A Digital New Deal Against Corporate Hijack of the Post-Covid 19 Future

Gianluca Iazzolino, Marion Ouma & 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.

Illustration by Kevin Ilango


It is hard to fathom what kind of social and economic future lies on the other side of Covid-19. In the early days of the pandemic, some were hopeful that the crisis might usher in a new economic order. Others cautioned that the long-term economic and social impacts would be grave. One group, however, seems to be having an unambiguously ‘good crisis’. Amidst dismal GDP figures, mass layoffs, hiring freezes, and bankruptcies, the world’s top seven tech giants – Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Tencent, Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and PayPal – added an overall market capitalization of $1.2 trillion during the first six months of 2020. Amazon alone, despite spending $4 billion on logistical upgrading, saw its value climb by $401.1 billion, boosted by the expansion in online shopping and cloud computing. The second biggest winner, Microsoft, has likewise benefited from the mass shift of work from office to home, and the growing reliance of workers and households on its cloud services.1

In addition to hefty market capitalizations, these tech Leviathans have also used the Covid moment to strengthen their political capital, positioning themselves as reliable actors in the face of government shortcomings. In several US states, health departments are leveraging the data power of Google, Facebook, and Apple for contact tracing. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is helping support CommCare, a mobile data collection platform developed by Dimagi, a for-profit social enterprise, which initially sought to provide e-health solutions in Africa and Asia, but has since branched out to the US and Ireland. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published2 an op-ed in The Washington Post to burnish his company’s public utility credentials.

This moment of potential consolidation risks unsettling the precarious balance between tech giants on the one hand, and the public sector, labor organizations, independent research, and civil society, on the other. Yet, the current crisis is not a watershed; for these tendencies have been long in the making: the platformization of public services, the creation of corporate-led economic ecosystems, the restructuring of production, and the datafication of workers and customers. While most governments were caught by surprise, tech giants were ready, and are now poaching smaller firms on the verge of collapse – a trend that is likely to accelerate after the pandemic. The world that lies on the other side may, therefore, be a world in which a handful of large companies can move capital, produce knowledge, and shape the political and public conversation in their favor.

While most governments were caught by surprise by the current crisis, tech giants were ready, and are now poaching smaller firms on the verge of collapse – a trend that is likely to accelerate after the pandemic.

This series has asked contributors to imagine a ‘Digital New Deal’ akin to Roosevelt’s Keynesian revolution. Our contribution draws attention to the varied political context of this paradigm contestation and the political strategies deployed by tech firms to thwart wholesale paradigm shifts. Section 1 describes the role of tech companies in restructuring the global economy and creating the economic and social vulnerabilities that have been exposed by the current global health crisis. Section 2 identifies some trends that are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic, focusing on growing public reliance on tech firms for basic services, the growing influence of tech firms on public debates, and attempts by tech firms to capture civil society organizations and social movements through their philanthrocapitalism. The final section sketches a policy framework to help address these dangers and to avoid a corporate hijack of the post-Covid 19 future. In particular, it argues that state regulatory and fiscal capacities must be strengthened in order to tackle the opacity of their business operations and to extract tax revenue to fund more independent research. In pursuit of these policies, activists can help by forming transnational alliances to keep tech giants in check and help engage citizens in public debate.

 1. An overview of the dominant digital paradigm

In explaining the role of intellectuals in driving long-term policy change, Milton Friedman3 once remarked, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

In the spring of 2020, many hoped that the Covid-19 crisis might precipitate a rupture in the fortress of free-market economics. Even the right-leaning Economist magazine asked if a new paradigm was at the gates.4 Pressure had been building for some time. Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century5 had laid bare growing economic inequalities that have been accelerating in high-income countries since the 1970s, when free-market policies were embraced as the dominant growth model.

After 1975, technology firms were at the forefront of this growing consolidation of wealth. The shareholder value business revolution put pressure on managers to lower their production costs,6 and so they introduced productivity-enhancing technology to rationalize production, increase worker surveillance, and restructure production beyond the boundaries of the firm. This restructuring gradually eroded the skill intensity of production and allowed managers to restructure production and redistribute tasks to cheaper workforces.7 In many cases, this unbundling of production resulted in offshoring, allowing firms and workforces in low- and middle-income countries to gain footholds in global production networks.8 Yet, for those services that required proximity to markets, employment was retained onshore, but with skills and wages restructured downward through digitization and platformization.

