Towards a Global Digital Compact

The rights that apply offline also apply online, but not quite in the same way. The digital economy has many promises, but is also a trap that catches most countries in the middle, doing painful data annotation, if at all.

By Roberto Bissio*

“As data drives the world of wealth and power centralization and concentration, we are at a juncture that many refer to as a neocolonial moment already,” declared Anita Gurumurthy in her introduction to the panel on the digital economy of the Civil Society Forum at the LDC5 UN Summit.** She related the story of Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan who was arrested in 2008, released in 2014, and went back to blogging to find, that the entire story of the web had changed. In 2008 there was just the world of hyperlinks, ‘providing a diversity and decentralization that the real world lacked’. By contrast, what we now have is the stream–fewer users are directly checking dedicated web pages, and instead are fed by a never ending flow of information that's picked for us by complex and secretive algorithms.”

“But more things began to happen in the mid-2010s. Data is not only nudging society, but thanks to the Internet of Things, the digitization of government data, the steady rise of image technologies and annotation, cloud and analytics, and the long tail of the logistics chains, data is driving the fundamentals of economic reorganization. So this is when you see big tech companies entering other sectors. Google went into the automobile sector with self-driven cars. Big Pharma is becoming big tech, so Bayer acquires Monsanto in 2018, a marriage of convenience, and certainly a marriage of data advantage.

So by 2017–18 data appears in the balance sheet of corporations, something that antitrust and competition law are still not able to wrap their heads around. The EU has since come up with a range of laws, the Digital Markets Act, the Data act, the Data Governance Act, as well as the GDPR, the Personal data protection law. “But regulatory regimes for data in developing countries are still very nascent, and at best we seem to want to think of data protection.”

The World Bank estimates that the digital economy contributes more than 15 percent to global GDP, and in the past decade has been growing two and a half times faster than the physical world GDP. The digitalization model is about the lack of democratic integrity and the lack of distributive integrity. What should be datafied and who decides? How is value created from data? How is it distributed, and how redistributed?”

Neth Daño said that at Round Table Two on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development of LDCs, every single speaker actually spoke about nothing but digitalization, digital transformation. Having engaged the UN on science, technology and innovation (STI) for sustainable development, it's shocking how the whole discussion of STI for SDGs has narrowed down to just digital. The Minister from the Maldives expressed his doubts about digitalization leaving no one behind, saying this is not home-grown. This is totally out of the sphere of control of any LDC.”

“In LDCs, 55 percent of the workforce is in the agricultural sector and over half of the population has no access to electricity. What was clear in the roundtable was the pressure on LDCs to build core infrastructure to enable digitalization. These are people who will go hungry at night, people who don't have access to basic education and health, and social protection. Would they prioritize owning a smartphone or a computer in a village just to access the Internet, connect themselves to the market?”

“Think about the situation in LDCs,” she said, “and also remind ourselves that the international community cannot afford to be distracted by sexy things like the digital economy when you haven't even fulfilled your commitment to the 2030 Agenda. Resources are scarce in LDCs, so the choice could be between building 5G infrastructure, making smartphones affordable to your population who don't have access to electricity, versus providing more schools, providing more farm-to-market roads.

How will digitalization happen in LDCs? “It's really instructive to look at experiences of a mix of middle income countries or even large economies in developing countries like India for example, where you have this controversial cooperation between the Indian Government and Microsoft’s FarmBeats, which allows Microsoft to have access to public data in agriculture and to be able to deploy publicly available tech platforms to help farmers increase their productivity. Indonesia is in the process of signing an MOU with Microsoft along the same lines. Questions like access to publicly available data, whatever little has been digitalized in LDCs, and also accessing data points in farmers’ fields, not just about soil data, weather, water, biodiversity, but about the mosaic of farming practices that are common not just in LDCs but across developing countries. So how can LDCs be part of this just digital transition?”

Benefits are never shared

Daño listed fundamental things that LDC governments need to do to protect their strategic interests, in particular in agricultural digitalization. First is recognizing the rights of farmers, not just to their land and seeds, but to knowledge systems, whether physical or digitalized. The capacity building they need is mostly about “capacitating and raising awareness of a population, whose data, whose resources will be digitalized and will be made available in the digital world.”

Second, is strengthening control over resources. When biodiversity information is digitalized, it also transforms the policy landscape– “principles of the Biodiversity Convention, like free and prior informed consent and benefit sharing that were designed for physical genetic resources, are hard to apply.”

