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.