A few days ago, the Transnational Institute published the report: Digital Colonialism, an analysis of the European trade agenda. “Cuatro elementos” interviewed Sofía Scasserra, research associate at the Transnational Institute, to discuss the key points of the report.

Q: Remind us what we are talking about when we talk about the digital economy and then the central aspects of the strategy adopted by the European Union.

SS: When we talk about the digital economy, there are a lot of things that people like to
that people like to imagine and there are a lot of issues that get on the agenda, and we always see this image of robots, and artificial intelligence as if that is the digital economy.

However, the reality is that if we go to the core of what is at stake when we talk about international digital architecture, we see that it is a whole system that is self-regulating and self-assembling in order to be able to exercise digital capitalism.

So, what we have is a new raw material which is the data that we produce when we use computers and mobile phones and so on. This data is then translated, through algorithms, to be able to predict our behaviour, to anticipate it, to be able to influence consumers, workers, citizens in general. That is, in any of the places where we exercise our citizenship and develop our lives, there is an algorithm that has taken the data and is somehow predicting our behaviour in order to influence it.

This already happens every day. Moreover, we have naturalised technology and technological developments to such an extent that we are no longer aware that this is happening. In other words, it is normal to search for something on Google and assume that the way the results appear to us is the best way those results should be, but we never ask ourselves if those results are the product of someone paying or if Google thinks they are the best for me, even if a person searching for the same words comes up with other information.

Millions of dollars are produced by technology companies, so it’s a digital economy and its architecture is based on the idea of data as a commodity and algorithms as a new form of surplus value, capturing economic value and earning a windfall, through predictive algorithms.

Q: When you talk about this topic, you always hear about the giants of the US, the digital corporations of Silicon Valley, say, and China, which is the competition. What is not so well known is that the European Union is also competing there, it is also in the game. Tell us about the central aspects of the report on the European Union.

SS: The idea is obviously the battle for supremacy, which is between the two “giants” you mentioned. Now, the EU is getting into the game of producing an architecture of norms and rules of the game in the digital economy, mainly for two reasons that are highlighted in the report.

The first is because of the immense lobbying capacity of US companies in the European Union, so that legislators can provide a supranational framework of rules that benefit the companies that are already at the forefront of the digital economy.

And the second fundamental reason is that with the 5G network, it is becoming increasingly common to have smart manufacturing. In other words, an ordinary fridge is not the same as one that can suggest what to buy, warn me if I am running out of milk or tell me where I can do my shopping near my home.

Another example is a doorbell in a house, an ordinary one, to one that can be operated from a mobile phone, with a built-in camera so that I can see who is ringing the doorbell from anywhere on the planet. And it is not the same to take a bus in an ordinary place as to go to a bus stop where they know I am waiting for a certain transport and they tell me how soon the service will arrive.

All these things that are called smart homes, smart houses and the internet of things were created from 5G networks, and that requires a huge upgrade of the manufacturing sector to a smart sector. In other words, that same fridge that I produce and sell needs a computer, a chip, an internet network, and so on.

And in order to be able to produce those predictive devices, i.e. that chip that tells me that I should buy milk and that this product is on discount in the shop two blocks from my house, I need to collect data, in order to feed those algorithms that suggested me to buy things or the bus stop.

Also, you know that the European Union produces a lot of manufacturing, such as cars, and if they don’t start upgrading to smart manufacturing they are going to become obsolete. In other words, the European Union has two options: either its manufactures become obsolete or it begins to outsource manufacturing to foreign companies, which generates economic dependence between the European Union, the rest of the North American corporations and China.

So what the EU is looking for is to upgrade its manufacturing industry by incorporating smart services. For that it needs hegemony in the digital economy, raw materials, data and infrastructure.

And where does it get that data, that infrastructure? Well. By making free trade agreements to be able to extract data from other countries, whether they are from the global South or whether they are from different sectors to be able to start producing a huge mass of data, which it needs to be able to update the manufacturing industry.

So the battle is going on between two countries and that is undoubtedly true. But it is true that there are other actors that are trying to get into the digital chains of this sector, and in that sense the European Union has a role to play.

Q: What can we do as a region?

SS: It is important not to sign these free trade agreements that are being negotiated at the behest of the European Union and other countries, in order to preserve the sovereignty of states, and to be able to establish rules to say no, we want the data processing to stay in my country and the data not to leave my country.