During the pandemic, the social vulnerabilities of this restructuring have been laid bare. In cities like London, where workers are concentrated in the service sector, the ‘lockdown’ and removal of high earners from city centers devastated the local low-skilled labor market. Meanwhile, other low-skilled ‘essential’ workers in food and healthcare provision were forced to work through the pandemic, exposing themselves and their families to higher rates of infection. In low-income countries like Kenya, lockdown measures devastated the livelihoods of urban residents working in the informal sector. For close to 80 percent of the world’s working population dependent on day-to-day earnings, staying at home is hardly an option, given that government assistance would be insufficient to cushion their livelihoods. While some may have hoped that the pandemic would reset the economic paradigm by revealing its structural vulnerabilities, politicians have, instead, turned to tech firms to help keep the existing economic paradigm afloat.

By and large, neo-classical economists have understood the role of tech companies as generating efficiency and productivity gains for individuals and markets as a whole.9 By lowering transaction costs, tech firms promise to lower entry barriers and forge more inclusive markets and financial systems. Furthermore, by facilitating the compulsion of market actors to make ‘better’ decisions through nudging and coded incentives, behavioral economists hope that digital technology will help enhance worker productivity and improve transparency in the overall investment climate. However, as many political economists have highlighted, these platforms have also reshaped the knowledge economy and altered the careful balance between public and private governance.10

First, these platforms aim to transfer knowledge requirements away from workers and onto the platforms themselves, thereby altering both the relative bargaining power of capital and labor within economies as well as the technological advantages of high-income economies relative to others within global production networks. Second, by virtue of their network effects and ability to facilitate “interoperability”– the ability of systems to share data and interact – these firms are slowly embedding themselves at the heart of both market structures and interfaces between public and private service provision. The legal scholar Frank Pasquale has developed the concept of “functional sovereignty”11 to describe the power that a private firm acquires when it rises above all other market participants to become the force shaping and organizing the market as a whole. Over the past decade, tech behemoths like Google and Amazon have accrued this power. They have nipped potential competitors in the bud and gained leverage vis-à-vis the state to become de facto alternative regulators, able to police disputes and interactions among the other market participants.

The legal scholar Frank Pasquale has developed the concept of “functional sovereignty” to describe the power that a private firm acquires when it rises above all other market participants to become the force shaping and organizing the market as a whole. Over the past decade, tech behemoths like Google and Amazon have accrued this power.

A growing community of intellectuals, activists, and politicians have pressed for greater scrutiny of these firms. In response, policymakers have begun to introduce digital taxes, basic income grants, and new kinds of antitrust regulation.12 Outside of the US, policymakers are additionally concerned by the dominance of US-based firms in new areas of economic development. For example, African trade negotiators have strongly pushed back against attempts by US trade negotiators to introduce binding regulation covering e-commerce into World Trade Organization (WTO) rules13. Likewise, European economies have sought to develop a common digital market in an effort to create opportunities for European firms to compete. However, the relative power of policymakers varies enormously across the world, and African countries, by virtue of their legacies of structural adjustment and continued dependence on aid and foreign direct investment, enjoy much narrower policy space than their European counterparts. These differences in the policy environment will no doubt shape the likelihood of countervailing policy responses in the form of Digital New Deals. In the next section, we examine how technology firms have tried to reshape the policy environment in both high- and low-middle income countries, positioning themselves at the center of government and donor-led attempts to restructure the economy and public services during the pandemic.

2. Fault lines of the dominant digital paradigm

As we have highlighted in the previous section, technology corporations are currently leveraging their logistics power to uphold the existing economic paradigm. Within the specific context of the Global South, the functional sovereignty of tech giants is further enhanced by the asymmetrical relationship between donors and governments. This context narrows the space for alternative models to emerge by allowing these firms to deepen public reliance on digital platforms for governmentality14, to reshape the research agenda of domestic institutions and tech communities, and to alter the strategic focus of civil society organizations and social movements.

