Q. As you and others have pointed out, the emergence of the digital platform, and Big Tech in particular, represents a new form of sovereignty that disrupts the balance of power within conventional geopolitics. How do you see this trend having evolved over the last few years?
Luca: I think digital technologies in general, and platforms especially, represent how technology can itself be a regulatory tool. So, for academics or lawyers studying regulation, it is both fascinating and somewhat frightening. We are used to the idea that to regulate societies we use laws and regulations. Even market forces, at times, can serve a regulatory role, say, shaping the functioning of societies by reducing costs of products and services (usually with some form of subsidy) or increasing such costs (with some form of taxation). Yet, with platforms, the technology itself has a regulatory side. Of course, this is all well-studied. Everyone knows Lawrence Lessig, famously reminding us that ‘Code is Law’, for instance. In my research, I tracked this phenomenon back to the early work of the political scientist Susan Strange. In her book, ‘States and Markets’, Strange spoke about the concept of ‘structural power’, which I have found is extremely useful to understand the role that digital platforms play nowadays.
So, what is structural power? It is the power not to impose your will via command-and-control dynamics, but to shape the structures that then allow other people or other businesses, or even other states to interact. In a way, it is like having the power of shaping the structure of a labyrinth. Structural power is vested in the architect of the labyrinth. For, if you create a labyrinth, you decide where the doors go, where the walls are. And so, people that need to pass through can only follow your path. Only the path that the labyrinth architect has designed as the only possible option to reach the exit will lead you to the exit. Any other path will not work. Similarly, to cite another example that many of us will have experienced, when you go to the airport for an international flight, the path that you must traverse right after the security controls is designed to make you go through duty-free. While there is of course no law obliging you to walk through the duty free and check all products, it is an architectural ploy that obliges you to pass through all the products that can be sold; and most likely you will buy something. There is no imposition, but your behavior has been steered by the structure of the airport. It is a good illustration of how structural power shapes behavior.
What is structural power? It is the power not to impose your will via command-and-control dynamics, but to shape the structures that then allow other people or other businesses, or even other states to interact.
Platforms have, this type of power. They shape behavior with their algorithmic structure. The architecture of the application or platforms that we use, in the end, is a private ordering shaped by a digital and contractual structure that regulates what people can do within that particular application, within the platform. Large platforms, given their massive adoption over the past years, can really have a huge impact not only on how we communicate but on how societies develop and interact, on how democracies function, and on how the economies of entire countries evolve. What is key to understand about structural power is that it is self-enforcing – you do not need the police to tell you not to cross a wall of a labyrinth, that you should walk through the duty-free, or that you will keep on receiving information in a certain order in your timeline – those are the only options you have. When normative values are embedded in (digital) structures, there is no option other than abiding by them.
There was nothing better than the pandemic to demonstrate the impact that these large platforms now have on our lives. To give you an example, here in Brazil, I had to book a Covid-19 test to check if I was positive or negative, but the only way I could do this was through WhatsApp. This was really the only way the pharmacy (part of a very large network of pharmacies with the same policy) allowed anyone to book a test, and of course, that was a WhatsApp business account. So, it also means that WhatsApp knew everything I was asking, including my number, my IP address, where I was getting my test, when, and even how much I was paying; because all the data and the content of the communication was collected by the business accounts of WhatsApp. That was the only option allowed by the WhatsApp structure. What is absurd is that the emergency situation brought by the pandemic led market forces (the pharmacy network in this case) and sometimes even public forces (think about how many governments adopted EdTech platforms with no data protections for e-learning during the pandemic) to expand the structural power of platforms over entire populations.
The emergency brought by the pandemic has allowed market and even public forces to expand the structural power of platforms over entire populations.
