The Covid pandemic has starkly visibilized the underlying inequality and injustice of the global economic paradigm. It has not only exposed the cumulative failings of the neoliberal order, but also testified to the inevitability of crisis and catastrophe inherent to it. IT for Change's ambitious new project 'The Digital New Deal: Visions of Justice in a post-Covid World' invites progressive actors to reflect on the digital dimensions of the present moment and present radical new ways of reclaiming and reimagining the digital.
The contributions to this series include a thoughtfully curated set of long reads by passionate and committed scholars, activists and visionaries from around the world. Contributors reflect on the current global Covid moment and its challenges from various standpoints and how the digital fits into this equation. From activists steeped in long standing battles against corporate capture of our resources and pushing for food sovereignty, labor rights, climate justice, equitable development, to scholars pondering the new questions of the internet, data, AI and the state of our public sphere, to practitioners seeking to address the disenfranchisement of countless communities and people from digital systems, the Digital New Deal captures the current anxieties, challenges, hopes, and visions for the future. Beyond calling out what ails the world, our authors set for themselves, in these poignant, informative, and radical pieces, the difficult challenge of outlining progressive solutions…to future gaze, imagine new possibilities, and reclaim the digital for justice.
Check this space for updates on the online Digital New Deal compendium, where you will get to explore essays, interviews and artwork from the project soon!
1. Concept Note
This concept note reflects on the digital dimensions of the Covid moment, making a persuasive argument for the need to envision a digital new deal that rekindles the original promise of digital technologies, where the digital is just.
2.1. A Digital New Deal Against Corporate Hijack of the Post-Covid 19 Future
Gianluca Iazzolino, Marion Ouma and Laura Mann
Our essay focuses on the political context in which the consolidation of the dominant digital paradigm takes place. It is structured into three parts: we first describe the role of technology companies in restructuring the global economy and creating the economic and social vulnerabilities that have been exposed by the current global health crisis. We then identify some trends that are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic, specifically the growing public reliance on tech firms for basic services, the influence of tech firms on public debates, and the attempts by tech firms to capture civil society organizations and social movements through their philanthrocapitalism. We eventually sketch a policy framework to help address these dangers and to avoid a corporate hijack of the post-Covid 19 future, arguing that state regulatory and fiscal capacities must be strengthened and that independent research must be funded by the tax revenues extracted from tech giants. Civil society organizations could contribute by forming transnational alliances to keep tech giants in check and help engage citizens in public debate.
2.2. Food for All or Feeding the Data Colossus? The Future of Food in a Digital World
Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group)
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the global resource grab in our food and agriculture systems. The encompassing digitalization of the core ecological and social components of these systems is the new means of making vast profits. Approaches that claim precision through efficient utilization of resources are, in fact, forms of power grab by the data colossus – the world’s largest corporations such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Alibaba – from the fields and fishing grounds of farmers and fisher folk. In response to these incursions, some groups of smallholder and peasant farmers have been either struggling to benefit in the fringes of digitalization or attempting to create their own open source alternatives. Ultimately though, the principles of food sovereignty can only be protected by democratic processes that challenge the monopolistic powers of these corporations. To develop alternatives to a corporate-controlled ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and regain control over our food and agricultural futures, we need to assert peasant farmers’ sovereignty over their data, promote agro-ecology and bottom-up technologies, and build a comprehensive global system of participatory technology assessment.
2.3. Data Rights and Collective Needs: A New Framework for Social Protection in a Digitized World
Mariana Valente and Nathalie Fragoso
All social programs employ some ‘legibility’ scheme, to make citizens visible, readable, and verifiable to the state. Today, this trait is combined and enhanced by the datafication process. Social protection systems around the world are becoming increasingly computerized and reliant on beneficiaries’ data for related decision-making. Digital technologies that are capable of collecting and verifying large amounts of data are employed to this end, impacting the exercise of both digital and social rights. In this essay, we will address the differential impacts of the datafication of social protection on marginalized populations, using examples from existing literature and our own research. We then engage with existing reflections on social protection and datafication to highlight the importance of a data justice framework for the current global political and economic context.
