today.”
Instead of opposing Big Tech corporations in principle, European policymakers are opportunists seeking to expand their own portion of the pie.
Other proposed reformist capitalist measures, such as progressive taxation, the development of new technology as a public option, and worker protections still fail to address root causes and core problems. Progressive digital capitalism is better than neoliberalism. But it is nationalist in orientation, cannot prevent digital colonialism, and it retains a commitment to private property, profit, accumulation and growth.
The Environmental Emergency and Tech
Other major blindspots for digital reformists are the twin crises of climate change and ecological destruction that imperil life on Earth.
A growing body of evidence shows that the environmental crises cannot be fixed within a capitalist framework predicated on growth, which is not only increasing energy use and resulting carbon emissions but also putting enormous stress on ecological systems.
UNEP estimates emissions must fall by 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030 to meet the goal of keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees.Scholarly assessments estimate the sustainable worldwide material extraction limit at about 50 billion tons of resources a year, yet at present, we are extracting100 billion tons a year, largely benefiting the rich and Global North.
Degrowth must be implemented in the immediate future. Slight reforms to capitalism touted by progressives will still destroy the environment. Applying the precautioonary principle, we cannot afford to risk a permanent ecological catastrophe. The tech sector is not a bystander here, but now one of the leading drivers of these trends.
According to a recent report, in 2019, digital technologies — defined as telecommunications networks, data centers, terminals (personal devices) and IoT (internet of things) sensors — contributed 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and its energy use has increased by 9 percent per year.
And as high as that may seem, it likely understates the use of energy by the digital sector. A 2022 report found that Big Tech giants are not committed to reducing their full value-chain emissions. Companies like Apple claim to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030, but this “currently includes only direct operations, which account for a microscopic 1.5 percent of its carbon footprint.”
In addition to overheating the planet, mining for minerals used in electronics — such as cobalt, nickel and lithium — in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Argentina and China is often ecologically destructive.
And then there is the pivotal role of digital companies in supporting other forms of unsustainable extraction. Tech giants help corporations explore and exploit new sources of fossil fuels and digitize industrial agriculture. Digital capitalism’s business model revolves around pushing ads to promote mass-consumption, a key driver of the environmental crisis. Meanwhile many of its billionaire executives have a carbon footprint thousands of times higher than average consumers in the Global North.
Digital reformists assume that Big Tech can be decoupled from carbon emissions and resource-overuse and as a result they focus their attention on each corporation’s particular activities and emissions. Yet the notion of “decoupling” growth from material resource use has been challenged by scholars, who note that resource use tracks tightly to GDP growth across history. Researchers recently found that shifting economic activity to services, including knowledge-intensive industries, has limited potential to reduce global environmental impacts due to the increase in levels of household consumption by service workers.
In sum, the limits to growth changes everything. If capitalism is ecologically unsustainable, then digital policies must accommodate this stark and challenging reality.
Digital Socialism and its Building Blocks
In a socialist system, property is held in common. The means of production are directly controlled by the workers themselves through worker coops, and production is for use and need rather than exchange, profit and accumulation. The role of the state is contested among socialists, with some arguing that governance and economic production should be as decentralized as possible, while others argue for a greater degree of state planning.
These same principles, strategies and tactics apply to the digital economy. A system of digital socialism would phase out intellectual property, socialize the means of computation, democratize data and digital intelligence and place the development and maintenance of the digital ecosystem into the hands of communities in the public domain.
Many of the building blocks for a socialist digital economy already exist. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons licenses, for example, provide the software and licensing for a socialist mode of production. As James Muldoon notes in Platform Socialism, city projects like DECODE(DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) provide open source public interest tools for community activities where citizens can access and contribute data, from air pollution levels to online petitions and neighborhood social networks, while retaining control over data shared. Platform coops, such as the Wings food delivery platform in London, provide a prominent workplace model whereby workers organize their labor through open source platforms collectively owned and controlled by the workers themselves. There is also asocialist social media alternative in the Fediverse, a set of social networks that interoperate using shared protocols, that facilitate a decentralization of online social communications.