“The issue of commercialization of data is key. FarmBeats, for example, has made no information public about the use of data. Does the government assure us that the data taken from a particular community will actually benefit the community itself? Or will it be commercialized in the same way Facebook has commercialized its user data.”

Torbjörn Fredriksson: “This data-driven world is not only an economic issue, not only a human rights issue, it is affecting agriculture, trade, finance, health, education, human rights, criminal behaviour, which is moving to online activities. There is an amazing growth of what we call the dark web, basically a whole universe for criminal activities, but also important for those that don't want to be looked at by their own governments, etc. The fact that we had a lot of shared data during COVID-19 made it possible to develop vaccines in record time. At the same time, we were flooded with information and data that were not true. So we had what we call the infodemic in parallel to the pandemic.”

“ Bottom line, when we have this kind of complex situation, what will really matter a lot is what kind of policies and actions are taken by governments, by other stakeholders at national, subnational and international levels. It's not an easy task ahead of us.”

Winners take all

“UNCTAD identified two main drivers of the digital economy,” he said. The first is the data. “In 1992 data traffic was about 100 gigabytes per day. Ten years later, it was 100 gigabytes per second and in 2022 150,000 gigabytes per second. Also, between 2008 and 2022 the fastest data growth was in Africa, with an annual growth of 44 percent in data traffic, followed by Asia with an annual growth of 35 percent. But data flows are of absolutely no value, either for society or for private companies, unless they can be transformed into something that is of value. This is what you can monetize, or this is what you can use to inform policymaking, make traffic flow better in cities or improve energy efficiency of buildings. But you need to go to that stage. Data in themselves have no value, they just cost things to manage.”

“The second big driver of the digital economy is platformization. Two countries dominate the digital economy: USA and China–one mega developed country, the USA, and one mega emerging economy, China. They are running the show and their approach is very different.”

“Why? Because of the ‘winner takes all’ effect. We have strong network effects in the data economy, that the platforms are well positioned to harness. Once you go into one social platform or search engine, and you get used to it, you stay there. So now 90 percent of the search engine market is covered by Google. And social media is to a very high extent covered by Facebook, especially outside of China, and Facebook also controls Instagram and WhatsApp, which are important applications for most of the developing world. E-commerce in the Pacific, for instance, is basically only done through Facebook today. From the collection of data in consumer interfaces, to the transfer of data from one place to another, to the storage of data, to the analysis and use of data, five platforms account now for 70 percent of global online revenues, up from 50 percent a few years ago.”

“Right now, LDCs are struggling because of lack of access to data, control of data and capabilities, and capacity to transform data into digital intelligence. We need to continue to strengthen the capabilities of developing countries, but also to strengthen their voice in global dialogues on how to shape data governance in the future. Who owns the data?

“The UN is now organizing a global consultation for the global digital compact. No one, not even UN agencies, knows exactly what this global digital compact will be, but it means an opportunity for civil society to organize itself and provide strong voices on what should be the priority of this compact to have inclusive, sustainable development coming out of the digital world that is taking shape?

Deborah James: “The basic issue is that technology is not neutral and who benefits from it depends on what the rules are that govern how technology is used, and those rules depend on who is at the table making the rules. People are getting more access to the Internet, but the economic divide is actually growing. The model we have for data right now is very privatized. Data is seen to be owned by who collects it. So what about who produces it? What about who is working with it? What about the country in which the data originates? What about the community? Do all these have any stake to say that they should be able to benefit? Right now, the answer is no.”

“On the concept of digital industrialization; there is a very important paper from UNCTAD on the South-South model for digital industrialization, and that is the way forward, because if we allow the same colonial paradigm on data that we've had on mineral resources, on commodities, we will experience the same concentration effects. Data and technology should serve the public interest.”

“E-commerce is not the way that digitalization can benefit developing countries. It's through data for the public good, such as improving public services, e- governance and other issues. This means “regulating data and technology in the public interest. Every sector needs to be regulated by our governments to ensure that it's delivering public interest and not just being used for foreign private corporations.”

When the World Trade Organization entered into force in 1995, big tech was not the dominant problem. They didn't get an agreement, like Big Agriculture, Big Pharma and Big Industry. But now Big Tech is five of the six largest corporations by market capitalization, and they are all US-based: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. They want an agreement in the WTO too. And what is it going to be? It's going to be about locking in the rights to control the data before LDCs even know the value of it. That is their fundamental thing. And how are they pushing it? They call it ‘e-commerce for development’. It's a big colonial data grab, but they call it e-commerce for development.”

