It is well known that Big Tech firms are now the largest corporations in the history of the world. The underreported backstory of how they got this way is that the most profitable sector of the global economy has been able to maintain a state of self-regulation, that is to say, they are massively under-regulated, in a way that no other sector of the economy is privileged. In addition, their market capitalization has metastasized because investors know that these firms are massive collectors, purchasers, and hoarders of data, arguably the most valuable resource in human history.
But how is it that the largest sector of the economy remains the most unregulated? There can only be one answer: these firms have invested their surplus profits into shaping the rules of the economy to their benefit, both domestically within the United States (U.S.), and internationally, by exercising their political power through massive lobbying efforts. They have, unfortunately, been aided by the false narrative of techno-romanticism favored by most sides of the political spectrum, at least until recently.
It is high time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Big Tech is just a group of amazingly profitable companies. All industries operating in the economy do so under rules set by policymakers in the state, country, or region in which they operate. Unfortunately, the majority of policies that apply to Big Tech’s operation are actually geared towards ‘restricting regulation’, rather than governing the activities of these companies in the public interest.
Fortunately, policymakers in the U.S. and around the world are waking up to the inarguable reality that Big Tech self-regulation has been a colossal catastrophe for: privacy, democracies, the quality of public debate, misinformation during the pandemic, civil rights and fairness under algorithms, labor rights, fair taxation, and for a myriad of other issues.
However, these new efforts are at risk. After successfully securing and maintaining a state of self-regulation in the U.S., where most of these corporations are domiciled, the last six years have seen Big Tech embark on a campaign to lock in this deregulation globally. Their method of choice for achieving this global deregulation is through so-called “trade” agreements. Big Tech has been engaged in a massive lobbying effort to lock in deregulation through “trade” rules in the multilateral World Trade Organization (WTO), but also in bilateral and regional agreements around the world.
If civil society, legislators and regulators, and the public at large, wish to “rein in Big Tech”, it will be absolutely necessary to preserve that policy space to regulate by forestalling its stealth efforts to lock in deregulation. This can only be achieved by preventing the spread of dangerous “digital trade” agreements.
If civil society, legislators and regulators, and the public wish to “rein in Big Tech”, it will be absolutely necessary to preserve that policy space to regulate by forestalling its stealth efforts to lock in deregulation.
This essay maps how Big Tech brought us into this predicament and describes how these corporations consolidated their de-regulatory power during the pandemic. It also shows how the public debate has changed, and the steps that legislators and regulators are taking in major policy arenas of competition policy, algorithmic accountability, legal liability of platforms, and cybersecurity. It then points to two concepts that should drive our thinking about digitalization and data governance: data in the public good, and digital industrialization. It concludes by pointing to some arenas for action necessary to overcome this dire predicament.
2. Big Tech’s Wish List to Rig the Global Economy
In 2015, the Barack Obama administration hired the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Business Software Alliance, a major Big Tech lobby firm, to literally write U.S. government policy on the emerging issues of digital trade. This became the U.S. “e-commerce” proposal in the WTO in 2016.
While these provisions may not benefit the micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) competitors of Big Tech in non-U.S. countries, the foreign branches of U.S.-based Big Tech corporations (Google Europe, Amazon Japan, Facebook Australia) dominate the lobby associations worldwide and thus set the agenda globally. Thus, at the behest of the European Services Forum (ESF) and other similar lobby groups, the European Union (EU), Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and other developed countries followed suit. These countries, along with some developing countries, pushed to launch a new round of negotiations on the new topic of “e-commerce” at the WTO in December 2017. But they were unsuccessful, as India, and some African, and Latin American governments realized that doing so would jeopardize their digital industrialization policy space in the future.
As a result, a group of WTO members have been negotiating a “plurilateral” (meaning only by certain members) at the WTO, that is likely illegal, given that the WTO’s founding documents proscribe negotiations by some members without a mandate by multilateral consensus. Proponents are aiming for a new agreement among as many members as possible, dramatically bypassing the efforts of developing countries to have their concerns regarding digital industrialization addressed. At the same time, proponents have pursued digital trade provisions in bilateral (among two countries) or regional (among several countries in a region) trade agreements.
