A brief on the intersections of digital rights and economic justice
Jump to section:
- Big Tech
- #1 Global inequality, financialisation, and digital monopolies
- #2 Exploiting labour, land, data and resources
- #3 Expanding public influence without accountability or tax
- Feminist economic visions and practices of technology
The priority theme of the 67th session of the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2023 is “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age”, referring to the potential of digital technologies to support access to information, skills, and networks for women and girls. The concept note puts forward several critical issues for discussion—the gender gap in digital access, occupational segregation in STEM industries, and the human rights impact of deploying technologies, among others.
However, the overarching approach is that women and girls can be empowered users of digital technologies if the gaps in infrastructure, access, and skills, and biases in design can be addressed. This is an apolitical approach that fails to recognize how technology industries are tied to patriarchy, colonialism, racism, capitalism, and other structural power inequalities.
Feminists reject the premise that the inclusion of women as consumers of technology is a route to achieving economic empowerment. Digital technology cannot be positioned as a tool for empowerment without challenging the political economy that digital capitalism thrives on.
The global value chains of information technology are controlled by a handful of companies primarily based in the United States, most often referred to as Big Tech. This includes the top five companies by market capitalization: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, and Microsoft.
Big Tech exercises its corporate power to further impoverish marginalised women in the Global South while co-opting the language of gender equality. For AWID, corporate power refers to “excessive control and appropriation of natural resources, labour, information and finance by an alliance of powerful corporations, and global elites in collusion with government.” The corporate power of Big Tech is driven by building data monopolies across global value chains, through what has been called digital capitalism.
This primer argues that digital capitalism led by Big Tech is a feminist issue. The following section highlights key areas of concern for feminist movements challenging corporate power and seeking to advance economic justice. It discusses how structural issues around digital economies impact feminist agendas around reducing inequality, protecting socioeconomic rights for marginalised groups, and valuing people and planet. Finally, it will briefly discuss alternatives and movements that are challenging the power of Big Tech and appropriating technologies to bring feminist visions to life.
Big Tech: three areas of concern
#1 Global inequality, financialisation, and digital monopolies
The profits of the ‘digital revolution’ have accrued in the hands of an elite few. Big Tech companies dominate the US stock market, with Apple featuring at top of the list at over 2.4 billion USD in February 2023. 7 of 10 of the world’s richest people (all white American men) are owners of Big Tech companies with a combined net worth of over 1 trillion USD, including billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are the face of the “uber rich” globally.
In 2022 Big Tech companies had a combined market value of around $2.5 trillion—far exceeding the national GDPs of Australia, Brazil, or Canada. These inflated valuations are predicated on estimations of future value rather than current profitability. The share of financial assets in the tech industry far exceeds the proportion of capital in other sectors. The business model of most technology corporations relies on harvesting and selling customer data and targeting algorithms to advertisers, financial companies, and other businesses and governments, and selling platform-based markets and data processing power as a service. In other words, the model of Big Tech is reliant on building data monopolies. With this goal, Big Tech and its financiers are driven towards expansion through means such as expanding business operations at any cost, and buying out other businesses and start-ups.
To give an example of platform-based markets, Google sells ad space to advertisers and buys from publishers - pocketing high margins by underpaying publishers and driving out competition in the process. To take another example, the business models of social media platforms are dependent on network effects, or the value of adding more users such that they get locked into a platform without any alternatives. These are used to build algorithms that are designed to thrive on hateful content in an economy that is competing for user attention. Social media platforms are rife with gendered hate speech, misinformation and coordinated attacks targeting marginalised groups and activists, as algorithms prioritise engagement and monetise misogyny and anti-feminist backlash.
In the ever-expanding drive for monopolisation, digital marketplaces controlled by large corporations are entering supply chains across sectors ranging from agriculture to retail with promises of data-driven efficiency and platformisation. Taking the case of retail, the dominance of giants such as Amazon in the consumer market is forcing women service providers, small manufacturers and sellers to sign on to the platform while the terms of sale and search rankings are controlled by platform algorithms. Search algorithms are dominated by businesses with excess capital and inventory, threatening the livelihood of small businesses which are unable to compete in skewed unequal markets. By having proprietary access to data on sales and sellers, Amazon can gain market advantage through anti-competitive practices and predatory pricing.
