We Can No
Longer Ignore The Role Of Big Tech In Entrenching Global Inequality.
the forces of digital capitalism, we need an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal.
In the space of
a few years, the debate on how to rein in Big Tech has become mainstream,
discussed across the political spectrum. Yet, so far the proposals to regulate
largely fail to address the capitalist, imperialist and environmental
dimensions of digital power, which together are deepening global inequality and
pushing the planet closer to collapse. We urgently need to build a ecosocialist
digital ecosystem, but what would that look like and how can we get there?
This essay aims
to highlight some of the core elements of a digital socialist agenda — a
Digital Tech Deal (DTD) — centered on principles of anti-imperialism, class
abolition, reparations and degrowth that can transition us to a 21st century
socialist economy. It draws on proposals for transformation as well as existing
models that can be scaled up, and seeks to integrate those with other movements
pushing for alternatives to capitalism, in particular the degrowth movement.
The scale of
needed transformation is massive, but we hope this attempt at outlining a
socialist Digital Tech Deal provokes further brainstorming and debate over how
an egalitarian digital ecosystem would look and the steps we might take to get
Capitalism And The Problems Of Antitrust
criticisms of the tech sector are often drawn from a mainstream capitalist
framework centered around antitrust, human rights and worker well-being.
Formulated by elite scholars, journalists, think tanks and policymakers in the
Global North, they advance a US-Eurocentric reformist agenda that assumes the
continuation of capitalism, Western imperialism and economic growth.
reformism is particularly problematic because it assumes the problem of the
digital economy is merely the size and “unfair practices” of big companies
rather than digital capitalism itself. Antitrust laws were created in the
United States to promote competition and restrain the abusive practices of
monopolies (then called “trusts”) in the late 19th century.
Thanks to the
sheer scale and power of contemporary Big Tech, these laws are back on the
agenda, with their advocates pointing to how big companies not only undermine
consumers, workers and small businesses, but even challenge the foundations of
advocates argue that monopolies distort an otherwise ideal capitalist
system and that what is needed is a level playing field for everyone to
compete. Yet, competition is only good for those with resources to compete
More than half
the global population lives on less than $7.40 per day, and nobody stops to ask
how they will “compete” in the “competitive marketplace” envisioned by Western
antitrust advocates. This is all the more daunting for low and middle-income
countries considering the largely borderless nature of the internet.
At a broader
level, as I argued in a previous article,
published at ROAR, antitrust advocates ignore the globally
unequal division of labor and exchange of goods and services that has
been deepened by the digitalization of the global economy. The likes of Google,
Amazon, Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Nvidia, Intel, AMD and many other
firms are so big because they own the intellectual property and means of
computation that is used across the world. Antitrust thinkers, especially
those in the US, end up systematically erasing American empire and the Global
South from the picture.
antitrust initiatives are no better.
There, policymakers who huff and puff about the ills of Big Tech are quietly
trying to build their own tech giants. The UK aims to
produce its own trillion-dollar behemoth. President Emanuel Macron will
be pumping €5
billion into tech startups in the hope that France will have at least 25
so-called “unicorns” — companies valued at $1 billion or more — by 2025.
is spending €3
billion to become a global AI powerhouse and a world leader (i.e. market
colonizer) in digital industrialization. For its part, the Netherlands aims to
become a “unicorn nation.” And in 2021, the widely-lauded European Union’s
competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager said that
Europe needs to build its own European tech giants. As part of the EU’s digital
targets for 2030, Vestager said the EU aims to “double the number of European
unicorns from 122 today.”
opposing Big Tech corporations in principle, European policymakers are
opportunists seeking to expand their own portion of the pie.
reformist capitalist measures, such as progressive taxation, the development of
new technology as a public option, and worker protections still fail to address
root causes and core problems. Progressive digital capitalism is better than
neoliberalism. But it is nationalist in orientation, cannot prevent digital
colonialism, and it retains a commitment to private property, profit,
accumulation and growth.