Q. What do you see as the roots of this form of power? How did it come to develop?
Luca: It is not a coincidence and is determined by the fact that in the beginning, platforms, as application providers, had a lot of leeway in how they could develop their business practices and structures. This was owing to the laissez-faire approach that was typical of the United States during the 90’s when the commercialization of the internet was picking up speed. It started with the approach of the Clinton administration, which chose to substantially delegate the regulation of the internet to the private sector. There is a famous 1997 White House policy paper on ‘The Framework for Global Electronic Commerce’ that lays out this vision for private sector-led regulation. Why? Because the internet was global. You could not assert national jurisdiction globally without raising eyebrows, and even if you had tried, you would not have been effective. So, it was much more efficient to have private entities regulating by proxy, via standard contracts and technical structures, globally.
On the one hand, it was certainly a more efficient approach. It was not possible to employ law, bound by national jurisdiction, and apply them globally. Whereas contracts could be applicable globally, and so could technical architectures and code used to define the structures of applications. But, on the other hand, this was also a very smart way of using private ordering defined by business actors to regulate by proxy. So, at the time, the entire sector was basically dominated by U.S. tech, so, it was a highly strategic way to assert U.S. values and U.S. legal structures onto everyone else who was coming online, while branding this as a more “efficient” approach, driven by the private sector.
Of course, this is not something entirely new, nor is it rocket science. Such a model was operational already, if you think about the regulation of financial markets, or private rating agencies like S&S, Fitch, or Moody’s. They evaluate the financial strength of companies and governments, thus regulating how much interests such entities pay on their debts. De facto, they regulate globally through a private structure, by rating privately how solvent states or companies are (or not), thus establishing how much it costs a state or an enterprise to borrow money. This is another way to assert power globally. So, it is something that already existed in other fields and was replicated simply in the internet space – this kind of global regulation by private entities.
It has been very efficient and good to stimulate innovation in that context, because it lowered regulatory burdens and created a conducive environment. When you think about all the intermediary liability debates, and the fact that hosting providers or internet access providers were exonerated from liability so that they could do their business without being considered responsible if someone was sharing some illegal content on their platforms, and so on – that was an explicit choice to let technology providers build their own business as freely as possible and even to become private regulators of the cyberspaces they were building. It is a sort of digital feudalism, were the state (or at least some states) delegated to private actors the task of regulating the new, brave digital word. Actually, this is precisely how colonial empires were built. Think about how the East India Company or the Dutch West India Company operated. The very same logic has been replicated to cyberspace through platforms.
There was an explicit choice to let technology providers build their own business as freely as possible and to even become private regulators. It is a sort of digital feudalism, where the state delegated to private actors, the task of regulating the new, brave digital word.
However, the problems with this approach began to surface in the second half of the 2010s, I would say around 2014-15. We started to see what had been created – these humongous tech giants had become out of control. As long as they were small, or had a reasonable size, this was seen as a sustainable approach. They didn’t wield an overabundance of power, there was competition. But as they started to have a clear strategy of global dominance and acquire a huge critical mass of users, and enormously intensify their lobbying to avoid being regulated, a lot of the problems started to manifest.
With that size, and with that many people and users onboard, there existed a dangerous potential to abuse this technology – given their impact on society, democracy, and the economy. It became easier to exploit the vulnerability of social, democratic, and market structures, leveraging the new omnipresent digital structure to exert enormous influence, meddling into foreign elections, or manipulating economies and societies at a distance.
So, that’s how I see the story having played out. This choice of empowering platforms and technology providers, was at the very beginning exactly that – a choice. It was made, on the one hand, to let them unleash their potential, but also in a sneaky way to regulate the digital space globally, especially for U.S. interests, through a proxy. This was pretty much sustainable until tech giants started to reach a very large scale, becoming larger and mightier than most states. We have passed that point of sustainability, and now what we see today, is that these very large platforms are comparable, or even superior in economic and influence terms to most nation states in the world.
Q. Recent years have also seen a growing willingness to build and assert a type of digital sovereignty from developing nations, and to contest the dominance of the United States. How do you see these attempts? What is their potential, and what are their constraints?