In fact, in every “trade” agreement currently being negotiated or recently undertaken by the U.S., the EU, Canada, Japan, or the United Kingdom, as well as in certain agreements without these countries, there are so-called “digital trade” (sometimes euphemistically called “e-commerce”) provisions that originated with the proposals of Big Tech in the U.S. several years ago.
Major regional agreements with comprehensive digital trade provisions include the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in Asia-Pacific, and the EU-Mercosur Agreement between the EU and several South American countries.
Some clauses on e-commerce have been included in “free-trade agreements” with the U.S. for many years, but the more dangerous, newer-generation provisions discussed here are found primarily in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement.
The EU has already signed six agreements that include clauses on digital trade, with Canada, Singapore, Vietnam, Mercosur, Japan, and Mexico. It is currently negotiating another seven agreements that include digital-related clauses with Tunisia, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the region of Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA), and at the international level in the WTO.
“Trade” agreements are the most corporate-driven, undemocratic policymaking processes globally and regionally, as well as in many countries domestically. “Trade” negotiators often operate under a mandate to work in concert with the business sector to increase trade, without much input from other sectors such as health, education, or the environment; or communities such as workers, consumers, or residents, who are all likely to be affected by the resulting agreements. “Trade” is used here in quotes because most policies under the umbrella of “trade” agreements touch on multiple areas of human life far beyond what would be popularly considered part of trade, such as import or export tariffs and quotas.
Proponents often pitch their proposals based on flawed economic studies which, purport to show economic gains from “trade”, without acknowledging their distributional impacts — that is, how those “gains” often represent a decrease in compensation for workers and are directed towards capital owners — and without taking into account their impact on the environment, public health, community cohesion, and other societal impacts.
While their business models differ, Big Tech firms have risen to the heights of wealth and power through a similar set of business practices. These include amassing monopoly powers, including by buying up smaller competitors to absorb their data or shut them down; avoiding liability for the harms caused by their business models; collecting, purchasing, processing, and storing data in ways that violate rights to privacy; avoiding and evading taxes; failing to invest in appropriate mechanisms to preserve cybersecurity; using algorithms that target consumers based on discriminatory factors such as race, gender, income, and other protected status; extending protections of intellectual property monopolies; and outsourcing much of their operations and relying on “contractors”, who are stripped of their rights, for much of their labor.
So, what is included in these agreements? Proponents couch the provisions in technical language such as “non-discrimination”, “technological neutrality”, “free flow of information”, and other positive-sounding phrases. In reality, the provisions can be best understood as a method to limit the policy space to legislate around each of their business practices mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
There are, for example, at least seven provisions that would either ban taxation of trade outright and/or make it more difficult for countries to tax Big Tech corporate profits. This is in spite of the fact that Big Tech corporations are notorious tax dodgers and the appropriate taxation of Big Tech’s outsized profits is essential for quality public services and responding to crises like a pandemic or climate change.
The main priority especially for U.S.-based Big Tech firms is to gain rights to control the cross-border transfer of data without privacy restrictions or localization requirements. This is the most dangerous provision, as it would allow Big Tech corporations to accelerate their market monopolization and manipulation even further through the control of massive troves of data. It would also dramatically constrain workers’ and legislators’ ability to create policies for data in the public good or digital industrialization strategies, described below.
The main priority especially for U.S.-based Big Tech firms is to gain rights to control the cross-border transfer of data without privacy restrictions or localization requirements. This would allow them to accelerate their market monopolization. It would also dramatically constrain workers’ and legislators’ ability to create policies for data in the public good or digital industrialization strategies.
But the firms also want to handcuff regulators’ and legislators’ ability to ensure that technology functions in the public interest, without causing further damage to society, through their above-described harmful business practices. These and other provisions are discussed in greater detail below.