But these building blocks would need policy change to thrive. Projects like the Fediverse, for example, are not able to integrate with closed systems or compete with the massive concentrated resources of the likes of Facebook. A set of radical policy changes would therefore be needed to force big social media networks to interoperate, decentralize internally, open up their intellectual property (e.g. proprietary software), end forced advertising (advertising people are subjected to in exchange for “free” services), subsidize data hosting so that individuals and communities — not the state or private companies — can own and control the networks and perform content moderation. This would effectively strangle tech giants out of existence.
The socialization of infrastructure would also need to be balanced with robust privacy controls, restrictions on state surveillance and the roll-back of the carceral security state. Currently the state exploits digital technology for themeans of coercion, often in partnership with the private sector. Immigrant populations and people on the move are heavily targeted by a mix of cameras, aircraft, motion sensors, drones, video surveillance and biometrics. Records and sensor data are increasingly centralized by the state into fusion centers and real-time crime centers to surveil, predict and control communities. Marginalized and racialized communities and activists are disproportionately targeted by the high-tech surveillance state. These practices should be banned as activists work to take down and abolish these institutions of organized violence.
The Digital Tech Deal
Big Tech corporations, intellectual property and private ownership of the means of computation are deeply embedded into the digital society, and cannot be turned off overnight. Thus, to replace digital capitalism with a socialist model, we need a planned transition to digital socialism.
Environmentalists have proposed new “deals” outlining the transition to a green economy. Reformist proposals like the US Green New Deal and European Green Deal operate within a capitalist framework that retains the harms of capitalism, such as terminal growth, imperialism and structural inequality. In contrast, ecosocialist models, such as the Red Nation’s Red Deal, theCochabamaba Agreement and South Africa’s Climate Justice Charter, offer better alternatives. These proposals acknowledge the limits of growth and incorporate the egalitarian principles need for a just transition to a truly sustainable economy.
However, neither these red nor green deals incorporate plans for the digital ecosystem, despite its central relevance to the modern economy and environmental sustainability. In turn, the digital justice movement has almost entirely ignored degrowth proposals and the need to integrate their assessment of the digital economy into an ecosocialist framework. Environmental justice and digital justice go hand-in-hand, and the two movements must link up to achieve their goals.
To this effect, I propose an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal which embodies the intersecting values of anti-imperialism, environmental sustainability, social justice for marginalized communities, worker empowerment, democratic control and class abolition. Here are ten principles to guide such a program:
1. Ensure the digital economy falls within social and planetary boundaries
We face a reality that the richest countries in the North have already emitted more of their fair share of the carbon budget — and this is also true of the Big Tech-led digital economy that is disproportionately profiting the richest countries. It is therefore imperative to ensure the digital economy falls withinsocial and planetary boundaries. We would need to establish a scientifically-informed limit on the amount and types of materials that can be used and decisions could be made about which material resources (e.g. biomass, minerals, fossil energy carriers, metal ores) should be devoted to which use (e.g. new buildings, roads, electronics, etc.) in which amounts for which people. Ecological debts could be established which mandate redistributive policies from North to South, rich to poor.
2. Phase out intellectual property
Intellectual property, especially in the form of copyrights and patents, give corporations control over knowledge, culture and the code that determines how apps and services work, allowing them to maximize user engagement, privatize innovation and extract data and rents. Economist Dean Bakerestimates that intellectual property rents cost consumers an additional $1 trillion per year compared to what could be obtained on a “free market” without patents or copyright monopolies. Phasing out intellectual property in favor of a commons-based model of sharing knowledge would reduce prices, widen access to and enhance education for all and function as a form of wealth redistribution and reparations to the Global South.