Luca: I think it’s very difficult, and some state actors have really struggled to reassert their own sovereignty. There are very few actors that are really able to take on these tech giants that we have created. China, in my view, is the only state that is currently very strongly asserting sovereignty on tech. And, well, while the Chinese way of regulation is highly efficient, it is probably not the model that most countries can or even would like to follow, as their political system is clearly very different from that of so-called Western democracies. However, it is very interesting to study what the Chinese do, to see how they manage to be highly effective in their regulation, and to try to replicate the strategies they adopt to shape technology evolution based on what they see as the public interest. Of course, most countries in the world would have a very different approach to what is considered promotion of public interest and compliance with fundamental rights, but the point is to learn how to regulate effectively, not to copy and paste. It is rather clear that delegating the regulation of cyberspace to the private sector has not proven to be a very successful strategy to foster public interest.
But the other side of this is that the majority of states aren’t able to do much and cannot afford the luxury of regulating Big Tech. I mean, even with all of the announcements that we see from the European Union and other supposedly highly democratic and developed states, ultimately these are only a lot of announcements and very few examples of actual and effective reining in of the tech giants. Even when very refined regulations like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enter into force, then we see they are enforced very lightly and ineffectively. What I am saying is that most countries do not have adequate laws and even those who have them end up enforcing them very poorly. If you are a very large corporation, you end up understanding that in most countries – even in the EU bloc – the cost of being sanctioned is frequently far lower than the cost of continuing your business as usual, perhaps, adopting a façade of compliance.
Announcements from the European Union and other supposedly highly democratic and developed states, ultimately are only a lot of announcements. There are very few examples of actual and effective reining in of Big Tech giants.
What we are seeing now are attempts to overturn the original laissez-faire environment that had become so caught up with the mythology of the internet. It is being argued that tech companies should not be left to self-regulate, because at the end of the day if they must decide between their own economic interest or the public interest, they will choose the former.
And this is natural. Large platforms are private entities, so, their natural behavior is to maximize their profit, not to protect and promote human rights. It is up to the states to protect and promote human rights. Private actors, if you want to take a UN approach, have a responsibility to respect such human rights, but without any mechanism to enforce these rights it is naive to think this will occur. So, if states want to reassert their sovereignty and not let the private platforms rule as sovereigns of the digital space, they have to enact new regulations. There is no other option. The problem is how to do so effectively.
Of course, a further element of complexity is that the politics around this is tricky. Regulating technology means that you have to make political choices that likely only part of the population will approve of. It’s likely that part of the population will not like it, and the opposition to the government will condemn regulation as something that will stifle innovation, foster censorship, or take away freedoms, regardless of the quality of the regulation.
So, again, that is why for a country like China, it is easier to regulate effectively: because it’s less subject to democratic pressure. When you regulate, you don’t need to explain, debate, and justify actions continuously: in the Chinese system, it is the overall performance that underpins legitimacy. In other countries, if you regulate Big Tech, you regulate something that has become embedded in all aspects of life and essential for everyone’s communication, like WhatsApp in the developing world. If you regulate how such platforms work, your supporters might agree with you, but you will be considered a dictator and opposed in any way by your opponents, including by very influential lobbying groups sponsored by the platforms themselves. That is where the discourse has gotten stuck, and it is really the reason why it’s much easier for all governments in the world to keep going with this parody of letting the private sector “self-regulate”, because it allows them to avoid responsibility and having to engage in difficult political terrain.
The discourse around regulation tends to gets stuck, with some seeing it as desirable and others, seeing its as state overreach (including very influential lobbying groups sponsored by platforms). This is really the reason why it’s much easier for governments not engage in difficult political terrain and continue the parody of self-regulation.
That said, this has become really unsustainable nowadays, and almost every country in the world is now publicly deliberating on how to regulate Big Tech. So, the trend that I see now, it’s of a revival of national sovereignty over private sovereignty. We will have to wait and see what comes of it.
Q. What about attempts to foster alternative and local digital ecosystems, how do you see this as a factor contributing to challenging the status quo and bolstering the sovereignty of developing countries?
Luca: In my personal experience as a researcher, especially what I have observed and gradually come to understand since I moved to Brazil seven years ago, is that what the EU and the United States do is relevant but, it’s not what will impact most of the world in the future. Rather, what countries like China or India do now, or have already done in recent years, is what will likely impact the evolution of the digital world over the next decade.