Environmental Emergency And Tech
blindspots for digital reformists are the twin crises of climate change and
ecological destruction that imperil life on Earth.
A growing body
of evidence shows that the environmental crises cannot be fixed within a
capitalist framework predicated on growth, which is not only increasing energy
use and resulting carbon emissions but also putting enormous stress on
UNEP estimates emissions
must fall by 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030 to meet the goal of
keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees. Scholarly assessments estimate the
sustainable worldwide material extraction limit at about 50 billion tons of
resources a year, yet at present, we are extracting 100
billion tons a year, largely benefiting the rich and Global
be implemented in the immediate future. Slight reforms to capitalism touted by
progressives will still destroy the environment. Applying the precautioonary
principle, we cannot afford to risk a permanent ecological catastrophe. The
tech sector is not a bystander here, but now one of the leading drivers of
According to a
in 2019, digital technologies — defined as telecommunications networks, data
centers, terminals (personal devices) and IoT (internet of things) sensors
— contributed 4
percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and its energy use has increased by 9
percent per year.
And as high as
that may seem, it likely understates the use of energy by the digital
sector. A 2022 report found
that Big Tech giants are not committed to reducing their full value-chain
emissions. Companies like Apple claim to
be “carbon-neutral” by 2030, but this “currently includes only direct
operations, which account for a microscopic 1.5 percent of its carbon
In addition to
overheating the planet, mining for minerals used in electronics — such as
cobalt, nickel and lithium — in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo,
Chile, Argentina and China is often ecologically
And then there
is the pivotal role of digital companies in supporting other forms of
unsustainable extraction. Tech giants help corporations
explore and exploit new sources of fossil fuels and digitize
industrial agriculture. Digital capitalism’s business model revolves around
pushing ads to promote mass-consumption, a key driver of the environmental
crisis. Meanwhile many of its billionaire executives have a carbon footprint
thousands of times higher than
average consumers in the Global North.
reformists assume that
Big Tech can be decoupled from carbon emissions and resource-overuse and as a
result they focus their attention on each corporation’s particular activities
and emissions. Yet the notion of “decoupling” growth from material resource use
has been challenged by
scholars, who note that resource use tracks tightly to GDP growth across
history. Researchers recently found that
shifting economic activity to services, including knowledge-intensive
industries, has limited potential to reduce global environmental impacts due to
the increase in levels of household consumption by service workers.
In sum, the
limits to growth changes everything. If capitalism is ecologically
unsustainable, then digital policies must accommodate this stark and
Socialism And Its Building Blocks
In a socialist
system, property is held in common. The means of production are directly
controlled by the workers themselves through worker coops, and production is
for use and need rather than exchange, profit and accumulation. The role of the
state is contested among
socialists, with some arguing that governance and economic production should be
as decentralized as possible, while others argue for a greater degree of state
principles, strategies and tactics apply to the digital economy. A system of
digital socialism would phase out intellectual property, socialize the means of
computation, democratize data and digital intelligence and place the development
and maintenance of the digital ecosystem into the hands of communities in the
Many of the
building blocks for a socialist digital economy already exist. Free and Open
Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons licenses, for example, provide the
software and licensing for a socialist mode of production. As James Muldoon
notes in Platform
Socialism, city projects like DECODE (DEcentralised
Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) provide open source public interest tools for
community activities where citizens can access and contribute data, from air
pollution levels to online petitions and neighborhood social networks, while
retaining control over data shared.