In 2016 the USA hired a big tech lobbyist to write what they call a digital trade policy. They then launched this along with many other countries and tried to get a global agreement. Our global network, with groups like IT for Change worked closely with the Africa Group, with India, with other developing countries and realized that “this was a big colonial grab, and they put a stop to it, so there is no global negotiations on the whole range of issues under e-commerce in the WTO. But corporations and governments were very upset, so they launched what we call ‘plurilateral negotiations’. That means just whichever countries want to participate, along with those that are pressured to participate, are negotiating it right now, trying to conclude by the next ministerial, which is in February 2024. Their goal is to prevent developing countries from using technology for their own digital industrialization.”

The business model of these parasitic data corporations is based on market access rights. “They want the right to participate in your market without your government being able to say no,” said James. “They want to lock in deregulation, so governments cannot regulate them in the public interest. It's the only sector in the world that has no responsibility for its business model and the harms being caused by it. And they want access to an infinite supply of cheap labour, stripped of its rights.”

Most trade agreements are not just about trade, they are really giving rights to corporations, to allow them, for example, to intervene in domestic policymaking to protect profits. The main thing they want through a digital trade agreement is to give rights to foreign corporations operating in your country to transfer the data out of your country without you being able to have access to it. And they want to be able to keep all of their revenues without having to contribute to the local tax base.”

Electronic transmissions ride free

“There are seven different provisions in digital trade agreements that concern not having to pay taxes, provisions that ban governments from being able to hold corporations accountable for harms caused by their business model. They want to prohibit you from being able to require the use of local servers, so you can't even boost your own tech industry from it. And they want you to not be able to have access to the source code. Increasingly, in developed and developing countries, business decisions and government decisions are being made by artificial intelligence based on big data sets. The way that computers make these decisions is based on the source code. They want to blackbox the source code, which means all business decisions in the future are made by the computer without public oversight.”

A separate issue is the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions. What does this mean? You are banned from being able to charge tariffs on downloads of Netflix movies, on downloads of Apple Music, on all of these things, anything that is an electronic transmission. There was an agreement on this in the WTO before any of this was popular. “And why should these corporations get a tax-free holiday in your countries? Maybe you could use that revenue to, for example, support the local film industry or just support local education. Netflix does not need a tax break from The Gambia. These are huge corporations. UNCTAD studies have found that LDCs could have generated around US$8 billion between 2017 and 2021. This revenue could have bought two COVID vaccines for each inhabitant of the LDCs. This is a big fight. And actually they've set the next ministerial meeting around this issue because the big corporations are all running scared. If we have to pay taxes, it'll be so terrible the Internet will fall apart, and developing countries are saying, hey, we at least want the sovereign right to perhaps use this, as we all use tariffs for development, for our future.”

Interested advice

“There is a huge push within development agencies to give your countries advice on what is the best policy on digitalization and e-commerce, funded by USAID and others. Their whole point is to sponsor US corporations like Google to come tell you what your e-commerce and digitalization policy should be. It’s done as a form of aid. So Google then tells you, you should have free flow of data, you should have this, you should have that, you shouldn't have data localization. And so you should know that any consultant that is getting paid to assist developing countries on negotiating e-commerce rules in the WTO or Free Trade Agreements is paid to help you negotiate. They are not paid to assess whether or not you should have those rules, they're just paid to ‘help you’. So the solution obviously is digital industrialization and data for the public good. But there is a long list of rules that we don't even have in developed countries that we need to regulate this sector because it's just absolutely abominable how they are just regulating themselves. So the core issue is the control over data; not just about privacy. Northern NGOs, working on this, will tell you that privacy is the number one issue. It is an important issue, but data governance, economic governance, is the most important issue for developing countries.”

“The framework now is so privatized, and we need a new model, but big tech is trying to lock in their rights to control this data before you even know the value of it. We need to say ‘no’ to any kind of digital trade rules, bilateral, regional, or in the WTO, and instead have global governance frameworks that are based in actual multilateral fora, that are used for development and not just for corporate use. In order to have that, we need people to be advocates. We need to have civil society from LDCs participating in those conversations, otherwise we will just be run over with these digital trade rules.”