2.4. The Coming Shift in Internet Governance
The internet could not exist without the common protocols and procedures for its constituent networks to link and transfer data between each other. How these protocols are decided upon is key to shaping a service that is currently used by nearly half of humanity. Yet, the ‘governance of the internet’ is not only about connecting devices, but also about what people are allowed, expected, or solicited to use these devices for. At the point when these protocols were first created, the internet was intended to be used solely for research and education, with any personal or commercial benefit being forbidden. This was the case until 1992, when previously fettered corporate greed became the driver of the ‘internet boom’. Eventually, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, approved in 1996 by the US Congress, created the (rather weak) legal basis for social media and the gig economy by allowing on the internet activities which remained prohibited in the brick-and-mortar (and printed paper) world. The US ownership of the internet through ICANN and US-based monopolistic platforms is creating a ‘governance bottleneck’ precisely when the Covid-19 pandemic has made the internet an indispensable global public good. The time is ripe to usher in a new era for the internet.
2.5. Beyond Public Squares, Dumb Conduits, and Gatekeepers: The Need for a New Legal Metaphor for Social Media
In the past few years, social networking sites have come to play a central role in intermediating the public’s access to and deliberation of information critical to a thriving democracy. In stark contrast to early utopian visions which imagined that the internet would create a more informed public, facilitate citizen-led engagement, and democratize media, what we see now is the growing association of social media platforms with political polarization and the entrenchment of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. There is a dire need to think of regulatory strategies that look beyond the ‘dumb conduit’ metaphors that justify safe harbor protection to social networking sites. Alongside, it is also important to critically analyze the outcomes of regulatory steps such that they do not adversely impact free speech and privacy. By surveying the potential analogies of company towns, common carriers, and editorial functions, this essay provides a blueprint for how we may envision differentiated intermediary liability rules to govern social networking sites in a responsive manner.
2.6. A New Convention for Data and Cyberspace
This essay argues that the time has come for the international community to negotiate and agree to a new treaty – a Convention for Data and Cyberspace – which would contain explicit principles for extending well-established offline legal frameworks and principles to the online world, particularly with respect to certain key domains. There would appear to be wide support for such a treaty, given that many countries have come together, in the context of trade negotiations, to constitute treaty provisions covering specific areas. However, the essay argues that trade negotiations are an inherently inappropriate forum to develop such provisions, given their secretive, undemocratic nature and their susceptibility to lobbying by large private companies. Deliberations on such a new treaty need not be a prolonged process, since the goal is merely to transpose to the online world principles that are already well accepted offline. There is a regular treaty-making mechanism, the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, that takes place every four years. This forum could conveniently be used for the process of negotiating the kind of treaty being proposed here.
2.7. Feminist Frames for a Brave New Digitality
Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami
The excesses of intelligence capitalism present an unprecedented urgency to reimagine sociality and reinvent the institutional architectures for a new world. We need to revitalize our theories of agency, social subjectivity, and planetary wellbeing; revamp the norms and rules that determine rights; and revisit the political practice of feminist solidarity. Our sense-making frames cannot afford a nostalgia about human supremacy. They must recognize non-human materialities, putting an environment in which all matter share existence, front and centre. This will allow us to revisualize personhood and social subjectivity through a relatedness with natural ecosystems and technological artefacts. Current institutional norms are woefully inadequate, unable as they are to tackle a totalizing intelligence capitalism. The digital paradigm must be (re)claimed through a post-individualist, anti-patriarchal, decentralized and anti-imperialist institutional framework. What we need are norms for a collective claim to data and a political commitment to systematically scrutinize the social identity of AI systems. Feminist efforts to build community and forge publics are entrapped in the dominant communicative arenas of the digital that instrumentalize and co-opt political subjectivity. Through a self-reflexive place-making that visibilizes the often-illegible practices of community and solidarity and embraces cross-fertilizations, feminism can lead the way for emancipatory posthuman futures.
2.8. Whose Knowledge Is Online? Practices of Epistemic Justice for a Digital New Deal
Azar Causevic and Anasuya Sengupta
The internet, as the primary digital infrastructure for knowledge, exacerbates existing inequities of marginalized communities across the world, even as it promises to be emancipatory and democratic. Through this essay, we offer our understanding of epistemic injustice, and how it manifests online. We also offer possible practices towards epistemic justice that need to be at the heart of any form of a “digital new deal”. We first analyze two critical ways in which epistemic injustice manifests online: knowledge infrastructures, and knowledge creation and curation. We then describe our work to challenge these injustices on Wikipedia and through radical community archives, in partnership with the Dalit community from South Asia and the diaspora, the Shoshone and Kumeyaay Native Americans from the United States, and the queer community from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, we offer three core organizing practices to decolonize the digital: centering the leadership of the marginalized and convening unusual and unlikely allies; contextualizing the digital to specific experiences and needs; and countering the hegemony of the “global” through a constellation of translocal imaginations and designs from across marginalized communities. More broadly, this essay argues for the decolonization of digital practices and calls for an urgent (re)imagination and (re)design of technological spaces. This, we contend, can only be done through the leadership and imaginations of marginalized communities, in a process free from material and cognitive exploitation.
