It seems every few days we are reminded of how Big Tech companies have no qualms amassing profits while their products are used to incite violence and spread disinformation. The latest such reminder was the recent murder of two protesters in Kenosha, the US state of Wisconsin, by a member of a militant group active on Facebook – a group the company was aware of but refused to do anything about.
The problem is not only that Big Tech companies are converting our social lives into revenue streams, which in itself represents new forms of exploitation and appropriation. The problem is also that these dynamics perpetuate forms of discrimination, hatred, and oppression that have deep historical roots extending far beyond the recent history of online platforms, or even beyond the past two centuries of capitalism. That is why Nick Couldry and I call this phenomenon “data colonialism”.
It is not only Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon who are engaged in data colonialism. China, with its comprehensive systems of digital surveillance and artificial intelligence, is the other centre of power in data colonialism.
Where does that leave us, the rest of the world? When it comes to digital technologies, is there an option that allows us to safely navigate between the profit-motivated Scylla of Silicon Valley and the control-motivated Charybdis of the Chinese Communist Party?
Perhaps we need to take a page from the Non-Aligned Movement, a consortium of nations that, during the Cold War, attempted to forge a path beyond the equally inadequate choices of capitalism and communism. While the Non-Aligned Movement was not very successful for a variety of reasons, we can still learn important lessons to attempt something more ambitious.
What we need is a Non-Aligned Technologies Movement (NATM), an alliance not necessarily of nations, but of multiple actors already working towards the same goals, coming together to declare their non-alignment with the US and China.
Activists, researchers, hackers and NGOs have been devising these kinds of alternatives for years. It is time to collect them under a movement big enough to pose a challenge to the two neocolonial superpowers. This new movement is necessary for two important reasons.
First, it has become patently clear that the development of technologies in China and the US is exempt, on purpose, from any social accountability. How has this happened? It is universally accepted (one hopes) that a scientific experiment can only go forward if the researchers can demonstrate it will not negatively affect human subjects. And yet, in the world of technological development, no such expectation exists.
If technology is the application of science, its implementation needs to be held to the same scientific standards, especially when it is evident that technology affects society in profound and long-lasting ways, well beyond the “development” phase.
Traditionally, capitalism has told us that this cannot happen because it would delay and interfere with innovation. NATM is the first step towards rejecting that narrative, and saying that we no longer believe there is a sharp distinction between scientific research and technological implementation.
The two have become practically indistinguishable because modern digital technologies are constantly changing, and thus their impact needs to be constantly assessed and held to stringent ethical standards.
Second, it has also become evident that most governments and world organisations are incapable or unwilling to stand up to the Big Tech axis, even if it means imposing minimal taxes or protections for users. A Non-Aligned Technologies movement would empower civil societies across the globe to act in consort to meet their shared objectives while putting pressure on their respective governments to change the way they deal with Big Tech.