What the EU and the US do is relevant but its what countries like China or India have done or will do next that will shape the evolution of the digital world in the next decade.
For one, this is because of the large size of countries like China and India and the fact that, by themselves, they already cover at least 30% of the world’s population and have considerable influence both regionally and globally. But secondly, there is a lot of potential here because of the peculiarities: the sheer amount of technology that China exports, globally, and the organization behind technological development; and the vision that India has developed, over the past years at least, the willingness to conceive an alternative regulatory model.
What China does, is create synergy among policymakers, regulators that implement policies, and developers that create technology. They also have a name for this type of state-driven multistakeholder system, it is called a “Xitong”. It is a sort of bureaucratic cluster where all those who are in an industry-specific sector (regulators, ministries, development banks, local administrations, standard-setting bodies, etc.) must cooperate and have continuous dialogue in order to create synergy, which is something that other countries don’t do. So, what they do is create a direct link between the vision they have in terms of policies, the implementation, and how technology is created.
To have this synergy between those who create the principles and the norms, those who implement them, and those who bake them into technology, this is something that really is absent in most other countries, but this is a key aspect of the Chinese governance model. It basically translates normative power into structural power by design. Again, admittedly, it’s much easier when you don’t have political conflicts, even if it would be mistaken to assume that political frictions are absent in China. But the Chinese approach is systemic and pragmatic by design and does not assume that the law will be enough to regulate. In other countries you have nice laws that are created, maybe a nice authority created, but then there are these large inefficiencies in implementation. See, for instance, the EU with the GDPR, a very nice law that is implemented very badly, and technology developers often don’t even know how to comply with it.
So, that is the dysfunctional perversion of the current system, even when the law is supposedly very good, it is badly implemented by the regulator that has oversight on the relevant field, and it is completely misunderstood, either in good faith or bad faith, by those who create technology. So then, even when you have a good regulation in a highly developed country, you don’t have a society and an economy that is properly regulated according to the goals stated by the law. This is what the Chinese aim to avoid.
The dysfunctional perversion of the current system is that even when the law is very good, it is badly implemented by regulators, or is completely misunderstood by those who create technology.
On top of this, China pours billions into technology to stimulate the creation of the technology they consider as beneficial for the country. To a large extent, China behaves as a turbocharged version of what Mariana Mazzucato defines as “The Entrepreneurial State”. Again, this state-led capitalism is not something that is specific to the Chinese model, the United States had done this, starting from the 50’s for decades, and the so-called “Asian Tigers” have been experimenting this model for decades. The internet was developed thanks to public funds that ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency) poured into a plethora of projects. This was a public agency with public money that funded research and experimentation. All the funding for the key technologies that we have in our pockets, smartphones, GPS, internet, you name it, they were created through a lot of public investment. Of course, as a result, the United States did capitalize on the commercialization of the internet. China is doing exactly the same thing. They are becoming almost unbeatable in terms of technology development programs, as they have not only enormous financial capacity and a clear vision of what they want, but they are also the only country in the world that can plan for medium and long periods, as they do not have changes in governments every four or five years. Most Western democracies can only initiate short-term small projects, as in the best-case scenario they have power for five years. So, it’s a completely different model. Does it mean we have to copy the Chinese model? No, it means we must rethink ours, to make it more performing, effective, and efficient, while also preserving our values. This is possible, and studying and understanding how other systems work is key if we want to be successful.
India is trying to replicate some of this – the vision, not the governance structure. It is creating all the conditions to have a national digital ecosystem. A key element of the Digital India vision is the large expansion of connectivity, especially mobile internet access, as China promoted, particularly since its Internet Plus plan. To this end, one of the smartest policies India adopted to foster national digital sovereignty was the prohibition of zero rating in the context of the Net Neutrality rules, issued by TRAI (the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India). Only now are many people really understanding what some scholars like me and other net neutrality advocates have been saying for years now: open and affordable internet access is vital for a thriving digital ecosystem. If the future of internet access is mobile, and you allow zero rating plans where only a couple of applications are sponsored – presented as free but, de facto, paid with personal data – and the rest of the internet can be accessed only by paying unaffordable fees, the majority of the population, especially if you live in a developing country where the majority is poor, will never be able to access the internet and will only access the supposedly “free” zero-rated apps.