Platform coops, such as the Wings food
delivery platform in London, provide a prominent workplace model whereby
workers organize their labor through open source platforms collectively owned
and controlled by the workers themselves. There is also a socialist
social media alternative in the Fediverse, a set of social networks
that interoperate using shared protocols, that facilitate a decentralization of
online social communications.
building blocks would need policy change to thrive. Projects like the
Fediverse, for example, are not able to integrate with closed systems or
compete with the massive concentrated resources of the likes of Facebook. A set
of radical policy
changes would therefore be needed to force big social media networks
to interoperate, decentralize internally, open up their intellectual property
(e.g. proprietary software), end forced advertising (advertising people are
subjected to in exchange for “free” services), subsidize data hosting so that
individuals and communities — not the state or private companies — can own and
control the networks and perform content moderation. This would effectively
strangle tech giants out of existence.
socialization of infrastructure would also need to be balanced with robust
privacy controls, restrictions on state surveillance and the roll-back of the
carceral security state. Currently the state exploits digital technology for
of coercion, often in partnership with the private sector. Immigrant
populations and people on the move are heavily targeted by a mix of
cameras, aircraft, motion sensors, drones, video surveillance and biometrics.
sensor data are increasingly centralized by the state into fusion centers and
real-time crime centers to surveil, predict and control communities.
Marginalized and racialized communities and activists are disproportionately
targeted by the high-tech surveillance state. These practices should be banned
as activists work to take down and abolish these institutions of organized
The Digital Tech
corporations, intellectual property and private ownership of the means of
computation are deeply embedded into the digital society, and cannot be turned
off overnight. Thus, to replace digital capitalism with a socialist model, we
need a planned transition to digital socialism.
have proposed new “deals” outlining the transition to a green economy.
Reformist proposals like the US Green New Deal and European Green Deal operate
within a capitalist framework that retains the harms of capitalism, such as
terminal growth, imperialism and structural inequality. In contrast,
ecosocialist models, such as the Red Nation’s Red Deal, the Cochabamaba
Agreement and South Africa’s Climate Justice Charter, offer
better alternatives. These proposals acknowledge the limits of growth and
incorporate the egalitarian principles need for a just transition to a truly
neither these red nor green deals incorporate plans for the digital ecosystem,
despite its central relevance to the modern economy and environmental
sustainability. In turn, the digital justice movement has almost entirely
ignored degrowth proposals and the need to integrate their assessment of the
digital economy into an ecosocialist framework. Environmental justice and
digital justice go hand-in-hand, and the two movements must link up to achieve
To this effect,
I propose an ecosocialist Digital Tech
Deal which embodies the intersecting values of anti-imperialism,
environmental sustainability, social justice for marginalized communities,
worker empowerment, democratic control and class abolition. Here are ten
principles to guide such a program:
The Digital Economy Falls Within Social And Planetary Boundaries
We face a
reality that the richest countries in the North have already emitted more of
share of the carbon budget — and this is also true of the Big Tech-led
digital economy that is disproportionately profiting the richest countries. It
is therefore imperative to ensure the digital economy falls within social
and planetary boundaries. We would need to establish a scientifically-informed limit
on the amount and types of materials that can be used and decisions could be
made about which material resources (e.g. biomass, minerals, fossil energy
carriers, metal ores) should be devoted to which use (e.g. new buildings,
roads, electronics, etc.) in which amounts for which people. Ecological debts
could be established which mandate redistributive policies from North to South,
rich to poor.
2. Phase Out
property, especially in the form of copyrights and patents, give corporations
control over knowledge, culture and the code that determines how apps and
services work, allowing them to maximize user engagement, privatize innovation
and extract data and rents. Economist Dean Baker estimates that
intellectual property rents cost consumers an additional $1 trillion per year
compared to what could be obtained on a “free market” without patents or
copyright monopolies. Phasing out intellectual property in favor of a
commons-based model of sharing knowledge would reduce prices, widen access to
and enhance education for all and function as a form of wealth redistribution
and reparations to the Global South.
infrastructure such as cloud server farms, wireless cell towers, fiber optic
networks and transoceanic submarine cables benefit those who own it. There are
initiatives for community-run internet service providers and wireless mesh
networks which can help place these services into the hands of communities.