2.9. A Westphalian Turning Point for the Digital
The shockwaves of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought to the forefront the physiognomy of digitization. In the backdrop of a fragmented multilateral stage, the intensified use of digital technologies to support the post-pandemic recovery has come without sufficient awareness of the inherent dangers generated by the computerization wave. Far from being a mere new industrial sector, the IT economy is “upgrading” the current industrial economy and is shaping a new matrix. Akin to the two previous industrial revolutions that started in 1775 and 1880, a new technical system has been on the rise since 1975, this time based on the synergy of microelectronics, software engineering, and the ubiquitous networked connectivity. To limit the predation wrought by this new system and envision a digital new deal, it is necessary to address the lack of understanding of the new digital economy and refresh our doctrines. This calls for a Westphalian turning point for the digital. Granted that the turn is unlikely to come any time soon, the time is still ripe for us to design new initiatives and prepare the ground for new foundations.
2.10. (Re)imagining a Social Contract for Labor in the Digital World
Kate Lappin and Sofía Scasserra
The Digital New Deal project is as much about open debate and exchange of ideas as it is about outlining new treaties, finding new metaphors, and envisioning new regulatory frameworks for the digital. This freewheeling conversation between Kate Lappin, Regional Secretary for the Asia Pacific region at Public Services International, and Sofía Scasserra, advisor to the global presidency of UNI Global Union and the Argentine Senate, belongs to the former category. Placing the worker front and centre, its aim is to think through and imagine new articulations of labor and data rights, new trajectories for trade union movements, and a radically different social contract for labor.
2.11. Towards Workers’ Data Collectives
The commodification of workers as a consequence of increased digital monitoring and surveillance is well underway. Through advanced predictive analytics, work and workers across the world are becoming datafied to the detriment of fundamental, human, and workers’ rights. This essay argues that trade unions must expand their services to include collective control over workers’ and work data through the formation of what I term Workers’ Data Collectives. However, to do so, unions urgently need to address regulatory gaps and negotiate for much improved workers’ data rights in companies and organizations. Without these two goals for the collectivization of data and an alternative digital ethos backed by new regulatory institutions, I argue, union and worker power will be significantly diminished leading to irreparable power asymmetries in the world of work.
2.12. Imagining the AI We Want: Towards a New AI Constitutionalism
Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies promise vast benefits to society but also bring unprecedented risks when abused or misused. As such, a movement towards AI constitutionalism has begun, as stakeholders come together to articulate the values and principles that should inform the development, deployment, and use of AI. This essay outlines the current state of AI constitutionalism. It argues that existing discourses and initiatives centre on non-legally binding AI ethics that are overly narrow and technical in their substance, and overlook systemic and structural concerns. Most AI guidelines and value statements come from small and privileged groups of AI experts in the Global North and reflect their interests and priorities, with little or no inputs from those affected by these technologies. This essay suggests three principles for an AI constitutionalism rooted in societal and local contexts: viewing AI as a means instead of an end, with an emphasis on clarifying the objectives and analyzing the feasibility of the technology in providing solutions; emphasizing relationality in AI ethics, moving away from an individualistic and rationalistic paradigm; and envisioning an AI governance that goes beyond self-regulation by the industry, and is instead supported by checks and balances, institutional frameworks, and regulatory environments arrived at through participatory processes.
3.1. Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Equitable and Inclusive Digital Future
Interview with Maui Hudson
We spoke to Hudson on the unique problems and challenges that indigenous communities are tackling in the emerging techno-economic landscape and fruitful ways in which indigenous perspectives can be employed to confront the technological transformations of the day. The interview covered a range of crucial subjects – from the inadequacy of current intellectual property regimes, and growing tendencies towards data colonization; to the kind of principles that would constitute an ethical approach to data use, and how indigenous concerns and knowledge systems can be integrated into the vision of a Digital New Deal.
3.2. How the Global South Can Rise to the Challenge of a Digital New Deal
We spoke with Richard Kozul-Wright, director of the division on globalization and development strategies at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), about whether and how these principles can be rearticulated and reconfigured to inform a progressive and egalitarian agenda for rapidly digitalizing economies. How can we govern data, the digital, and network technologies differently? How can we forge a democratic future for digital trade? What institutional arrangements are needed for redistributive justice in a rapidly digitalizing world? And above all, how can we rise to the challenge of a Digital New Deal?
Explore the project further on the Digital New Deal microsite.