In almost all of the Global South, the most-used applications are WhatsApp and Facebook. Not because people love them, but because these are the only “free” zero rated apps in almost all Global South countries, at least over the past six or seven years. While this is also somewhat true for India, the Indian people are also free to use other applications, because everything is accessible for the same price as zero-rating has been prohibited. Of course, Facebook and WhatsApp are very successful apps in India as well, but they are not the only ones. There has been an explosion of local apps for e-commerce, and for practically any other category of apps since the adoption of the Net Neutrality rules in India. These rules have probably been the most relevant and positive digital sovereignty measure taken by any country so far.
Moreover, in a mix of digital sovereignty and protectionism, India has also prohibited a large number of Chinese apps. So, this is really digital protectionism. It is what other countries have announced, especially in Europe, but did not have the guts to do. That said, it is not only a matter of having the political will, it’s also the size that matters. India is a huge market, like China. It means both that you have a considerable bargaining power and a remarkable economic potential. All the data that the enormous Indian population can produce, well, if you give it for free to foreign corporations like Google and Facebook, you’re literally stupid. Alternatively, if you start to understand that you have the power, might, and the size to build very large internal markets, and then to exploit this not only to boost your national digital ecosystem but also to become a global player, then you are being smart. That is what China has been doing since day zero, and what India has been doing over the past 10 years.
By prohibiting zero rating, I don’t think the main concern of the Indian government was the protection of freedom of expression, but about having a chance at protecting a thriving national digital ecosystem, which is what followed suit. Right after the zero-rating ban, Reliance Jio entered the mobile internet market, literally connecting hundreds of millions of individuals with extremely affordable internet access. If they cannot win market competition by attracting new users with some applications “for free” as zero rating was banned, they gave all internet access for remarkably cheap access fees. This led to the massive adoption of mobile internet, and subsequently, the investments to create new start-ups that are very popular in India and have even begun to be exported abroad. In many ways, this is exactly what China did. Massive connectivity and digital protectionism to foster the emergence of national champions that are now becoming global players: a matter of industrial policy. It is not only a matter of control, or whatever other dictatorial qualification you want to use.
Of course, digital sovereignty frequently rhymes with social control. It would be naive to think that countries with less than stellar human-rights track-records, like China, Russia, or India, implement strong digital sovereignty policies, simply for economic reasons. There is also a huge component of social control. But none of the other very liberal countries implement their cybersecurity, surveillance, or digital sovereignty laws only for the protection of human rights either. The reality is that every government wants to control their population as much as they can.
In comparison to India or China, what European countries have been doing has been rather static. They have been announcing a lot of things, but only in the past couple of years have there started to be start-ups that are starting to scale in Europe. This is because they understood that they have had an industrial policy that favors innovation, that gives subsidies and incentives, otherwise they would have kept on being eaten by U.S. tech giants.
Q. What do you see as the role of the multilateral system in working towards a more equitable digital economy? What are the key obstacles/challenges?
Luca: Here, the analogy I usually utilize with students is climate change. I think we see a lot of parallels between the global governance of environmental issues, and the global governance of digital issues. The problem is that, as climate change has sadly and very tellingly demonstrated, there are some issues that can only be solved with international cooperation, but it is very difficult to have such cooperation, when you have very large and very conflicting economic interests.
Tragically, as climate governance demonstrates, this kind of cooperation only starts to happen when there are major disasters. Now that we see floods, heat waves, and desertification going on, we start to understand that, yes, maybe it’s true that science was right and that we should cooperate on this. Digital governance, especially cybersecurity issues, are examples of how digital governance is, in fact, like turbocharged climate change. Look at cybersecurity policy. People, governments, and businesses only started to understand cybersecurity was seriously important over the past couple of years because the number of attacks exploded.