Anita Gurumurthy suggested a “pre-emptive data grab”, since “you don't even know what you will need the data for, better to hold it right away, so you can have some use for it”. She also emphasized the need for accountability “linked to AI in the form of black box source code algorithms, which are hidden and secretive, and cannot be opened up in the domestic economy because it belongs to a transnational corporation that thinks that it is a trade secret, if not already a patented product”.

How should we use the AI economy? That is a question for democratic debate because we need local generative models. When we think e-commerce, we think Amazon, but there should also be models that are home-grown, that are not predatory, that are respectful of our data, that are respectful of local economies, that can actually be governed bottom up. For instance, the platform cooperativist movement brings the ethos of traditional cooperativism into the economy. About eight years ago, a UN Pulse research study used longitudinal data sets through big data analysis to study maternal mortality in a village. They found that, earlier, the assumption was that it was because of some nutritional deficiencies. But the pattern analysis showed this was not about causality but about correlation, and identified as a cause that the road from the village to the hospital was terrible. That released a spate of other studies in different parts of the world as to how you could bring down maternal mortality rates if only public infrastructure was better. The serendipities that arise out of local data management and insight are not theoretical stuff, but actually really delving into accountable science. In developing countries for public services, E-governance and an alternative form of commerce. The hope lies in the fact that data is a resource, and it's not really impossible to develop data capabilities, even if it's difficult in the initial year.”

Cannibalization models

Africa Kiiza, is a development anthro-ecologist and has done work on trade and investment policy in the African region. He is a consulting research fellow with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and currently a PhD fellow at Hamburg University: “LDCs are so rich with resources, the minerals, the oil. Well, guess what? That is no longer useful. Now, data is the critical raw material that is defining the digital economy. So you find that the LDCs are being left behind because the raw materials they still have are no longer defining the development trajectory. Data is changing production systems.

“We need to regulate data, especially LDCs, because data is now the resource that the big tech are benefitting from. When you look at the models that are currently in place, big tech companies, like Amazon, profit from cannibalization models. In order to hook visitors in terms of the number of clicks and visiting the website, Amazon is able to forgo its profits because Amazon does not generate profits from selling books. It generates profits from extracting data from the number of people that are visiting the website through Amazon Web Services. Now that is the unfortunate bit when it comes to LDCs, because our focus is about market diversification, about market access. We are looking at how we are able to trade our cotton, coffee online. Cannibalization models affect the capacity of startup of tech companies in LDCs to compete. Facebook now is using anti-competitive conditions, for example in software development. And it becomes even more complex for LDCs to be able to compete…

“We definitely need new policies at the national and regional levels. But also at the international level, and these policies need to look at, for example, strengthening the readiness of LDCs to engage in and benefit from e-commerce. Unless we ensure that e-commerce is inclusive and the benefits arising from e-commerce and data value are inclusive, then we will not have an inclusive digital economy and unfortunately, the proposed rules do not allow the capture of the monetary value that comes from such data. Of course, we need to look at data policies for capturing value. And unfortunately, when you look at, for example, the African Union, the African Digital Transformation Strategy is really an unsupportive document, because you would expect that it would be talking about how to capture such value. But it is not so. We need to again reform and update our data policies as LDCs to be able to focus on this.

The economy of LDCs is based on middle, small and micro enterprises (MSME) and unless we build the capacity of MSMEs, their digital skills, then we won’t be able to participate in digitalization. And the LDCs need to build their capacity to tax digital platforms, while at the same time putting in place competition policies for the digital era; not the current competition policies for trade in goods and services, but competition policies to govern data, to govern the digital economy, to govern e-commerce.

Gurumurthy: The Secretary-General has made a heartfelt appeal that the commons of data should be governed as a global public good, and it is up to us to talk about what we mean by that, and go back also to definitions of public goods as a category of resource. And I think that firstly, government data from developing countries cannot be for open exploitation, but they should actually plough back value into the domestic economy. That's one dimension. The second is very often LDCs lack capability to implement social services through digital ID programmes. That part is outsourced to private agencies, often times not even domestic agencies. Invariably, that data is linked up to predatory insurance practices. Social welfare data that ought to be managed by our governance systems is leaked and gets into data markets, where it's not meant to end up. So that's another way by which public sector data, meant for governance, actually ends up in private hands for abuse, and non-consensual kinds of use.

