Big Tech using trade to extract the world’s ‘most valuable resource’

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 | News and analysis
Jeff Bezos at Amazon Spheres Grand Opening in Seattle. Photo: Seattle City Council
  • Enriched by Covid-19, tax-dodging tech giants want a US-UK trade deal that restricts the ability of government to regulate them
  • These tech corporations are already profiting from the sale of racist profiling algorithms, from NHS data used without patients consent, and draconian state surveillance measures being justified by Covid-19 response measures
  • The UK government’s trade plans risk bolstering the power of UK tech companies to exploit the data of people across the global South, with damaging consequences for economies and democracies – as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed in Kenya and the Philippines
  • Furthering the USA’s e-commerce agenda through trade will push forward surveillance capitalism to new levels of control over our lives, and advance digital colonialism, say experts

Locked(down) and loaded

As people in the UK and across the globe face economic devastation in the light of the pandemic, not everyone is worried. Reports suggest that Covid-19 is making Amazon’s Jeff Bezos the world’s first trillionaire. Across the globe as people entered lockdown, internet and digital platform use soared for those who have access. Tech giants are newly enriched and empowered, including through state use of Covid-19 to justify draconian surveillance measures. Now they are looking to trade deals to lock in their global dominance.

Next week the government will start the second round of negotiations with the US on a trade deal. Trade Secretary Liz Truss looks determined to enrich and empower global tech giants even further by giving them what they want, including rules that would prevent local control of data. The trade Secretary has also made reference to an expansion of digital trade through scaling up intellectual property, which could indicate a willingness to meet the USA’s clear demands to prevent the disclosure of source codes.

The USA and the UK are among the top global exporters of digitally delivered services. Greater convergence on standards on data and intellectual property between the two through a deal could amount to a lowering of standards, and the advancing of an agenda that US tech firms have been trying to advance for decades.

Far from just technical trade issues, these have serious implications for tax justice, racial justice, gender justice, workers’ rights, and the fights against surveillance and the climate crisis.

Every breath you take – they’ll be watching you

In the UK, the issue of health data privacy has been on the agenda for years since it came to light that Google subsidiary DeepMind, which had been contracted to process 1.6 million patient records, had recorded details of drug overdoses, abortions and HIV status data which now sits on Google Health’s servers in violation of patients trust and the law.

The recent news that a host of tech giants including Palantir and Google will be entrusted with “an ‘unprecedented’ transfer of personal health information of millions of NHS users” points to the urgency of ensuring that these critical debates on data are taken out of the sphere of trade deals and are subject to democratic scrutiny and accountability.

While Amazon bosses have amassed wealth, including through the sale of racist facial recognition technology to police in the US, workers have been pressured to work under unsafe conditions and are taking legal action against the company. Amazon has refused to say how many of their workers have contracted the virus, saying the data would not be useful.

Conversely, Amazon and other tech companies find data very useful indeed. So much so that control over data is at the heart of the deregulatory ‘e-commerce agenda’ the USA and UK are pushing through a trade deal.

The USA and UK separately published trade objectives align on the issue of anti-localisation of data. What these anti-localisation provisions mean in practice is that citizens and countries would be forbidden local storage and use of data, and that it could be shipped off for the benefit of mostly Silicon Valley-based tech companies.

Data has been described as the “new oil” and the world’s most valuable resource, so it’s no wonder that tech companies want to lock in rules about it through trade deals. Globally, government regulation on data is still in development – only 50% of countries in Africa have laws on data privacy. Anti-data localisation prevents developing countries, largely already locked out of the platform economy, from benefiting from their own data, and protecting the data of their citizens. This move echoes the ways in which developed industrialised countries have historically locked the global South out of value-added-production, relegating the South to the dependence on the export of cheap raw materials – becoming sacrifice zones of global capitalism.

Digital colonialism

UK company Cambridge Analytica made headlines for its role in interfering with elections across the world using data harvested from Facebook users. This makes it all the more concerning that Liz Truss’ promised this week to use trade to “go further” than we would have been able to as part of the EU on data and anti-data localisation, which would advance the power of tech giants – like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple – over every aspect of our lives.

Without a change in direction, Silicon Valley companies will continue to amass a huge proportion of global economic activity – as much as 30% by 2025, by some estimates.The consequence of this immense power to collect our data and shape our interactions is the total control of entire economic systems, write Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami of IT for Change, leading to “large swathes of economic activity being controlled by a handful of platform monopolies”. Some have warned of digital colonialism.

Forum shopping for a deregulatory agenda

Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have consistently been among the top spenders on lobbying the US government, and have ensured that the USA has been at the forefront of pushing the so-called ‘e-commerce’ agenda for decades at the World Trade Organisation. Undeterred by a setback at the last WTO Ministerial Conference in Argentina in 2017, US companies are continuing to find ways to push a trade liberalisation agenda – through the TPP, the USMCA, and now through a UK trade deal that serves the interests of the 1%.

The so-called e-commerce agenda would lock in the deregulation of our digital spaces, and ultimately our economies, in the interests of a few tech giants. It entails serious risks that have no place in our trade deals – not least when our trade deals are being negotiated in secret with no meaningful mechanisms for consent, transparency and democratic discussion and decision making. The inclusion of a digital trade chapter that rolls out the red carpet to big tech in a US-UK trade deal adds fuel to the growing consensus that the deal must be scrapped.