3. Big Tech Expands Its Market Control and Power During the Pandemic
Given the current state of self-regulation, Big Tech has been able to utilize the pandemic to greatly expand and consolidate its profits and market share. Apple, Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), Amazon, and Microsoft are among the seven largest corporations in the world based on market capitalization, according to Forbes Global ranking as of May 2022. These five firms alone have a combined market capitalization of more than USD 9 trillion.
The negative impacts of Big Tech’s business practices have emerged as a major topic in public debates in recent years. While the revenues of all major Big Tech firms have soared during the pandemic, exposés on topics ranging from data monopolization to privacy abrogation to cybersecurity leaks to worker exploitation to tax avoidance to algorithmic discrimination to profiting from misinformation regularly appear in most major media. Big Tech is well-aware of its plummeting popularity in the public square.
Little wonder, then, that these firms have ramped up their investments in lobbying and narrative-shaping. Unfortunately, due to the excessive rents they are able to extract from the economy as a result of lackadaisical regulation and tax enforcement, they have surplus profits worth billions to invest in policy manipulation, particularly when it comes to high-stakes, permanent, enforceable policies that can be garnered through undemocratic processes such as trade agreements.
Public interest group Public Citizen tracks Big Tech’s lobbying prowess in the U.S. In its report, Big Tech, Big Cash: Washington’s New Power Players, the group documented that:
- “Facebook and Amazon are now the two biggest corporate lobbying spenders in the country.
- Big Tech has eclipsed yesterday’s big lobbying spenders, Big Oil, and Big Tobacco. In 2020, Amazon and Facebook spent nearly twice as much as Exxon and Philip Morris on lobbying.
- During the 2020 election cycle, Big Tech spent USD 124 million in lobbying and campaign contributions –– breaking its own records from past election cycles.
- Amazon and Facebook drove most of this growth. From the years 2018-2020, Amazon increased spending by 30% while Facebook added an astounding 56% to its Washington investment.
Big Tech’s lobbyists are not just numerous, they are also among the most influential in Washington.
- Among the 10 lobbyists who were the biggest contributors to the 2020 election cycle, half lobby on behalf of at least one of the four Big Tech companies.” Moreover, because these companies are so profitable, members of the U.S. Congress own their stock. “18 senators and 77 House members report owning shares of one or more of the companies,” the report by Public Citizen stated.
The situation is no less dire in Europe. In a recent report, The Lobby Network: Big Tech’s Web of Influence in the EU, research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) revealed that:
- “612 companies, groups, and business associations lobby on the EU’s digital economy policies. Together, they spend over €97 million annually, lobbying the EU institutions. This makes tech the biggest lobby sector in the EU by spending, ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals.”
- This universe is dominated by a handful of firms. Just ten companies are responsible for almost a third of the total tech lobby spend. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are by far the largest spenders, and along with Apple, Huawei, Amazon, IBM, Qualcomm, Intel, and Vodafone, spend more than €32 million making their voices heard in the EU.
- Digital industry companies are not just lobbying individually. They are also collectively organized into business and trade associations which are themselves important lobby actors. The business associations lobbying on behalf of Big Tech alone have a lobbying budget that far surpasses that of the bottom 75% of the companies in the digital industry.
Similar intensification of lobbying spending is likely occurring in Japan, Canada, the U.K., and around the world.
If this is happening in developed countries, how extensive is Big Tech’s influence over developing country governments?
In addition to being directly lobbied by Big Tech, developing countries also suffer from pro-corporate power leveraged by so-called “aid” agencies. Rich country governments, such as the UK and Germany, deploy aid agencies including the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), respectively, not to promote development, but instead to fund programs to “help” developing countries implement pro-Big Tech policies as well as to participate in anti-development “digital trade” negotiations.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) program is even more brazen as it facilitates the Big Tech corporations themselves to deliver messages to developing country governments about what their technology policies should be. To be sure, these firms are not development experts, and do not have a mandate to help create small business competitors in developing countries; it is something that they would not do. Rather, they are being supported by USAID’s development-washing to deliver their market access wishes for how developing country governments should change their own rules, but in a way which would actually benefit Big Tech based in the U.S.