FAIR data

Tesfit Gebremeskel Gebreslassi explained how VODAN-Africa is establishing a data management platform in Africa that includes the ownership, localization, and reuse of health data. "Data created in Africa is being stolen by the big tech companies, which, incidentally, mirrors the process of colonization. To overcome this, VODAN-Africa, a platform that leverages the indexer services, was created to prevent automatic data mining by international tech companies of data created in Africa".

VODAN-Africa started as a platform to enable access to critical data needed to fight COVID-19. The initiative was inspired by the experience of the Liberia Ebola Virus outbreak in 2014, where critical data were lost because the data collected were not locally owned at the point of production. In fact, the data collection was collected by a private organization, and not passed to the government.

Data sovereignty ensures that every piece of data produced is under the regulatory control of the country where it was produced. "Data collected in Africa stays in Africa, and can be used to build up a very useful source of knowledge for local users, rather than being exported and lost. This ensures there is an organized approach to health data collection, every data collected will be under the control of a country's Ministry of Health data frameworks. Therefore, the data can be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). FAIR data principles would change the current scenario where raw data is leaving LDCs or developing countries to be sold by big tech". VODAN-Africa is currently building a federated data space located in partner countries Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, Liberia, and Zimbabwe.

Gurumurthy said, “I think what data and for what purpose will enter the market and what will not, is the boundary question, which is a public law question, and subsequently how will it be shared, and how will it be used? Not all data needs to enter the market. Not all data needs to be shared in unidirectional ways with the private sector. There is also a need for private sector data to be shared with public sector mandatorily. The public law has to put in place boundaries which says ‘if you are operating in core sectors of the economy, please pull data back’. How will data even be reused and for what purposes? The idea of a collective consent process where I can declare that at no cost shall the data of this community be put to XYZ use, which means not only the right to be represented in data, but the right not to be represented in the data. This is actually about human rights. We need to go back to the table to talk about civil, political, economic, social and developmental rights in the data age”.

The US-China divide and Splinternet

In the question and answer section, questions were asked about the position of China in the WTO negotiations on data. James said that “the US position is very much focused on this euphemism of a free flow of data, which means taking data out of other countries. The EU is focused on using regulation as a comparative advantage, setting standards which you have to accede to in order to participate.. For example, with privacy, what that means is that their data can't go to you because you don't have adequate privacy coverage, but your data can go to them because they do have it. So they do have better regulation, but they are using it specifically to have an advantage over your economies.

China's emphasis is on participating in infrastructure development. So they are happy if you want to control your data in your country, and they'll go and do all the logistics and infrastructure for you in your own country. So it's not so much about taking the data out, although of course that's still like a big aspect, but they also are not as much pushing countries to be part of the binding rules. In every trade agreement, any European country, UK, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States, they're all pushing these provisions through trade agreements, and China, not as much. I'm not saying they're great. I'm just saying it's a different approach.

Törbjörn agreed, saying that “the US and China dominating the digital economy is a strong manifestation of the power of data and the digital, and their approaches to this are very different, one controlled by the private sector, the other by the state. And Europe gives more power to the individuals. This is simplistic, but the point is that among these big three realms, the data governance approach varies considerably. This whole digitalization, the data-driven environment and if you have access to the data, if you have access to the computer power and the skills to turn this into something, it affects everything. So if you have the big data analysis, the artificial intelligence, it will empower your performance in all areas.”

Gurumurthy added that the China and USA question becomes very important in the context of digital infrastructures and data infrastructures, because protocols and standards on hardware should allow for interoperability, particularly when we talk about investments from China or from the USA in the developing countries. Lacking interoperability, risks leading us to Splinternet, that is the possibility that in the future there are two big geoeconomic powers that control two distinct parallel Internets.

Daño pointed to “the elephant in the room”, namely the environmental and climate costs of digitalization. For example, a typical data centre which may house several thousand servers, can use between 11 and 19 million litres of water every day, equivalent to what a city of 30,000 to 50,000 people uses. Computers heat up, and they need water to cool down the servers that function 24/7. All these ‘clouds’ are actually hosted on land. Your cell phones have some rare earth minerals that don't come free, but are extracted from somewhere. Think about the Congo and cobalt. When Taiwan, home to TSMC, the world's biggest producer of microchips, had a drought in 2021, the government halted irrigation of 183,000 acres of farmland to prioritize supplying water to TSMC.”

Jane Nalunga reminded the audience that “the African Union, under the Continental Free Trade area, has completed a number of protocols on e-commerce on intellectual property, on competition policy. Considering what we are negotiating and what we already have in place, are we on track?”