So, of course, global governance and cooperation would be the ideal solution to problems like cybersecurity, data governance, and universal internet access. These are problems for which there is money to find solutions, there is technology to find solutions, and there are institutional and normative arrangements that can be used to find solutions. Yet, the main problem is that we lack the willingness to find a consensus and cooperate to implement the consensus solution.
There are plenty of discussions. I have participated in the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for 15 years, and there have been a lot of wonderful discussions. But forums like IGF are only recently beginning to be seen as a forum for potential evolution of solutions. I, personally, have been lobbying for at least 10 years to use the IGF to craft models of regulatory action at the international level. We even did a model law on net neutrality in 2013, which was even used by the Council of Europe to draft its Recommendation on Net Neutrality, and this was almost a decade ago. We created a set of recommendations on making platform terms of service compliant with human rights in 2015 and a lot of other reports on platform responsibility, net neutrality, and community connectivity. But these are proposals and need cooperation to become norms and be implemented. Any kind of effort that entails political cooperation, or even any legal or theoretical evolution takes a lot of time. The problem is the pace of elaboration of technology and the pace of lawmaking are dramatically different. Technology evolves at an extraordinarily fast pace because there are huge incentives to be the first one to develop the most disruptive technology and to have it adopted as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, lawmaking, even at the national level, takes years. At the international level, it takes decades. Again, I say this out of personal experience. I have worked for an international intergovernmental organization – the Council of Europe – for some time, which is not even the most complex environment of a global organization: it is a regional organization with likeminded members with shared cultural heritage. Still, it was very difficult to reach consensus on critical issues. Rhetorically it is easy, and so you see a lot of empty announcements. We all agree that we have to foster peace in the world, without defining how to do it. So, usually everyone agrees on empty statements, but nothing evolves.
Lawmaking, even at the national level, takes years. At the international level, it takes decades.
Recently, I was both frustrated and amused by the Declaration on the Future of the Internet, by supposedly likeminded democratic actors – the United States, and other European states, which prepared the text of the declaration behind closed doors and only later invited all other “democratic countries” and “stakeholders” to sign it. These kinds of decorations are useless because they are empty. They say that we want participation, freedom of expression, human rights, but with no indication of how this will be achieved. At the same time, you will see the countries that sign it are some of the largest suppliers of technology used around the world for human rights violations. This is not only hypocritical, it is also a waste of time and energies. And it also exemplifies the real problem here. There is no political incentive to find a functioning solution, a concrete solution.
So, how do I see things evolving? It is very difficult to have global convergence on highly controversial issues because there are too many large economic interests involved. What is more likely is that we, eventually, end up with areas of influence, and systems that are, to some extent, overlapping. On the one hand, a strong influence of the United States, maybe on the other hand, a strong influence of China.
Interestingly, something that has also started to be discussed over the past couple of years is to revive a sort of non-aligned movement that existed in the times of the Cold War, and that could be adapted to the times of the digital cold war. Some friends and colleagues have been lobbying for this idea, and I think it has merit but, again, the main issue is not to merely create a new nice group of friends, it is to have an initiative able to function and provide an alternative to the two main “models”. Of course, the dichotomy between these two models is a false one, but the real challenge is to create a viable alternative that works.
So, as in the 70’s or 80’s, if you didn’t want to be in the Soviet bloc or a feudal subject of the United States, you could choose to be non-aligned, as most of the Global South did. Now, in 2022, if you want to be non-aligned, well, you also need technological alternatives, because otherwise you will need, at the end of the day, to use either U.S. or Chinese technology. So, if you have open-source technology, that is a very good option for a digitally non-aligned movement to promote. But there needs to be a lot more investment and development into such option to make all this viable.
As far as I see, India is really spearheading this, with its huge interest in digital public goods. Digital public goods are another way of asserting digital sovereignty, meaning strategic autonomy, not being dependent and reliant on what China or the United States does, or what the EU tells you is adequate. It means using open-source technology so that everyone has an alternative that they can use, being digitally sovereign at the same time as they are fully open to cooperate with others.