Another example of digital platforms aiming to monopolise local value chains is agritech, which is shifting local agricultural processes to the detriment of small farmers—a majority of whom are women. The entry of tech companies drives markets towards concentration, driving out intermediaries and disrupting local markets. The impact of these developments on workers and small local businesses in the Global South is yet to be understood fully, even as companies, governments, and international organisations position digital platforms as a route to empowering women entrepreneurs.
Big Tech’s model is built on capital accumulation, including deep connections with and profiteering from the military-industrial complex and war. It is also responsible for designing intrusive modes of corporate and state-led surveillance, and shrinking civic spaces especially for women and gender minorities that are structurally silenced. Tech companies have made millions in profits through the so-called “Global War on Terror” selling databases, cloud computing, and other technologies to governments. The industry has also profiteered from digital surveillance including facial recognition, drones and aircraft, and biometric identification which is used to militarise borders and detain and surveil immigrants curtailing the rights and freedoms of racialised migrants, refugees and undocumented people. Some bodies of the UN, such as the World Food Programme and World Bank have entered into partnerships with Big Tech to operationalise their programmes through such surveillance tools, with little consideration for the curtailing of dignity and human rights of recipients.
#2 Exploiting labour, land, data and resources
Supply chains of technology companies are fuelled by ecological destruction. Web3 and other cloud-based technologies give illusions of being asset-less and free floating - abstracting the very tangible physical infrastructure of cables and data centres spanning the globe that is reliant on ecological extraction, including the mining of rare earth minerals and data processing causing massive carbon emissions. These supply chains have been directly linked to sourcing in conflict zones, deforestation, human rights abuses and threats to land rights of indigenous populations and other rural communities. This model has been labelled “an oligopolistic market with colonial characteristics”, wherein corporations in the North rely on intellectual property and global finance regimes to generate profits while extracting raw materials and land from the South. In parallel, tech-driven false solutions such as geoengineering, climate smart agriculture, green growth, reproductive engineering and other techno-fixes are being offered as “magic bullet” solutions to the climate crisis in service of maintaining the status quo on the current model of capitalism.
Further down the supply chain, tech companies are leading to the fragmentation of work while eroding workers’ protections and pushing informal workers into precarity. Digital labour platforms in the “gig” economy, which refers to companies such as Uber that are mediating work digitally, are eroding labour rights and protections and leading to a race-to-the-bottom for wages. Digital labour platforms have been promoted as a way to bring more women into paid work, despite being labelled digital sweatshops. Platform workers are denied basic labour protections and security nets because platforms treat them as independent contractors. Algorithms control wages and task allocation for gig workers, with workers exercising no control over their terms of engagement despite promises of flexibility. By offering no job security or labour protections, gig work in informalised sectors such as delivery work, domestic work, and healthcare continues to entrench legacies of informality and precarity for impoverished women workers in the Global South. Further, occupational segregation and the gender wage gaps have been replicated in the digital economy and tech industries, with women workers concentrated in poorly paid jobs at the bottom of the hierarchy and in sectors such as beauty and education that are traditionally feminised.
Surveillance technologies such as facial recognition have also been used across industries and job roles to curtail a gamut of rights for workers globally - impacting the exercise of the right to privacy, freedom of movement, and freedom of association. Technology companies and digital platforms have in fact become notorious for using traditional union busting strategies such as intimidation and blocking or terminating workers’ accounts in addition to intrusive surveillance as a means to suppress organising.
#3 Expanding public influence without accountability or tax
Big Tech’s control and influence bleed into public spheres and functions - including health, education, and governance, all while avoiding regulation as digital intermediaries. For instance, the biometrics identification industry is profiting from austerity economies that are decreasing budgets for social protections, by offering “efficient” targeting through surveillance technologies that result in reduced coverage and expenditure for governments. There is ample evidence of these surveillance tools pushing rights-holders out of coverage, with the most severe impact on women, transgender groups, migrants, disabled groups and workers performing manual labour.