James replied that “developing countries actually do have a lot of the policy space to implement digital industrialization policies now. There are a lot of performance requirements, subsidies and incentives creating domestic and regional data centres, Internet related activities, having the right technical, legal and economic infrastructure. The most important thing to mention is that no country has actually brought up their digital infrastructure by following the digital trade proposal of the United States. Not even the United States. Our entire digital sector has been subsidized by the government for decades. The only way you can do it is with digital industrialization policies. Is the African CFTA actually promoting digital industrialization? This is the same issue that Africa Trade Network was raising, about the need for structural transformation to have that regional integration result in benefits, because otherwise you're going to end by opening up, and then you will sink even further and not have access to your data. Even in the USA, we're giving US $50 billion just to one industry of semiconductors to compete with China!

“LDC countries like Benin, Burkina Faso, Laos and Myanmar and three countries that are not even WTO members, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, are participating in the digital trade negotiations at the WTO. If you're from those countries, I would love to be in touch with you to provide more resources about what you can do about that.”

Digital seed piracy

Farida Akhter from Bangladesh commented that agriculture and health are the main areas where data is more needed and have been pirated for a long time. In Bangladesh, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, set up with US funds during the Vietnam War was having areas under surveillance keeping every record of the people, about their diarrheal disease pattern, using the findings for the soldiers in Vietnam. During COVID-19, vaccines were quite easily available, everyone had to sign papers saying they would not hold the company responsible, but all the information went to Big Pharma. Now, when we are doing agroecological practices and seed keeping, we collect seeds and also collect data at local level. But there is also piracy happening. How to protect farmers from such big piracies?

Daño responded: “There are ongoing efforts towards that. I understand that in Southeast Asia already protocols were laid down on access to seeds that are actually set by communities themselves. But there's another layer to that question that is actually more worrying, like the digitalization of all data in the international seed banks and the international agriculture research centres. There has been pressure to have a common protocol on digitalization and maintaining control by countries where the seeds originate, in the course of the digitalization of the data in the international gene banks.

Sovereignty or Big Brother?

Gurumurthy added, “The idea is that data should be a public infrastructure under public management of data as a public good. We are talking about a resource that is unique, and therefore the independence of the authority that will manage it has to be conceived of in a sui generis manner. It cannot be that all data, even if it's anonymized, is available to all levels of government with one click. Federated systems exist, and permissions to access will have to be set at different levels.

“We cannot forget that we are not coming to these problems for the first time. Satellite data has been managed by the countries. Health data has been managed by local health institutions, census data has been managed by governments for a long time. There has to be a kind of mutual co-implication of the community with public systems in order to evolve accountable mechanisms. “

The algorithm is the boss

Marina Durano, spoke on behalf of UNI Global Union, a federation organizing workers in the commerce sector, for example, supermarkets and retail stores, which have been affected by e-commerce. “We also organize IT workers, including the workers in Google/Alphabet and Amazon, as well as health workers. As a Union federation, we are working with our affiliates to figure out how to protect labour rights given the digitalization of the workplace. One of the ways that corporations control workers’ behaviour in the workplace is through algorithms. Corporations use technological tools and techniques that contain coded formulas to influence workers, using their behavioural data as a way to monitor, evaluate and manage the completion of job tasks and responsibility. It's called ‘algorithm management’. There are algorithms used to manage recruitment for daily operations, such as scheduling assignments, or for performance evaluation. For this to happen, software captures data from keyboard strokes, uses cameras to track bodily movement. They capture and record voices, as in our call centres, and they also try to capture other biometric information. Throughout the time they are inside the workplace, the goal of algorithm management primarily is to influence or change the workers’ behaviour in order to improve and push productivity. The algorithm signals that you're not doing enough, so you need to do more.”

“Workers subjected to algorithm management have reported not only intrusion into their privacy, but increased injury rates, as well as greater mental health stress and anxiety. Workers in Amazon warehouses have an 80 percent higher injury rate compared to those of similar capacity in competing companies. And they have actually received citations from the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration for these violations. On top of that, Amazon is notoriously anti-union.

Durano quoted law professor Zephyr Teachout as saying, “electronic surveillance puts the body of a tracked person in a state of perpetual hypervigilance. Which is particularly bad for health, but it's even worse when this process is accompanied by powerlessness.” She concluded that “you are managed by an algorithm and you cannot unionize. That is what it basically means and our ability to respond, and to protect labour rights is limited by the quality of data governance. For as long as data governance is weak, we will have a hard time protecting labour rights. It matters that we actually think very carefully about the connection between how we govern data in relation to workers rights.”