State over-reliance on corporate services

The myth of a dynamic private sector vis-à-vis the sluggish state continues to garner appeal despite concerted attempts by scholars such as Mariana Mazzucato to debunk it.15 In fact, the current pandemic has injected fresh lifeblood into its veins. Before 2020, public anger over austerity and the outsourcing of public services was gaining momentum, but the public health emergency triggered by Covid-19 has largely neutralized this conversation. The current pandemic provides a sort of Rorschach test for advocates of private sector efficiency, on the one hand, and those who blame austerity for undermining state capacity, on the other. Both sides see in this a confirmation of their belief system. Yet, free-market proponents appear to be prevailing, as several governments have awarded test-and-trace contracts to corporate giants. For instance, the UK government has signed deals with, among others, Google, AWS, and the controversial data analytics company Palantir to store NHS (National Health Service) patient data on their clouds.16 Such deals have sparked fears among data justice activists who worry that such data may be used for totally different purposes. This fear is particularly heightened in cases when firms such as AWS and Palantir remain active in sensitive fields such as border and immigration services. As Busemeyer and Thelen17 have theorized through the concept of ‘institutional source of business power’, the over-reliance of the public sector on “these arrangements foster(s) asymmetric dependencies of the state on the continued contribution of business actors in ways that, over time, tilt the public-private balance increasingly in favor of business interests”.

In low-income countries, the legacies of structural adjustment and aid dependence have further strengthened the dependence of the state on private, mostly foreign, firms. As Thandika Mkandawire18 has argued, aid dependence can make governments and civil society more accountable to donors than to their own citizens. Structural adjustment also results in the outsourcing of public services to non-governmental organizations and private actors. In recent years, international organizations like the World Bank and corporate-philanthropic actors like the Gates Foundation have argued that digital technologies can help bring about greater efficiency and accountability within social service provision, and have framed private companies as the repositories of sufficient technical and managerial capabilities to deliver donor-led programs more cheaply, effectively, and transparently.

For instance, in rural Kenya, over the past years, a whole host of agricultural tech firms has emerged to fill the void left by the retreat of public extension services to smallholder farmers, offering private services ranging from advice to credit to market access. One is Safaricom, a mobile network operator, which has been able to capture a large share of the market for financial and data services through its control over M-Pesa, its flagship mobile money platform. Its management has pursued a shrewd strategy to consolidate control over the market by exploiting regulatory loopholes and forging a privileged alliance with the country’s elite across the political spectrum.19 In the words of a Safaricom executive, its digital platform for farmers, Digifarm, and its network of agents, the Digifarm Village advisors, represent ‘an extension service that people can actually see’. Yet, this network also allows it to collect valuable and strategic agricultural knowledge, and demographic and value chain data for the Kenyan state and private companies. In social policy too, a growing number of banks and mobile network operators have positioned themselves as conduits for the delivery of social grants to citizens across Sub-Saharan Africa. The logic underlying these arrangements is steeped not only in ideas of efficiency and accountability but also in the financial inclusion agenda. As scholars working on financialization have warned,20 this convergence of social policy and financialization increases the vulnerability of public finance to the volatility of financial markets.

Shaping the research agenda and the public conversation

The awarding of contracts for test-and-tracing to tech firms represents not only a partial abdication of state responsibilities but also a further expansion of corporate players into the production of social knowledge. By hoarding large and diverse digital data, tech giants will no doubt play a critical role in the organization of scientific evidence.21 Tech giants have been particularly proactive in reshaping the research agenda and public conversation about how to regulate them. They have exerted influence through a myriad of ways. For example, large tech firms can soften or deflect criticism that may influence the attitudes of the general public, and eventually, the regulators. Particularly telling is the case of the Open Markets Foundation (OMF), a think tank at the forefront of the regulatory battle with large tech conglomerates. In 2017, it came into conflict with its then parent organization, New American Foundation, after it took a strong stance in favor of fining Google and breaking up Facebook and Amazon. The episode is recounted in an influential paper by Lina Khan, one of the most prominent OMF members.22

Such companies also use selective access to their data as a means to influence research agendas. For example, the ride-hailing firm Uber granted access to several high-profile economists including Steven Levitt and Peter Cohen, who collaborated with the company on a series of papers that depicted the company in a favorable light.23 African countries are even more vulnerable to these attempts by technology firms to shape the public conversation in their favor, due to the impact that structural adjustment had on research and higher education institutions.24 Recent initiatives such as Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) illustrate the influence of cloud service providers in extracting and organizing scientific evidence through datafication. Supported by AWS, the platform uses Earth observation data from space agencies and the Open Data Cube technology to share insights on environmental changes and transformations of human settlements with policymakers. This initiative has the potential to contribute to policymaking and research. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about the long-term consequences of a private firm storing, analyzing, and commercializing Earth Observation data. This privatization of knowledge risks reinforcing AWS functional sovereignty vis-à-vis other sources of knowledge and the asymmetric dependency of local and international research institutions on the platform’s data power. Eventually, this company may acquire a monopoly of knowledge.

