Digital disruption or crisis capitalism? Technology, power and the pandemic

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This report – commissioned by the European AI Fund as part of its research programme on Tech and COVID – addresses a critical question: how have technology firms used the pandemic to expand their reach, change their business strategies and capture new public functions and market positions in Europe?

While some of the fundamental shifts we identify predate the start of the public health emergency, the crisis context has amplified the encroachment of tech firms across a range of different sectors, and enabled a rapid expansion of commercial technological power in areas where public service provision and private-sector business models are not aligned, and in ways that current regulatory frameworks are ill-equipped to deal with.

So far, public debate in Europe has largely focused on the privacy implications of the onslaught of pandemic tech. Although privacy is a key point of leverage on technological power, it has been used strategically by firms to distract us from broader problems of domination. We argue, using the concept of ‘sector transgressions’ – the involvement of commercial actors in spaces where their business models, practices and ethics are misaligned with established actors in those spaces – that we need to understand and contest the far-reaching ramifications of the increased presence and power of tech firms in all areas of public and private life.

We document how tech firms have strategised to move into the health, education, security, transportation, payments and identity sectors during the pandemic. We identify both a supply-side problem of opportunistic moves and a demand-side problem where the emergency has made possible new forms of privatisation and the delegation of key public functions.

We chart the resulting increase in infrastructural power on the part of firms offering cloud, connectivity and analytics services. These infrastructural changes pose real challenges in terms of preserving the public sector’s accountability for the provision of public goods. This is not a privacy problem: it implicates other public goods such as self-determination, political engagement, health, education and knowledge, and ultimately the notion of publicness itself – the capacity and resilience of the public sector in relation to tasks and services that address vulnerabilities and basic needs- and therefore necessitate democratic accountability.

Many argue that the pandemic has sparked innovation and that this should be celebrated. A closer look, however, shows not merely disruption of business as usual but the destruction of mechanisms for providing public goods, and the risk of genuine destabilisation of that provision.

The combination of accelerated privatisation with increased ownership of the underlying digital architectures of our societies puts technology firms not only in control of our public policy, workplaces and homes, but in a position to charge what they wish for that dominance, or to make the functionality we rely on disappear by changing their business models.

In response to these changes, we call for a more holistic perspective on the problems of technological power, and propose ways for civil society organisations and their funders to tackle them. We offer a framework of naming, blaming and claiming to show how civil society has confronted — and can continue to reckon with — transgressions by tech firms. We offer tools for identifying sector transgressions; analysing and attributing responsibility to those causing them; and finally establishing claims through strategic litigation, documentation and campaigns to raise public awareness and to ensure accountability of tech firms.

We offer recommendations for how to combat this technological and infrastructural power and challenge its legitimacy:

  • Think beyond privacy and surveillance: In order to contest tech firms’ strategies and power accumulation, it has become necessary to go beyond arguments based on privacy or surveillance harms alone. A more holistic approach is needed that can address the broader legitimacy of firms’ activities in the public sphere.
  • Use sectoral problems strategically to build public awareness of underlying ones: The sectoral transgressions described in this report are symptoms rather than self-contained problems. Together, they indicate an underlying penetration of commercial technological power which cannot be addressed effectively by focusing on a single type of transgression or sector-specific injustice.
  • Join forces with organisations not (yet) focused on digital rights: A holistic approach at scale requires coordination between domain-based and digital rights organisations. An important resource exists in the form of sectoral organisations (e.g. trade unions or student unions) and in other non-digitally focused rights organisations (e.g. migrants’ or children’s organisations). This requires resources, strategic capacity and intermediaries to help make connections.
  • Seek out funding to support collaborative work: Strategically integrating digital rights groups’ work with that of the domain and interest-based organisations cannot be done without the support of funders, who play a key role in the choices civil society organisations (can) make about how to orient their work.
  • Coordinate transnationally to map the challenges: The map of technological transgressions is multinational and diverse. The only successful strategy for challenging this power grab involves building capacity and alliances amongst civil society, regulators and legal institutions across Europe, including countries where its manifestations may look different.

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.