This is an issue of sovereignty and also of digital industrialisation. If the raw material stays in the country and is processed locally, I am generating a lot of positive externalities within Latin America. It is also about safeguarding the sovereignty of our raw materials, because we know the extractivist history we have had for centuries.

Q: Let’s move on to the next issue, which is the consequences of the EU’s strategy for our region, and even for the daily lives of those who live in Latin America. How does this affect ordinary citizens?

SS: What is happening is that the old story of colonialism is repeating itself again at the level of data.

The issue is how many more opportunities we as Latin America are going to miss out on and how little visible this is to the general population because when they take the gold from Potosí, or when they take the steel, or when they take the fish, you see the ship they are taking it on, but the data is not palpable, we don’t see it and it seems that we have even naturalised that they are taking it away.

It is even logical, and many people even say: well, if the Zoom that we are using is North American, then it is normal that they take the data that we enter into this platform. However, we can tell Zoom that all data produced in Latin America must be processed and stored in a public cloud in the region.

In this way, the rules of the game are imposed, which is the power of the States, and that is what we are not able to perceive. Furthermore, data have a particular characteristic: they do not have other raw materials, for example, the silver from Potosí, if I have it, you don’t have it. Data, on the other hand, can be infinitely copied at zero cost.

Thus, in terms of sovereignty and preserving raw materials, development and access to data can say: -if you want, you can take the copy, but the original must stay here-, because this data can be of great value to states, as public policies, national companies and value chains can be developed. For example, how much is Uber’s information worth to develop a transport system in a city, to develop a smarter, more integrated public transport system?

How much is the data of different technology companies worth? Look at what happened when the quarantine began. Google could tell whether we were in quarantine or not based on the mobility of mobile phones in a city. So, it determined the level of activity in a city. It said whether or not it was quarantined. When Google made data available to entities and countries, the quarantine had just begun. Well, look how valuable that data was and we had to wait for Google to release it.

However, if that data had been stored in a sovereign way, that information could have been shared earlier, in this case for a public health issue. Google would have been obliged to do so without us being tied to their generosity.

Q: Sofia, you are saying very interesting things, and it makes us wake up because when private companies make use of this data it is intelligence, it is not marketing, it is data processing that is going to improve our lives.

SS: However, when a state does it, they don’t say the same thing. When the quarantine started we were told that the Chinese government was controlling the population through their mobile phones, it looked like a dictatorship and that it meant absolute control. What I am getting at is that there is a subjectivity in which states that use information are oppressing with technology.

SS: That discourse has existed for many years, it is said that the state is deficient, it is bureaucratic. Innovation is the creation of the private sector, but it is known that the iPhone is 70% state-owned, so this is a myth. So, we have to fight the cultural battle and know that this discourse will always exist. It has always existed and it will never cease to exist.

Q: Finally, the narrative of degrading the public in order to valorise the private also has to be said to be in all fields, in education it happens, in health it happens… it happens in all fields.

SS: It always happens, the good is the private and the public is the bureaucratic, the slow that doesn’t work.

Q: What alternatives do we have?

SS: The agreements that are signed at the supranational level have a lot of influence on our lives and multilateral, bilateral, regional free trade agreements are signed all the time.

So, it seems that neoliberalism is seeking to move forward little by little with agreements to eliminate the countryside. And this is an issue that is not on the agenda.

You talk about this with people and nobody is aware of the extent to which free trade agreements and treaties affect people’s daily lives. And we cannot begin to dream of a sovereign state, of social justice, of having a different and alternative economy if we have a supranational architectural system that dictates that the rules of the game are neoliberal and that the technological Leviathan is going to impose rules of the game on our economies.

So, I think it is important to make people aware of the issue because a supranational digital economy is being generated, above our heads and when we want to do something it will be too late, if not already too late because technology companies have a power never before seen by any company.

So, I think it is important here, firstly, not to sign a free trade agreement; secondly, the union and the Latin American alliance of peoples and the awareness of all; and thirdly, to begin to understand cyberactivism as a form of social protest that transcends borders so that we can unite and forge links that can lead us to new forms of resistance in the region, of all this Latin American dependence that we have had and to be able to think of other alternatives.

For example, the other day whatsapp went down and it seemed that we had all been cut off, that we had all been left without internet; but no, a platform went down, the problem is that it is a monopoly. And if we understand that there are other technologies, it is also a form of resistance to being monopolised.