The corporate capture of civil society

The growing philanthropic engagement of tech giants adds a new layer to the so-called ‘NGO-ization of the civil society’,25 through funding and the provision of technological capabilities. Behemoths like AWS and Google are offering support to non-profit organizations in order to create a favorable ‘ecosystem’ for their business models. For example, Amazon’s Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI) claims “to accelerate sustainability research and innovation by minimizing the cost and time required to acquire and analyze large sustainability datasets.”26 Likewise, Google has offered direct financial support to NGOs and community organizations during the pandemic, in addition to the package of services specifically designed for non-profit organizations through its Google for Nonprofits initiative, ranging from support to enhance visibility to data analytics tools. The writer Arundhati Roy27 points out that the NGO boom in countries like India (and Kenya) in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with the opening of the country to the market economy. According to her, this proliferation of NGOs led to a professionalization of resistance, depoliticizing social movements and locking them up into partnerships with market actors. In a recent article, the sociologist Ashok Kumbamu28 discusses how philanthropic giants such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Gates Foundation are deploying dispossessing strategies to establish what he calls the “philanthropic-corporate-state complex”. His primary focus is on agricultural producers and their genetic varieties, but his analysis is also relevant to the field of digital humanitarianism and civil society where the philanthropic-corporate-state complex may become “an agency for the spread of neoliberalism in a ‘humane’ form across the globe”. This dependency of NGOs and humanitarian organizations on the technical and financial support of corporate players might inhibit criticism against them.

3. Fixing the fault lines

Addressing these fault lines as the world reels from the worst pandemic in a century presents additional challenges. With resources and efforts devoted to checking the spread of the virus and reversing its economic impacts, most states, research institutions, and civil society organizations are hesitant to scrutinize their relationship with corporate partners. And yet, this moment of reckoning is long overdue and has never been more urgent as the pandemic looks set to crystallize the dominance of a few tech giants.

The recipe for a Digital New Deal must not aim at a return to the pre-Covid-19 era, but fix the socio-economic rifts that have been laid bare and widened by the pandemic.

The pillars of the original Keynesian New Deal were the so-called three ‘Rs’: Relief for the unemployed and the poor; Recovery of the American economy; and Reform of the existing regulatory framework to avoid a repetition of the crisis. This time, however, the context is different: the challenge is not one of recovering an overheated domestic economy and reinstating it to its pre-crisis state, but one of fundamentally addressing the new international context of production. The recipe for a Digital New Deal must not aim at a return to the pre-Covid-19 era, but fix the socio-economic rifts that have been laid bare and widened by the pandemic. We suggest three critical steps to achieve this goal.

Strengthening the regulatory capacity of the state

Over the past years, big tech firms have formally become more accommodating to the idea of regulation. In reality, they have sought to water down any attempts to tackle their market power, holding on to the view that too-strict rules might curtail individual freedom, stifle innovation, and inhibit the benefits of digitization. As Big Tech firms gather more and more data, they must become transparent about their data points and their purpose. And yet, as these companies move into areas previously controlled by the state, it will become harder to enforce such accountability.

To address this power asymmetry, new regulatory frameworks will need to tighten the privacy rules of already vulnerable individuals, particularly as public health has been used to justify a rollback of existing legislation. As noted by Privacy international,29 regulators must track measures adopted during the pandemic including high levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation. Big Tech companies are likely to resist these demands when they see them as posing an existential threat to their business models. On the other hand, supranational entities might leverage access to the markets of their members to force tech firms to comply with such regulations.

A possible blueprint of this approach may be the draft of the EU Digital Services Act regulation – currently under discussion – which proposes that large tech companies like Amazon and Google “shall not use data collected on the platform…for [their] own commercial activities…unless they [make it] accessible to business users active in the same commercial activities”. The proposed regulation aims to tackle functional sovereignty by designating and targeting gatekeepers, that “shall not use data received from business users for advertising services for any other purpose other than advertising services”.30 If approved by the EU Parliament, this regulation would force digital platforms acting as gatekeepers in the single market to share the customer data they collect with smaller rivals and to stop giving preference to their services. Moreover, it will make tech giants liable for the products and services they market or embed in their platforms.

Taxing Big Tech to fund public research

Over the past few decades, education and research organizations have been starved of public funding, and become increasingly reliant on private companies for access to funding and data. We suggest an increase in public research funding, financed by a tax on tech firms, to counteract this reliance.