There is no other way to describe these efforts other than colonialism in a modern form.
4. Political Institutions Respond: New Legislation and New Enforcement
Due to the seismic shift in public understanding of the negative impacts of Big Tech on democracy, privacy, the quality of public debate, fairness in areas of our lives touched by algorithms and other technology-related issues, many countries are in the process of formulating legislation which would challenge the current “wild west”, in which the largest corporations in the history of the world remain unregulated.
The EU has recently approved both the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), and the Data Governance Act (GDA), and is debating the Artificial Intelligence Act, which are positive, although inadequate, steps to rein in Big Tech, especially with regard to competition policy, market manipulation, and monopolization.
Similar legislation is also underway in the U.S. Because the original Big Tech proposals originated in the U.S., and because the legislative shift there is less well-known than in Europe, the U.S. legislation will serve as an example in this essay. Here legislation on only four areas will be considered, namely, competition policy, algorithmic accountability, legal liability of platforms, and cybersecurity.
Competition Policy: Several important bills have been put forth in the U.S. Congress to address the increasingly monopolistic practices of Big Tech and promote fair competition. The Ending Platform Monopolies Act would regulate conflicts of interest when a company operates a platform but also uses it to sell its products. The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act would mandate rules to facilitate the portability of user data. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act would prevent Big Tech from discriminating against other participants in their services. The Platform Competition and Opportunity Act would make it more difficult to carry out certain acquisitions. The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act would require tech companies to pay more to government agencies to review increasingly complex acquisitions.
Likewise, on the regulatory side, U.S. President Joe Biden appointed major anti-tech crusaders to key regulatory posts in the government. This includes Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission, and Tim Wu as the special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy. All three have since been active in using the executive branch to push back against the anti-competitive monopolistic practices of Big Tech, for the first time in decades.
Unfortunately, it seems that some of these pro-competition new rules would be incompatible with the market access provisions in the e-commerce negotiations, which are intended to constrain states from regulating which products and services companies can offer, leaving that up to the companies themselves to decide.
Big Tech would also like to prevent regulators from mandating that companies ensure consumers’ rights to choose, for example, which apps can be used on their phones. They have fought hard against mandated “interoperability” provisions in the above laws. The provision in the “trade” rules reads: “[n]o party/member shall prevent public telecommunications networks or their services suppliers, including value-added services, from choosing the supporting technologies of their networks and services, and/or electronic commerce-related network equipment and products related to the technologies.” So through the trade provisions, Big Tech aims to handcuff regulatory powers from being able to mandate this key consumer choice issue.
Algorithmic Discrimination: One of the key demands of Big Tech in the negotiations is the requirement that governments be barred from requiring companies to disclose source code or algorithms. Big Tech wants to be able to hold these exclusively as its intellectual property. The provision, Section C.3.(1), reads, “[n]o Member shall require the transfer of, or access to, source code of software owned by a person of another Member, [or the transfer of, or access to, an algorithm expressed in that source code,] as a condition for the import, distribution, sale, or use of that software, or of products containing that software, in its territory.” In the initial agreements that included digital trade provisions, there were no exceptions for disclosure.
When the Volkswagen scandal emerged, investigators were only able to learn that the company was cheating on emissions pollution because they were able to read the algorithm or source code of the emissions software. New e-commerce deals since then have made increasing exceptions for disclosures, including for judicial proceedings or regulatory reviews.
Access to algorithms is essential not only for legislators and regulators but also for the public. Algorithms now control who sees a job advertisement, and who is hired, promoted, or fired. Without access to the source code, labor activists and trade unions would not be able to ascertain if a worker’s rights had been violated. Likewise, judicial systems are increasingly turning to algorithms to decide the length of sentencing after conviction. In the latter case, however, if data based on the outcomes of a racist judicial system are fed into an algorithm, the outcome can be just as or more discriminatory than the decision of an individual judge.