In fact, India is even trying to embed normative values into open-source technologies, with its India Stack and, particularly the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA). I’m not sure if this is necessarily the best possible configuration, but it’s a very interesting experiment. Creating digital architectures that can be used to protect personal data, to give control to individuals, and enshrine normative principles into tech.
This is a useful example of an alternative trajectory, where structural power is put at the service of normative power. India aims to frame very thorny normative issues with concrete technological approaches that could be replicated and used at scale. This is a pretty outstanding experiment.
Q. What, in your view, are some of the problems and struggles against Big Tech that are unique to the Latin American context? Are there lessons here for the wider Global South?
Luca: The problem of the Latin American region is that it’s unstable, as most of the Global South, really. It’s very difficult to have a stable political vision.
There is a lot of persisting political instability, that has been seriously aggravated over the past four or five years for several reasons spanning from Covid-19, economic crises, to the emergence of populism, and the disruption of global supply chains. It’s very difficult even for highly developed and financially stable countries to plan and to have a vision at this moment. It’s a momentous challenge for countries in the Global South.
To give an example, Brazil was not only a leading emerging economy, but also a true leader regarding the adoption and promotion of open source until 2013-14. Then, there was the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the economic crisis. There was a radical change in political vision that entailed a huge switch in the approach to technology. With the Temer administration, after Dilma Rousseff, there was massive adoption of U.S. tech at the governmental level. There has been a huge alignment over the past years between Brazil and the United States, even a sort of bromance between current President Bolsonaro and previous President Trump in the United States.
I think Latin America lost itself a little bit over the past five years after the economic crisis. There have been a lot of changes at the political level, a clear alignment towards right wing politicians and an alignment towards the United States. This hasn’t played out well. The kind of inequalities and concentrations of wealth in Latin America and in the Global South that we have witnessed in the past years, are really absurd. It has reached a level never seen before. I think that is part of the reason there has been a retrospection, a global retrospection, but a specific one in Latin America too, with regard to wealth distribution, and also social, economic, and democratic standards.
The kind of inequalities and concentrations of wealth in Latin America and in the Global South that we have witnessed in the past years, are really absurd. It has reached a level never seen before. I think that is part of the reason there has been a retrospection, a global retrospection, but a specific one in Latin America too, with regard to wealth distribution, and also social, economic, and democratic standards.
Now, I don’t think that everything is lost. Actually, it is very likely that there will be change in the coming future, if we manage to avoid coups, which in Latin America and other parts of the South is never a guarantee. I regret that in political debates, the role of technology is not really present. It’s a sad reality but there are a lot of social and economic problems that are much worse for the people in these moments than how your personal data are collected and processed. If people have to vote for someone, they start to think about who will give them some money to survive and to buy food, who will provide security in terms of not being killed, and not becoming victims of criminal abuse when you go home with your kids. So understandably, in the priorities of the people in the Global South, the governance of tech is really not uppermost on the list. As a result, in political debates, the regulation of Big Tech, or what digital agenda we should have, is really not prominent.
One can feel a little bit pessimistic, because when a subject is not at the top of political priorities, it means that it is that much easier for well-funded lobbies and lobbyists to have what they want.
Q. Can you speak about the challenge of regulatory politics in the Global South today, and what you think might be the kind of approaches needed to tackle them?
Luca: In this current political climate, especially in Global South parliaments and legislative assemblies, if people don’t have someone to fight for them – it’s quite a challenge to achieve any type of regulatory advancement. If MPs are not really prepared to fight for digital causes, as their constituencies are not aware and do not care about them, then MPs are much more open to pass whatever well-funded lobbies are pushing through.