3. Socialize physical infrastructure
Physical infrastructure such as cloud server farms, wireless cell towers, fiber optic networks and transoceanic submarine cables benefit those who own it. There are initiatives for community-run internet service providers and wireless mesh networks which can help place these services into the hands of communities. Some infrastructure, such as submarine cables, could be maintained by an international consortium that builds and maintains it at cost for the public good rather than profit.
4. Replace private investment of production with public subsidies and production.
Dan Hind’s British Digital Cooperative is perhaps the most detailed proposal for how a socialist model of production could work in the present context. Under the plan, “public sector institutions, including local, regional and national government, will provide venues where citizens and more or less cohesive groups can assemble and secure a claim on the political.” Enhanced by open data, transparent algorithms, open-source software and platforms and enacted through democratic participatory planning, such a transformation would facilitate investment, development and maintenance of the digital ecosystem and broader economy.
While Hind envisions rolling this out as a public option within a single country — competing with the private sector — it could instead provide a preliminary basis for the complete socialization of tech. In addition, it could be expanded to include a global justice framework that provides infrastructure as reparations to the Global South, similar to the way climate justice initiatives pressure rich countries to help the Global South replace fossil fuels with green energy.
5. Decentralize the internet
Socialists have long pushed for decentralizing wealth, power and governance into the hands of workers and communities. Projects like FreedomBox offer free and open source software to power inexpensive personal servers that can collectively host and route data for services like email, calendaring, chat apps, social networking and more. Other projects like Solid allow people to host their data in “pods” they control. App providers, social media networks and other services can then access the data on terms acceptable to users, who retain control over their data. These models could be scaled up to help decentralize the internet on a socialist basis.
6. Socialize the platforms
Internet platforms like Uber, Amazon and Facebook centralize ownership and control as private intermediaries that stand between users of their platforms. Projects like the Fediverse and LibreSocial provide a blueprint for interoperability that could potentially extend beyond social networking. Services that cannot simply interoperate could be socialized and operated at cost for the public good rather than for profit and growth.
7. Socialize digital intelligence and data
Data and the digital intelligence derived from it are a major source of economic wealth and power. Socialization of data would instead embed values and practices of privacy, security, transparency and democratic decision-making in how data is collected, stored and used. It could build on models such as Project DECODE in Barcelona and Amsterdam.
8. Ban forced advertising and platform consumerism
Digital advertising pushes a constant stream of corporate propaganda designed to manipulate the public and stimulate consumption. Many “free” services are powered by ads, further stimulating consumerism precisely at the time that it imperils the planet. Platforms like Google Search and Amazon are built to maximize consumption, ignoring ecological limits. Instead of forced advertising, information about products and services could be hosted in directories and accessed on a voluntary basis.
9. Replace military, police, prisons and national security apparatuses with community-driven safety and security services
Digital technology has increased the power of police, military, prisons and intelligence agencies. Some technologies, such as autonomous weapons, should be banned, as they have no practical use beyond violence. Other AI-driven technologies, that arguably have socially beneficial applications, would need to be tightly regulated, taking a conservative approach to limit their presence in society. Activists pushing to curtail mass state surveillance should join hands with those pushing for abolition of police, prison, national security and militarism, in addition to people targeted by those institutions.
10. End the digital divide
The digital divide typically refers to unequal individual access to digital resources like computer devices and data, but it should also encompass the way digital infrastructure, such as cloud server farms and high-tech research facilities, are owned and dominated by wealthy countries and their corporations. As a form of wealth redistribution, capital could be redistributed through taxation and a process of reparations to subsidize personal devices and internet connectivity to the global poor and to provide infrastructure, such as cloud infrastructure and high-tech research facilities to populations that cannot afford them.
How to make Digital Socialism reality
Radical changes are needed, but there is wide gap between what must be done and where we are today. Nevertheless, there are some critical steps we can and must take.