In 2022, both chambers of the U.S. Congress introduced an Algorithmic Accountability Act. This Act would include many important reforms, but it is difficult to see how a law that would create transparency and accountability on source codes and algorithms could be compatible with Big Tech’s wish, embodied in the e-commerce negotiations, to bar governments from requiring disclosure of those same source codes and algorithms.
Protection from Liability: A key misunderstood provision in digital trade agreements would limit the liability of platforms from harms caused by third parties’ use of its platforms. This provision is based on Section 230 of the U.S. communications law. Simply put, this provision means that if people use Facebook to incite racial violence against immigrants or other marginalized people, and some other people kill people as a result, Facebook cannot be held liable. This is even as Facebook’s algorithm encourages circulation of these incendiary posts because more clicks drive up advertising revenue. So, Facebook directly profits from exacerbating racial, ethnic, and other conflicts while bearing no responsibility for these actions.
Although this digital trade provision is based on U.S. law, Section 230 is very controversial in the country. A group of House members have introduced the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act, which seeks to amend Section 230 to remove absolute immunity in certain instances. “Social media platforms like Facebook continue to actively amplify content that endangers our families, promotes conspiracy theories, and incites extremism to generate more clicks and ad dollars. These platforms are not passive bystanders — they are knowingly choosing profits over people, and our country is paying the price,” said Representative Frank Pallone in a statement introducing the legislation. “The time for self-regulation is over, and this bill holds them accountable. Designing personalized algorithms that promote extremism, disinformation, and harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it,” he concluded.
In the U.S., there are divergent opinions on what reforms are needed. But it is easy to see that any decision in this regard should be arrived at through open, democratic debate. At stake are domestic issues of democracy, free speech, privacy, and control over our lives, which should not be dictated by the dreams of Big Tech from decades ago before the realities of these scandals had emerged.
Nevertheless, U.S. “digital trade” policies and proposals under negotiation still include the wholesale export of Section 230 to be codified into binding international treaties.
Cybersecurity: Big Tech also wants to be able to decide its own methods of ensuring cybersecurity, foregoing what would likely be tougher legislation on the matter, given the massive number of leaks of sensitive financial and other data over the last decade. Big Tech’s proposals on “e-signatures” (Section A.1.(2)4) state that “[n]o Member shall adopt or maintain measures that would prohibit parties to an electronic transaction from mutually determining the appropriate electronic authentication methods, or electronic signature for that transaction.” But “mutually determining” the electronic authentication method or electronic signature in a transaction between a consumer and Fintech means that it is Fintech that decides. The proposals put forth by Big Tech seek to extend this status quo as they prevent states (members) from mandating higher security methods for electronic authentication.
But history is full of examples of states failing to regulate security in financial transactions and paying the price. To cite just one example, after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported cyber intrusions among U.S. natural gas pipeline operators as far back as 2012, the White House, Congressional representatives, and (both Democratic and Republican) regulators expressed concern about these cybersecurity risks and proposed mandatory regulations to address them. However, no regulations were implemented. Then in 2021, the largest U.S. fuel pipeline was hacked because of a failure to set up multi-factor authentication (MFA), forcing it to shut down for the first time in its 57-year history. This led to shortages across the East Coast and higher fuel prices, as well as the payment of a USD 4.4-million ransom.
Subsequently, new cybersecurity rules were adopted by the Federal Trade Commission in December 2021, requiring companies to implement multi-factor authentication (MFA), along with other requirements. This is another example of a federal regulatory measure in contradiction to the stated e-commerce rule of giving the company the power to self-regulate.
These are only a small sample of the legislation, regulations, and enforcements being considered to rein in the power of Big Tech in the U.S., the home of tech giants. All of them seem to be in direct contradiction to the six-year-old proposals first put forward by Big Tech, which are being discussed currently in the WTO and in bilateral and regional agreements.
And this is just the beginning. Similar efforts are underway across the developed and developing world, and there will be many more legislative, regulatory, and judicial efforts to come. Public sentiment, and regulatory and enforcement approaches, are light years away from where they were six years ago when anti-regulatory proposals were introduced as “trade” agreements.