The idea of a digital tax is, of course, not new. In 2012, a series of tax scandals involving Apple, Google, and Amazon forced G20 leaders to launch the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project (BEPS), which was eventually extended to low- and middle-income countries.31 Nevertheless, BEPS has proven to be somewhat of a fig leaf; its financial reports are not publicly available and, therefore, not subject to the scrutiny of independent organizations. Moreover, the provision is toothless against ‘corporate regime shopping’, through which tech giants strategically structure their operations and shell companies so as to benefit from the most friendly and low-tax jurisdictions. More recently, supranational bodies such as the EU and national governments have taken a more aggressive stance. Since 2018, nine Asian countries, including India and South Korea, as well as Latin American countries like Mexico and Chile have been in discussions on how to tax revenues, rather than profits, of tech companies.32 In 2019, for instance, France had approved a 3 percent tax on revenues generated in its territory by digital corporations.33

The Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT), a think tank that includes among its members economists Jayati Ghosh, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stieglitz and the lawyer Irene Ovonji-Odida, suggests a BEPS 2.0, which will address regime shopping, the geographic allocation of global profits and associated taxes according to the business of the tech giants in each country, and the introduction of a 20-25 percent global minimum effective corporate tax rate on all profits earned by multinationals.34 These levies on services provided on national territories, and separate from corporate income taxes, may be used by national governments or supranational entities to increase public spending on research, improve publicly-owned data infrastructures, and minimize the reliance on corporate support.

Creating space for new forms of action

Beyond governments, activists must play a role in keeping tech giants in check and engaging with the public. We suggest that organizations such as consumer pressure groups and tech-savvy civil society organizations need to form a transnational alliance to help grassroots movements gain visibility.

Vigilant civil society organizations and advocates have a responsibility to ensure that regulators do not roll back regulations that were in place before the pandemic, and that the current emergency measures do not become permanent. Civil society organizations already participating in digital spaces must reach out to new partners including social movements involved in public services to help rethink their strategies, languages, and ways of engaging with the general public and policymakers. Meaningful collaboration requires the inclusion of consumer associations which can exert commercial pressure on digital platforms, and social movements which have a better grasp of grassroots’ calls for social change. For example, citizen-led organizations can help policymakers make a stronger case for BEPS and put pressure on corporations to make their financial and tax reports public. Not-for-profit organizations also have a critical role to play in backing up policymakers by offering feedback on and flagging off loopholes in draft regulations. This was the case in the above mentioned EU Digital Services Act, which was subjected to open consultation throughout the development process.

4. End reflections

The current pandemic is throwing into sharp relief and exacerbating structural inequalities that are steeped in past political choices. The risk is that the players that have benefited most from these choices, and are consolidating their dominance in the present, will eventually hijack the post-Covid 19 future. Avoiding a corporate capture of this moment of transformation requires a rethinking of the public-private relationship on the one hand, and the state-citizen relationship on the other.

By being more responsive to the needs of their citizens, governments can mend the fractures and faults related to digital tech and those brought about by Covid-19. Success will include shifting digitech power from extractivism to a place where this power is used for societal good.


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Gianluca Iazzolino is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of International Development, based at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa. His main research interests include informal economy, migration and ICTs. He is particularly interested in the political economy of digital innovation and in the Future of Work agenda in middle and low-income countries. He is currently working on two projects, one focusing on data-driven agro-innovation in California’s Central Valley and Kenya’s Rift Valley and another exploring how digitisation and datafication are reshaping public communications and the informal economy in East Africa.

Marion Ouma completed her doctoral studies in Sociology under the South Africa Chair Initiative (SARChl) in Social Policy at the University of South Africa in 2019. Her research interests include sociology, social policy, social protection, policy-making and the political economy of Africa’s development. She has published in Critical Social Policy and authored a book chapter in The African Political Economy edited by Samuel Oloruntoba and Toyin Falola. Currently, she is a research consultant for the project “A Tale of Two Green Valleys: Power Struggles over Data-Driven Agro-Innovation in Kenya’s Rift Valley and California’s Central Valley”.

Laura Mann is an Assistant Professor in the LSE’s International Development department and a research affiliate of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa. Her research focuses on the political economy of knowledge and technology. She is currently working on two projects, one examining the political economy of digital data value chains in agriculture (in the Rift Valley, Kenya and the Central Valley, California, USA) and a second examining the role of Western donors in social protection and higher education policy in post-revolutionary Sudan.