Equity and social justice in a digital world

25 Nov 2019 14:20h - 17:15h

Event report

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The session discussed the Just Net Coalition ‘Digital Justice Manifesto: A Call to Own Our Digital Future’, launched on 25 November 2019. The manifesto is an open document that should be the basis for deliberation with civil society and social movements dealing with trade, labour, development, the environment, and other issues. It should facilitate a cross-cutting engagement of civil society around digital issues. Comments from deliberations may prompt the development of a new version of the manifesto.

In the discussion, social movements and their role in addressing inequalities received substantial attention. When opportunities arise to link social and economic problems more directly to the role of the global technical industry, social movements should be prepared to act. At the same time, as Ms Sally Burch stressed, social movements should not ignore local actions. Most people are involved in local issues that affect them. In addition, awareness that local issues are affected by global developments is needed. For example, insufficient attention is brought worldwide to the fact that large technological companies are as bad – if not more so – than typically criticised companies involved in tobacco, oil, and extraction industries. Hence, substantial challenges persist for social movements and timely action is of the essence. For example, Mr Parminder Singh pointed out a conceptual tension between individual/collective rights and political and socio-economic rights. While addressing these tensions, social movements cannot be paralysed, as the time for action is usually limited. A lack of immediate action could lead to limited options to fix problems later on.

Comments also addressed the link between climate change, digital policy, and poverty. Mr Norbert Bollow, for example, raised concerns about the further monopolisation of power via digital platforms by China and the US and its effects, such as pauperising the global population. In such a context, dealing with climate change issues would become a ‘luxury.’ Balanced and fair digital developments are a way to deal with climate change. Hence, digital and climate activists have to join forces in order to address both climate change and digital inequalities jointly.

Concerns were also expressed that the manifesto might be too Euro-centric. Singh stressed that a European focus on empowering cities and local communities may not work in developing countries where cities and local communities are not strong enough to resist capture by technological companies. Thus, national governments have an important role to play, particularly in developing countries.

The WTO e-commerce negotiations were used as an example in the discussion to highlight further challenges ahead. Mr Richard Hill stressed that recent negotiations created the unintended side effect of engaging trade unions and social movements in digital debate. For example, the ‘Our World is Not for Sale’ network has become particularly active in e-commerce discussions. Hill stressed that one of the major problems is the lack of legal liability of technological companies for the software they produce. The crash of several Boeing 737 Max airliners is a tragic example of how software failures can create massive loss of human life. While complex software will always create vulnerabilities, civil society should put pressure on companies to reduce such vulnerabilities.

Last but not least, in all of these discussions, the balance between equity and efficiency has to be reestablished. Digital technologies affect this balance (or lack of it) significantly.

Various suggestions were voiced regarding the next steps and follow up to the manifesto. In terms of implementation, three points were mentioned by Bollow. First, one needs to defend the policy space of states. The main danger for national space comes from WTO negotiations that aim to regulate the Internet via an e-commerce angle. Second, states need to start experimenting. For example, they should try to create viable data commons regulations. States need to start research on how to empower local companies to create values. Third, instead of waiting for governments and international organisations to solve the problem, we can take some action such as alliances with socially-responsible, local digital businesses. Such alliances between social movements and civil society could nurture a new business model and solutions for digital problems.

Regarding the next steps for parliamentarians and governments, Hill suggested three steps. First, align with South Africa and developing countries to stop WTO e-commerce negotiations before we learn more about the real consequences of e-commerce on society. Second, introduce data protection laws and link to trade negotiations. Third, technological companies should be taxed appropriately, including sales taxes, as was done by France or New Zealand.

Overall, the session placed a strong emphasis on the role of the state, the potential of civil society to play an active role, and the need to address the effects of technological companies on social, economic, developmental, and environmental issues.