First, it is essential to raise awareness, promote education and exchange ideas within and across communities so together we can co-create a new framework for the digital economy. In order to do this, a clear critique of digital capitalism and colonialism is needed.
Such a change will be difficult to bring about if concentrated knowledge production is left intact. Elite universities, media corporations, think tanks, NGOs and Big Tech researchers in the Global North dominate the conversation and set the agenda around fixing capitalism, limiting and constraining the parameters of that conversation. We need steps to strip their power, such as abolishing the university ranking system, democratizing the classroom and terminating funding from corporations, philanthropists and Big Foundations. Initiatives to decolonize education — such as the recent #FeesMustFall student protest movement in South Africa and Endowment Justice Coalition at Yale University — provide examples of the movements that will be needed.
Second, we need to connect digital justice movements with other social, racial and environmental justice movements. Digital rights activists should be working with environmentalists, abolitionists, food justice advocates, feminists and others. Some of this work is already being done — for example, the #NoTechForIce campaign spearheaded by Mijente, a grassroots migrant-led network, is challenging the supply of technology to police immigration in the United States — but more work is required still, especially in relation to the environment.
Third, we need to ramp up direct action and agitation against Big Tech and the US empire. Sometimes it is hard to mobilize support behind seemingly esoteric topics, such as the opening of a cloud center in the Global South (e.g. inMalaysia) or the imposition of Big Tech software into the schools (e.g. in South Africa). This is especially difficult in the South, where people must prioritize access to food, water, shelter, electricity, health care and jobs. However, successful resistance to developments like Facebook’s Free Basics in India and the construction of Amazon’s headquarters on sacred Indigenous land in Cape Town, South Africa show the possibility and potential of civic opposition.
These activist energies could go further and embrace the tactics of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which anti-apartheid activists used to target computer corporations selling equipment to the apartheid government in South Africa. Activists could build a #BigTechBDS movement, this time targeting the existence of giant tech corporations. Boycotts could cancel public sector contracts with tech giants and replace them with socialist People’s Tech solutions. Divestment campaigns could force institutions like universities to divest from the worst tech companies. And activists could pressure states to apply targeted sanctions to US, Chinese and other countries’ tech corporations.
Fourth, we must work to build tech worker cooperatives that can be the building blocks for a new digital socialist economy. There is a movement to unionize Big Tech, which can help protect tech workers along the way. But unionizing Big Tech is like unionizing the East India companies, arms manufacturer Raytheon, Goldman Sachs or Shell — it is not social justice and is likely to deliver only mild reforms. Just as South African anti-apartheid activists rejected the Sullivan Principles — a set of rules and reforms for corporate social responsibility that allowed American companies to keep profits flowing from business in apartheid South Africa — and other mild reforms, in favor of strangling the apartheid system, we should aim to abolish Big Tech and the system of digital capitalism altogether. And this will require building alternatives, engaging with tech workers, not to reform the unreformable, but to help work out a just transition for the industry.
Finally, people from all walks of life should work collaboratively with tech professionals to develop the concrete plan that would make up a Digital Tech Deal. This needs to be taken as seriously as current green “deals” for the environment. With a Digital Tech Deal, some workers — such as those in the advertisement industry — would lose their jobs, so there would have to be a just transition for workers in these industries. Workers, scientists, engineers, sociologists, lawyers, educators, activists and the general public could collectively brainstorm how to make such a transition practical.
Today, progressive capitalism is widely seen as the most practical solution to the rise of Big Tech. Yet these same progressives have failed to acknowledge the structural harms of capitalism, US-led tech colonization and the imperative of degrowth. We cannot burn down the walls of our house to keep ourselves warm. The only practical solution is to do what is necessary to prevent us from destroying our one and only home — and this must integrate the digital economy. Digital socialism, made reality by a Digital Tech Deal, offers the best hope within the short time frame we have for drastic change, but will need to be discussed, debated and built. It is my hope that this article might invite readers and others to build collaboratively in this direction.