Tuvalu: A whole country moves to the cloud

Maureen Penjeuli addressed the difficulties of Tuvalu, an LDC which has a vision to be the “first digital country in the metaverse”. At Cop 27 last year in Egypt, the Foreign Minister, Simon Coffey, said, "Our land, our ocean, our cultures are the most precious assets of our people and to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world. We will move them to the cloud." The story of Digital Tuvalu “raises fundamental existential questions in the context of the climate crisis, in particular in relation to sea level rise, about our notions of sovereignty, citizenship rights and legal statehood in the absence of physical territory”.

“Tuvalu is a low-lying coral atoll nation of 12,000 people. The borough of Manhattan in New York is twice the size of Tuvalu. But its ocean space is about 750,000 square kilometres. In most places, the atolls are less than 5 meters above sea level. So the melting of ice in the poles is inundating their capital. Every time there's a high tide, 40 percent of the capital, Funafuti, is underwater. They have been experiencing slow inundation of saltwater in freshwater tables, so now they are heavily dependent on rainfall patterns. Or they have to import water.”

“Climate change is making Tuvalu unliveable and in a sense will force Tuvaluans to move. And in legal terms, what it will do is reduce these atolls to what we call ‘rocks’. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ‘rocks’ means anything that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life, and therefore do not qualify for an economic exclusive zone of 200 nautical miles. So the implication is that Tuvalu, within this century, could be forced to be rocks.

“They are working hard to map the coordinates, deposit them with the UN and legislate nationally to recognize these coordinate that will exist forever, even in the context of sea level rise. You have to remember that within this 750,000 square kilometres, there are resources. Fish, minerals, oil. The tragedy is that the global community today has not taken a decision on whether to recognize these coordinates, in the context of climate change and sea level rise. Hence, the proposal by Tuvalu to live in the cloud. Which is to catalogue and archive all of Tuvalu's data on the Metaverse. It documents your family tree, your family albums, photography, pictures, names. It documents your culture, both oral and written, in song and dance, your history, books, historical documents and government data, all of it already exists in the Metaverse, and you can find them on Tuvalu's domain:”

Daño commented that the story of Tuvalu is a good example of how the parallel universes, the virtual and the real physical are closely intermeshed now, like dystopia and utopia. In fact, the interest of investors in the Metaverse is actually waning. Meta has already axed thousands of jobs, many of them connected to the Metaverse, part of the work of Meta. If Meta stops investing in the metaverse, that would have implications on Tuvalu’s effort to datafy everything that it has.”

Gurumurthy saw in Tuvalu’s story an example of what it means to have knowledge under privatized control. If it doesn't make business sense, then the archive will cease to exist. “We're talking about the predicament of people, you know, in deep irony, whose very existence is threatened because of climate change. On the other hand, the act of Tuvalu is actually an act of resistance, to say, “if I cannot exist physically, I will exist virtually”. The open question is how differently rights that apply online, can be still grounded in the ethos of human rights, because the rights that apply offline don't apply in quite the same way online. This keeps coming back in respect of questions around online violence against women. So the experience of online violence is very different for women than offline. Whether it's the right to exist and the right to development of Tuvalu or an individual right to bodily sovereignty and integrity, these rights have to be rearticulated for the digital age.”

Digital economy and Sustainable Development - Issues at Stake
Doha, 8 March 2023

Organizer/Moderator: Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change)

Neth Daño, Asia Director (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration - ETC Group); Torbjörn Fredriksson, Head of E-commerce and Digital Economy Branch (UNCTAD); Deborah James, Director of International Programs (Center for Economic and Policy Research and Coordinator, OWINFS network); Africa Kiiza (PhD Fellow at Hamburg University, Uganda); Tesfit Gebremeskel Gebreslassie (Europe External Programme with Africa, Ethiopia); Marina Durano (UNI Global Union); Maureen Penjueli ( Pacific Network on Globalization).

See more about the LDC5 Civil Society Forum (Doha, Qatar, from 4 to 9 March 2023) here.


* This summary is based on notes and recordings. It has been edited for clarity and conciseness; subtitles emphasis and clarifications were added. Karen Judd contributed to the final editing.

Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change)