There are similar examples of algorithms and surveillance technologies being used to mediate access to public services including public health, public spaces, and even judicial processes and urban planning. Algorithms, because of their reliance on existing datasets, are by design encoding heteropatriarchal, racial, and casteist biases. Deploying racist and faulty algorithms to aid criminal convictions or predict criminality is dangerous and threatens the rights of communities that have already been criminalised. The Covid-19 pandemic provided another opportunity for Big Tech to make inroads into governance and public health with governments relying on techno-solutionism in their response to the pandemic, ranging from contact tracing to vaccine passports. Further, the pandemic has also accelerated the reach of digital financial (or “fintech”) services, with Big Tech expanding into core financial services of lending and borrowing. Concerns around unregulated lending include price discrimination and bias in lending through algorithms, financial data harvesting without data protection, and praying on impoverished customers seeking easier access to credit with high interest rates and triggering debt traps. These forays into public functions are in addition to Big Tech’s power to shape public spaces and politics through control over speech - in some instances having a direct correlation with rising fundamentalism and authoritarianism.
Critically, even as tech companies partner with or replace public, financial, and political functions, they also actively seek to avoid regulatory measures and tax by strategically locating themselves in jurisdictions with low tax rates. Big Tech lobbies have been putting immense pressure on governments to quash plans for regulation, using regulatory arbitrage to fight governments in court, devising ‘stealth technologies’ to avoid providing evidence, or simply exit economies where governments are holding them accountable.
Unequal global tax regimes have enabled Big Tech to profiteer from markets in the Global South without any tax liability to local governments, even as they draw huge profits from users in ‘emerging’ markets. As feminist analysis and advocacy efforts have shown, women and other marginalised groups have the most to lose as a result of global tax regimes that fail to recognise the legitimate claim of governments in the Global South.
Feminist economic visions and practices of technology
“...this idea of how we should see the world and, again, tech was positioned – or trying to portray itself – in the centre. Little by little, the languages and narratives from governments and industry representatives start to resemble each other across these two arenas, incorporating the understanding of technologies as "tools" – sometimes as the main tools – to solve human problems, from poverty to democracy and climate change”
Digital technologies have offered cross-border spaces, tools, and mediums to organise feminist movements, share critical information, and create and sustain networks. These spaces are indispensable, and hold the power to create connections beyond borders.
A feminist approach comes with the recognition that these spaces co-exist with the realities of extraction of land, labour and resources from the Global South by the informational technology industry while accumulating capital for rich white men in the Global North. This framing rejects the centrality of digital tools offered by Big Tech in empowering women and marginalised communities, centering instead the transformative power of movements to appropriate technologies. Feminists, workers, and allied movements have a long history of challenging corporate power through organised action - from factories to social media to the streets, to continue holding Big Tech accountable and building feminist tech alternatives. Unions have also called for equitable access to technology and strengthening public governance of data and algorithmic systems, including through democratic participation of unions in the lead up to CSW67.
Advocating for radical feminist visions of technology, the Feminist Principles of the Internet call to “interrogat[e] the capitalist logic that drives technology towards further privatisation, profit and corporate control. We work to create alternative forms of economic power that are grounded in principles of cooperation, solidarity, commons, environmental sustainability, and openness.” Alternative economic visions have been brought to life through community-owned bottom-up technologies that put feminist principles into practice, such as worker-owned platform cooperatives, feminist approaches to building algorithms for content moderation, and community networks increasing digital access for women. These alternatives showcase models of ownership, development, and innovation that do not rely on Big Tech and create pockets of the internet that challenge capitalist and extractivist business models.
Narratives around digital innovation championed by companies, policy makers, and the UN tend to position technology as key solutions to solving socioeconomic problems, failing to recognise Big Tech as an active contributor to current crises of capitalism, inequality, climate, and authoritarianism. Without a feminist approach, the “digital revolution” is fuelling income inequality and exploiting women’s labour while eroding labour protections. Feminist and allied movements are at the forefront of defending our rights and resources, and need to continue challenging Big Tech’s power while appropriating technologies for feminist visions of economic justice.
With editorial inputs from Sanyu Awori, Marta Music, Ana Ines Abelenda, Gopika Bashi and Eunice Borges.