Some infrastructure, such as submarine cables, could be maintained by an
international consortium that builds and maintains it at cost for the public
good rather than profit.
Private Investment Of Production With Public Subsidies And Production.
Hind’s British Digital Cooperative is
perhaps the most detailed proposal for how a socialist model of production
could work in the present context. Under the plan, “public sector institutions,
including local, regional and national government, will provide venues where
citizens and more or less cohesive groups can assemble and secure a claim on
the political.” Enhanced by open data, transparent algorithms, open-source
software and platforms and enacted through democratic
participatory planning, such a transformation would facilitate investment,
development and maintenance of the digital ecosystem and broader economy.
envisions rolling this out as a public option within a single country —
competing with the private sector — it could instead provide a preliminary
basis for the complete socialization of tech. In addition, it could be expanded
to include a global justice framework that provides infrastructure as
reparations to the Global South, similar to the way climate justice initiatives
pressure rich countries to help the Global South replace fossil fuels with
Decentralize The Internet
long pushed for decentralizing wealth, power and governance into the hands of
workers and communities. Projects like FreedomBox offer
free and open source software to power inexpensive personal servers that can
collectively host and route data for services like email, calendaring, chat
apps, social networking and more. Other projects like Solid allow people to host their data in
“pods” they control. App providers, social media networks and other services
can then access the data on terms acceptable to users, who retain control over
their data. These models could be scaled up to help decentralize the internet
on a socialist basis.
platforms like Uber, Amazon and Facebook centralize ownership and control as
private intermediaries that stand between users of their platforms. Projects
like the Fediverse and LibreSocial provide a blueprint for interoperability
that could potentially extend beyond social networking. Services that cannot
simply interoperate could be socialized and operated at cost for the public
good rather than for profit and growth.
Digital Intelligence And Data
Data and the
digital intelligence derived from it are a major source of economic wealth and
power. Socialization of data would instead embed values and practices of
privacy, security, transparency and democratic decision-making in how data is
collected, stored and used. It could build on models such as Project DECODE in
Barcelona and Amsterdam.
Forced Advertising And Platform Consumerism
advertising pushes a constant stream of corporate propaganda designed to
manipulate the public and stimulate consumption. Many “free” services are
powered by ads, further stimulating consumerism precisely at the time that it
imperils the planet. Platforms like Google Search and Amazon are built to
maximize consumption, ignoring ecological limits. Instead of forced
advertising, information about products and services could be hosted in
directories and accessed on a voluntary basis.
Military, Police, Prisons And National Security Apparatuses With
Community-Driven Safety And Security Services
technology has increased the power of police, military, prisons and
intelligence agencies. Some technologies, such as autonomous weapons, should be
banned, as they have no practical use beyond violence. Other AI-driven
technologies, that arguably have socially beneficial applications, would need to
be tightly regulated, taking a conservative approach to limit their presence in
society. Activists pushing to curtail mass state surveillance should join hands
with those pushing for abolition of police, prison, national security and
militarism, in addition to people targeted by those institutions.
10. End The
divide typically refers to unequal individual access to digital resources like
computer devices and data, but it should also encompass the way digital
infrastructure, such as cloud server farms and high-tech research facilities,
are owned and dominated by wealthy countries and their corporations. As a form
of wealth redistribution, capital could be redistributed through taxation and a
process of reparations to subsidize personal devices and internet connectivity
to the global poor and to provide infrastructure, such as cloud infrastructure
and high-tech research facilities to populations that cannot afford them.
How To Make
Digital Socialism Reality
are needed, but there is wide gap between what must be done and where we are
today. Nevertheless, there are some critical steps we can and must take.
First, it is
essential to raise awareness, promote education and exchange ideas within and
across communities so together we can co-create a new framework for the digital
economy. In order to do this, a clear critique of digital capitalism and
colonialism is needed.