5. New Vision for Digital Governance
Given the harms we witness on a regular basis by Big Tech, and the new efforts underway to rein in the power of these corporations, there is a clear and urgent need to re-envision their role in society.
The expanding role of technology should benefit society by fostering economic prosperity and equity; solving common problems like climate change; and expanding quality accessible public services such as healthcare and education. The achievement of these goals calls for an overhaul of digital governance, which in turn, should be guided by two fundamental underpinnings:
The first is “data as a public good”. To date, much of the research and writing on data as a public good relates to making public (state- or government-collected) data available to the general public, including for use for private profit. However, we must also think of the reverse. Given that the largest repository of data about how people move about in cities is collected from individuals by Uber, it is only sensible that, as a condition of being able to use public roads and public infrastructure for private profit, Uber should also be mandated to share its data with the public (in a depersonalized way which protects privacy, of course.) This data could be used for public oversight, as the New York Taxicab Commission did when it evaluated Uber’s data and found that the company was violating minimum wage laws and minimum hourly pay laws, and legislated improvements. The Taxicab Commission also found that the company was violating access for people with disabilities, and mandated public interest improvements in accessibility. This is only one of the myriad examples that can be found in the public debate on “data as a public good”.
To date, much of the research and writing on data as a public good relates to making public data available to the general public, including for use for private profit. However, we must also think of the reverse. Making private data available for public good.
The second underpinning is the use of data for digital industrialization. In the above example, the Taxicab Commission also required Uber to disclose the metadata publicly so that other entrepreneurs could use it to further innovation. Given that data is the most valuable resource in human history, it is essential that governments enact digital industrialization policies that enable workers and entrepreneurs to use digitalization to create jobs and set up small businesses that generate value in society, away from the current trend of escalating data monopolization by ever-fewer firms.
Digital industrialization involves harnessing digital technologies to generate economic benefits, including jobs and small businesses, and increasing the scale of local tech industries. This includes expanding the transformation of large datasets into usable intelligence that can maximize digitalization’s value; and greater use of digital services through improved information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures, from telecommunications to cloud computing to advanced applications like robotics.
All of these practices depend on access to data. While much of early technological innovation was publicly funded, corporations have privatized profits through the states’ granting of patent and copyright concessions, and their own claim to privatization of data. Digital trade rules would expand these unwarranted protections. Instead, regulators should seek to enable the public to benefit from the creation of large datasets, so that innovation hubs and start-ups can use them to create jobs and solve community problems.
Clearly, the Big Tech agenda for data — in which private corporations collect it without restrictions, use it as they please, abuse our privacy, and privatize the profits — is no longer viable. There are too many other aspects of data to allow it to be “governed” by agreements whose primary aim is to forestall governance rules.
That’s why the major United Nations (UN) agency that promotes e-commerce for development, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), last year issued a major call for a new model of data governance that must be based not in a trade body, but in a multi-dimensional multi-lateral body such as the United Nations. In the ‘Overview of its Digital Economy Report’, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlights that:
“Data are multidimensional, and their use has implications not just for trade and economic development but also for human rights, peace and security. Responses are also needed to mitigate the risk of abuse and misuse of data by States, non-State actors or the private sector…The Report calls for innovative approaches to governing data and data flows to ensure more equitable distribution of the gains from data flows while addressing risks and concerns. A holistic global policy approach has to reflect the multiple and interlinked dimensions of data and balance different interests and needs in a way that supports inclusive and sustainable development with the full involvement of countries trailing behind in digital readiness.”
While much of the writing on digital industrialization to date focuses on the needs of developing countries, the concept is just as urgent for workers in the U.S., EU, and in developed countries around the world. Workers everywhere must ensure that control of data and its use are not monopolized by the largest Big Tech firms, but that data is available for job creation, innovation, and the common good.