El Salvador accepts Bitcoin as legal tender and I was recently reading that the Central African Republic has also decided to accept cryptocurrencies as legal tender. This is the kind of initiative that does not come out of the blue, it is the work of lobbyists for large cryptocurrency exchanges. If you notice, over the past couple of years there have been increasing announcements of upcoming tighter approaches toward cryptocurrencies. Many countries have explicitly announced their intention to start regulating this space. However, the usually lethargic times of policymaking gives the large crypto exchanges all the time to plan and hire a lobbyist to try to understand the vulnerabilities to be exploited at the national level. So, it’s not a coincidence that some very low-income countries start adopting crypto. That is the way in which you begin to push large-scale adoption at the national level, normalize its use and make it officially embedded into the international payment architecture. It’s a very sneaky technique.
If you want, we can identify two very different approaches to technology that are likely to have a very large impact on society in dramatically different ways. On the one hand, you have the use of tech to concentrate power, as we have seen in large platforms, and I believe we will see with the emergence of cryptocurrencies – rather paradoxically, as these are presented as technologies fostering decentralization. On the other hand, there are approaches to technology that can be very meaningful for the empowerment of individuals and a more just society. Think about, for instance, the DEPA proposed by the Indians, which goes in the same direction of the Solid protocol that Tim Berners Lee has conceived at MIT . Those are concrete examples of how structural power can be used to put the individual at the center of tech. I think even parts of Belgium are using the Solid protocol to give people a way to control their personal data. So, we have reasons to be optimistic. When we talk about India trying to lobby for the use of digital public goods or we see Belgium implementing these policies, well, this Solid protocol – for the control and management of personal data – is a digital public good! It’s a public protocol that can be used in a decentralized fashion to manage data.
We can identify two very different approaches to technology that are likely to have a large impact on society, in dramatically different ways. Tech to concentrate power, as we have seen in large platforms, and approaches to technology that can be very meaningful for the empowerment of individuals and a just society.
Unfortunately, the concrete economic incentives shaping our technology trajectory are not towards public technology that protects individuals’ rights and allows us to live in a more sustainable digital society, it is towards the use of absurdly unsustainable things like Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are portrayed as something that liberate people from banks, but are frequently controlled by a very small number of owners, and they are responsible for potentially huge environmental damages in terms of the power used for mining them. Annual Bitcoin mining consumes more energy than what Switzerland does.
So, it really is absurd to see that something like the Solid protocol has such little adoption, but something like Bitcoin is already adopted at the national level or even becomes legal tender in some developing countries. On the one hand, we have an approach that fosters sustainability, but has to be backed politically, and very few countries have the possibility, the political will, the size, the financial capacity, and the vision to do so. On the other hand, a lot of technologies are absolutely not sustainable, be it in environmental or social terms, but have very large financial and political backing. I see this as highly problematic. Moreover, there is very little transparency around how these political changes are introduced at the national level.
We really have to start thinking about restructuring our governance processes, to embed sustainability, efficiency, and effectiveness into democracy, while employing technology to make democratic processes around the world much more transparent and accountable. We need to start thinking about this like hackers. Where can we find the vulnerability in the system? We need to find the vulnerabilities and fix them. When the Black Hat hacker wants to hijack a system to take control, he or she thinks about where the vulnerability is. The Machiavellian lobbyist thinks exactly like a hacker. Look for the vulnerability of the democratic system to introduce what you want to pursue in policy terms, so that your personal interest will be served. This is how Facebook’s zero rating ended up being adopted in almost all the South, and this how crypto exchanges are now managing to have cryptocurrencies legalized in the developing world.
We have to start thinking about restructuring our governance processes, to embed sustainability, efficiency, and effectiveness into democracy, while employing technology to make democratic processes more transparent and accountable.
So, it’s very important to have a frank and constructive debate on what we want to consider as sustainable options for technology and for democracy. There are clear limits to what we can do in our current democratic venues, because history has taught us that our democracies, as any other complex system made by humans, can be hijacked and manipulated.
Again, I see such necessary evolution of our approach to both tech and democracy as very, very difficult in the current state of play. Given the large number of looming crises, the huge economic interests that are at stake, the direction that international policymaking is taking, and especially given the false dichotomy that now exists about having to pick sides between the United States or China. Yet, I see it as difficult, but necessary and, most of all, not impossible. There are still a lot of possibilities in the world for us to seize upon