Such a change
will be difficult to bring about if concentrated knowledge production is left
intact. Elite universities, media corporations, think tanks, NGOs and Big Tech
researchers in the Global North dominate the conversation and set the agenda
around fixing capitalism, limiting and constraining the parameters of that
We need steps
to strip their power, such as abolishing the university ranking system,
democratizing the classroom and terminating funding from corporations,
philanthropists and Big Foundations. Initiatives to decolonize education — such
as the recent #FeesMustFall student
protest movement in South Africa and Endowment Justice Coalition at
Yale University — provide examples of the movements that will be needed.
Second, we need
to connect digital justice movements with other social, racial and
environmental justice movements. Digital rights activists should be working
with environmentalists, abolitionists, food justice advocates, feminists and
others. Some of this work is already being done — for example, the
#NoTechForIce campaign spearheaded by Mijente, a grassroots migrant-led network,
is challenging the supply of technology to police immigration in the United
States — but more work is required still, especially in relation to the
Third, we need
to ramp up direct action and agitation against Big Tech and the US empire.
Sometimes it is hard to mobilize support behind seemingly esoteric topics, such
as the opening of a cloud center in the Global South (e.g. in Malaysia)
or the imposition of Big Tech software into the schools (e.g. in South Africa).
especially difficult in the South, where people must prioritize access to food,
water, shelter, electricity, health care and jobs. However, successful
resistance to developments like Facebook’s Free Basics in India and
the construction of Amazon’s headquarters on sacred Indigenous land in Cape
Town, South Africa show the possibility and potential of civic
energies could go further and embrace the tactics of boycotts, divestment and
sanctions (BDS), which anti-apartheid activists used to target computer
corporations selling equipment to the apartheid government in South Africa.
Activists could build a #BigTechBDS movement, this time targeting the existence
of giant tech corporations. Boycotts could cancel public sector contracts with
tech giants and replace them with socialist People’s Tech solutions. Divestment
campaigns could force institutions like universities to divest from the worst
tech companies. And activists could pressure states to apply targeted sanctions
to US, Chinese and other countries’ tech corporations.
Fourth, we must
work to build tech worker cooperatives that can be the building blocks for a
new digital socialist economy. There is a movement to unionize Big Tech, which
can help protect tech workers along the way. But unionizing Big Tech is like
unionizing the East India companies, arms manufacturer Raytheon, Goldman Sachs
or Shell — it is not social justice and is likely to deliver only mild reforms.
Just as South
African anti-apartheid activists rejected the Sullivan Principles — a set of
rules and reforms for corporate social responsibility that allowed American
companies to keep profits flowing from business in apartheid South Africa — and
other mild reforms, in favor of strangling the apartheid system, we should aim
to abolish Big Tech and the system of digital capitalism altogether.
And this will require building alternatives, engaging with tech workers, not to
reform the unreformable, but to help work out a just transition for the
from all walks of life should work collaboratively with tech professionals to
develop the concrete plan that would make up a Digital Tech Deal. This needs to
be taken as seriously as current green “deals” for the environment.
With a Digital
Tech Deal, some workers — such as those in the advertisement industry — would
lose their jobs, so there would have to be a just transition for workers in
these industries. Workers, scientists, engineers, sociologists, lawyers,
educators, activists and the general public could collectively brainstorm how
to make such a transition practical.
progressive capitalism is widely seen as the most practical solution to the
rise of Big Tech. Yet these same progressives have failed to acknowledge the
structural harms of capitalism, US-led tech colonization and the imperative of
degrowth. We cannot burn down the walls of our house to keep ourselves warm.
practical solution is to do what is necessary to prevent us from destroying our
one and only home — and this must integrate the digital economy. Digital
socialism, made reality by a Digital Tech Deal, offers the best hope within the
short time frame we have for drastic change, but will need to be discussed,
debated and built. It is my hope that this article might invite readers and
others to build collaboratively in this direction.