It seems every few days we are reminded of how Big Tech companies have no qualms amassing profits while their products are used to incite violence and spread disinformation. The latest such reminder was the recent murder of two protesters in Kenosha, the US state of Wisconsin, by a member of a militant group active on Facebook – a group the company was aware of but refused to do anything about.
The problem is not only that Big Tech companies are converting our social lives into revenue streams, which in itself represents new forms of exploitation and appropriation. The problem is also that these dynamics perpetuate forms of discrimination, hatred, and oppression that have deep historical roots extending far beyond the recent history of online platforms, or even beyond the past two centuries of capitalism. That is why Nick Couldry and I call this phenomenon “data colonialism“.
It is not only Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon who are engaged in data colonialism. China, with its comprehensive systems of digital surveillance and artificial intelligence, is the other centre of power in data colonialism.
Where does that leave us, the rest of the world? When it comes to digital technologies, is there an option that allows us to safely navigate between the profit-motivated Scylla of Silicon Valley and the control-motivated Charybdis of the Chinese Communist Party?
Perhaps we need to take a page from the Non-Aligned Movement, a consortium of nations that, during the Cold War, attempted to forge a path beyond the equally inadequate choices of capitalism and communism. While the Non-Aligned Movement was not very successful for a variety of reasons, we can still learn important lessons to attempt something more ambitious.
What we need is a Non-Aligned Technologies Movement (NATM), an alliance not necessarily of nations, but of multiple actors already working towards the same goals, coming together to declare their non-alignment with the US and China.
Activists, researchers, hackers and NGOs have been devising these kinds of alternatives for years. It is time to collect them under a movement big enough to pose a challenge to the two neocolonial superpowers. This new movement is necessary for two important reasons.
First, it has become patently clear that the development of technologies in China and the US is exempt, on purpose, from any social accountability. How has this happened? It is universally accepted (one hopes) that a scientific experiment can only go forward if the researchers can demonstrate it will not negatively affect human subjects. And yet, in the world of technological development, no such expectation exists.
If technology is the application of science, its implementation needs to be held to the same scientific standards, especially when it is evident that technology affects society in profound and long-lasting ways, well beyond the “development” phase.
Traditionally, capitalism has told us that this cannot happen because it would delay and interfere with innovation. NATM is the first step towards rejecting that narrative, and saying that we no longer believe there is a sharp distinction between scientific research and technological implementation.
The two have become practically indistinguishable because modern digital technologies are constantly changing, and thus their impact needs to be constantly assessed and held to stringent ethical standards.
Second, it has also become evident that most governments and world organisations are incapable or unwilling to stand up to the Big Tech axis, even if it means imposing minimal taxes or protections for users. A Non-Aligned Technologies movement would empower civil societies across the globe to act in consort to meet their shared objectives while putting pressure on their respective governments to change the way they deal with Big Tech.
Let me sketch out the main goals of NATM before briefly discussing some concrete proposals for how to launch it.
The primary goal of NATM would be to transition from technologies that are against the interest of society to technologies that are in the interest of society. To implement this, we would need to define what is in the public interest when it comes to technologies, and evaluate technologies to see if they meet these criteria. Many efforts to do this have been happening concurrently, but NATM would allow us to form a global consortium to collectively support these tasks.
Realising that this is going to take time and effort to accomplish, a secondary goal of NATM is to promote the immediate regulation and taxation of technologies that are not in the public’s interest. But here we must strongly affirm social good over individual benefit, and point out that NATM goes beyond the idea of paying individuals for their data.
An intermediate goal in this regard is the nationalisation of data so that Big Tech is forced to pay nations for the value they are extracting from their citizens. To be clear, I am talking about nationalising data not in the sense of transferring ownership of a commodified property to the state, but in the sense of asserting national control over a resource currently extracted illegitimately.
The taxes resulting from nationalisation need to be invested in programmes that benefit societies, not individuals, small collectives or elites. Again, individual governments are unlikely to adopt such measures on their own accord, but NATM can make evident the benefit of acting and exercising pressure as a global consortium.
The third goal of NATM is to create change that can involve anyone, anywhere. Global civil society needs to come together to effect the change, but it needs to be able to do so by uniting dispersed efforts.
If continents will not become non-aligned, nations can. If not nations, cities. If not cities, communities (onsite and online). If not communities, then individuals can become non-aligned. The goal is to create a new social order, and even individuals and small communities should be able to contribute to that order.
What specific actions could this movement pursue?
To begin, NATM as a block could conduct an analysis and decide which open-source platforms to support as a bloc. We now have plenty of options to replicate and improve most of the functions offered by Big Tech, including social networking, file sharing, data collection and analysis, mapping, publishing, etc. NATM could pick the most advanced and scalable solution in each case and commit to its development, providing support for NATM members to implement it.
In essence, NATM would create parallel platforms to those offered by the Big Tech axis, but without the extraction and dispossession. These platforms would cease to be niche solutions explored by hacker communities, but widely used solutions that offer non-aligned members alternatives to Big Tech.
NATM could also create a global laboratory for the study of Big Tech algorithms. I have been working on a small-scale prototype of such a concept called Algorithm Observatory, which is a combination of citizen science and media literacy project. The goal is to create a platform that NATM, as a bloc, can use to dissect the extractive algorithms of Big Tech. These technologies are not likely to go away anytime soon, and we need to be able to learn more about the way they work by analysing them, and exposing their faults.
Finally, NATM could institute a protocol for individual communities to grant approval of new and existing technologies. For technologies to operate within NATM communities and avoid heavy taxation, they would need to demonstrate that they do not endanger the interests of civil society.
This initial determination and subsequent checks can be performed by a board, similar to what human subject boards do across scientific research institutions. But unlike human subject boards, NATM boards should include representatives from different segments of the population.
The boards should operate locally (each community needs to figure out if a particular technology goes against its specific interests), but NATM can provide training and facilitate discussions at a global level of how these boards should work. NATM boards can also make determinations of what portion of the data collected by technologies should rightfully be considered public domain.
It is unlikely that Big Tech companies would submit themselves to this form of review, just as it is unlikely that governments would enforce any kind of penalties when they do not comply. At least for the time being. The point of a global movement of non-alignment is to show that another world is possible, and that change based on the principles of justice and equity can gain momentum until it is impossible to ignore.
Those interested in contributing to the Non-Aligned Technologies Movement are welcome to visit nonalignedtech.net.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.