While much of early technological innovation was publicly funded, corporations have privatized profits through the states’ granting of patent and copyright concessions, and their own claim to privatization of data. Regulators should seek to enable the public to benefit from the creation of large datasets, so that innovation hubs and start-ups can use them to create jobs and solve community problems.
Workers globally have been losing their share of the gains of productivity for decades, in large part because powerful corporations have rigged the rules through trade agreements. Achieving control of data and its regulation is a current corporate priority in locking in a system of global control over economic resources. To change that tide, workers must have a say in the rules that govern technological advancement.
Some would argue that trade unions, consumers, privacy and development advocates, legislators, and other communities should thus suggest what they would like to see in a digital trade agreement. But this argument misses the point entirely. In order to enact the anti-monopoly, cybersecurity, tax fairness, anti-discrimination, pro-worker, and pro-innovation legislation the world really needs, and to keep that policy space open for future unknown eventualities, we need to prevent all of these arenas being walled off from national legislation by a pro-corporate trade coup.
That is one reason it was so shocking that, while claiming that their negotiating positions emphasize benefits for workers and sustainability respectively, the U.S. and EU fought diligently to achieve Big Tech’s main goal for the WTO Ministerial in June 2022: extending the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions. As major purveyors of digital music, movies, and books, Apple, Netflix, and Amazon will keep their tax-free status – benefitting them, not workers or MSMEs.
6. Urgent Agenda for Action
People’s movements have made great strides in understanding the negative impacts of the pernicious practices of Big Tech on people’s daily lives. Journalists exposing Facebook’s role in election manipulation in Latin America and Europe, movements revealing and calling for an end to algorithmic discrimination in policing and sentencing, communities denouncing misinformation on social media with regard to the lifesaving efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, new research on the negative impact of monopolies on economic prosperity, the list goes on. Civil society activists have also built incredible coalitions and movements to put an end to these negative impacts such as the burgeoning labor movement organizing Amazon workers, efforts to secure data privacy legislation around the world, and global efforts to gain tax justice vis-à-vis Big Tech.
Unfortunately, civil society is only starting to fully grasp the importance of “trade” policy as a key field of contest over the future of Big Tech. In the next year, competition policy experts could convene a thorough assessment and redirection of “trade” policy mandates based on emerging anti-monopoly measures. Cybersecurity experts should ensure that “trade” agreements do not undermine their technical and policy achievements. Tax justice advocates could investigate further the potential for “trade” agreements to undermine their hard-won gains and oppose trade agreements accordingly. Anti-racist and other civil rights activists could incorporate mandatory source code disclosure as a key demand in algorithmic accountability and ensure that “trade” policy does not constrain that goal.
Workers’ unions rightly emphasize the power of collective bargaining rights, but often do not make the connection to trade policy that determines the field where those rights can be asserted. Workers and governments everywhere should champion digital industrialization, instead of seeing this as the domain of developing countries. Workers everywhere should not allow the wholesale takeover of the most valuable resource by Big Tech as if they are only affected by civil rights concerns and not economic monopoly power.
Some privacy advocates have strongly pushed for the inclusion of the issue of privacy protections in trade agreements. But others falsely imagine that “trade” agreements could prevent governments from restricting access to internet services. This is ludicrous as it is beyond their possibility and all past experience.
Legislators and regulators working on the above issues to rein in Big Tech should weigh in with their counterparts in trade policymaking, to ensure that their legislative and regulatory jurisdiction is not handcuffed by Big Tech through a “trade” agreement. Funding partners and donors need to drastically scale up investments to counter Big Tech’s deep pockets, going beyond civil rights and access to include support for preserving economic policy space through trade campaigning.
Collectively, we must build movements to generate not only the funding and advocacy to stop the damage of the existing privatization-digitalization model, but also to accelerate investment in digital industrialization and data as a public good.
Our World is Not for Sale (OWINFS), a global network of CSOs, was instrumental in stopping the launch of multilateral negotiations in the WTO in 2017, and looks forward to working with individuals, movements, and organizations in all countries against corporate-driven “digital trade” agreements.