Transgressive Tech: Power shifts during the Covid-19 pandemic at Data Power Conference 2022

The aim of this panel is to theorise the findings of the Global Data Justice project’s Sector Transgressions work, which examines the ways in which technology firms are expanding their reach, changing their business strategies and capturing new public functions and market positions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This research is grounded in the work of Tamar Sharon on sector transgressions based on Walzer’s ‘spheres of justice’ (Sharon 2020), theories on orders of worth (Sharon 2021), and the legitimacy of private technology firms in the public sphere (Taylor 2020). 

We will explore the links between longer-term strategies of technological infrastructure investment and market-building, and firms’ immediate responses to pandemic-related opportunities, in order to understand the character and implications of this rapid expansion of commercial technological power. The pandemic radically alters contexts for innovation: firms are incentivised to shift, optimise and reconfigure their activities while, at the same time, supervisory scrutiny and controls on competition are being scaled back by governments. The pandemic has seen big tech firms make bids for international infrastructural and market power in relation to healthcare, transport and logistics, security, identification, fintech and many other domains, but it has also opened up opportunities for technology firms in general to become less regulated, more integrated with state power, and to acquire more influence over the public sphere. We will present our project’s findings on issues of political legitimacy, ethics and regulation, as well as the conditions under which civil society and regulators may strengthen their ability to influence and control these corporate strategies. While the original project was focused on the EU, through research collaborations with partners we have added components of the research from other regions including Asia, East Africa and Latin America, and will situate our findings in relation to the global context. 

Proposed panel members: 

Linnet Taylor (Tilburg University, NL)

Aaron Martin (Tilburg University, NL)

Siddharth de Souza (Tilburg University, NL)

Joan Lopez Solano (Tilburg University, NL)

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.