After the industrial revolution, the need for labour for industries and the market for commodities had been the driving force for colonial powers to further expand their large swathes of territories. Nobody at that time would have imagined that data would become the most important commodity of the 21st century, and big companies would need data over labour in selling their products.
Invasion of data privacy coupled with weaponising of information, infodemics, do gives us a feeling that the way people’s fundamental right of humane communication are exposed with exploitative and manipulative practices by corporations and governments, necessitating an urgent global response at the multilateral level, and no less than the United Nations.
Such feeling could well be, with millions around the world from developed to the least developed countries, from technologically advanced to technologically dependent nations, from large country to small island, and people with or without exposure to online communication. The war on people’s online communication is fundamentally at odds with the preamble of the UN – the institution of post World War II – for international peace, security, strengthening of democracy, and promotion of the economic and social advancement of all people.
The might of big corporations
By now it is clear that the financial capacity of big corporations can be larger than many nation states put together. For example, Facebook’s market value of nearly $800 billion is equal to the aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) of 86 countries, and larger than the respective GDP of 175 countries. The financial might put to use by big corporations to exploit people’s communication is overwhelmingly larger than many nation states.
Such might is already being exercised in promoting hatred and communal disharmony, unscientific claims, and anti-democratic propaganda, arising from demagogues. It is also being used to economically exploit consumers, small businesses, and the media. The young generation, which relies on online communication platforms to a large extent, is exposing themselves to unverified learning materials and toxicity, for which no online platform owned by a big corporation is held accountable.
Like many adults who still believe that climate change is a hoax, we are not far away when many young generations would believe that the sun is moving around the earth! Ironically though, corporations do monetise on human vulnerabilities in their learning process and commoditise on private and intimate information about the people.
Revolutionary online space and the global community
The online communication platforms are revolutionary in terms of providing immense learning resources, instantaneous communication with family, friends, fellow citizen, and even with strangers, participating in social dialogue, enjoying new entertainment, and most importantly, it opened new opportunities that were otherwise unimaginable in such easily accessible, cost-effective and time-saving ways.
The internet search engine, email, message, audio and video streaming, and social media platforms essentially promote people’s fundamental rights, and therefore, must be promoted and preserved for humane purposes.
It is thus very important that the global community come together and build a global institution that protects all from individual, social, and political vulnerabilities online. Reliance on the internet, and lack of a credible, efficient and safe alternative is leaving us with options of either surrendering our privacy or be deprived of the information rights.
Which institution can stand to safeguard such a global concern? Which institution can exude confidence to the global community with a non-partisan global solution? Which institution can ensure participation from nations around the world, especially providing a voice to vulnerable stakeholders? Which institution would attract the best minds – in science and technology, arts and humanities, legal advocates, and future leaders? Which institution is best capable of building global funds from governmental resources? Which institution would distribute the fruits of new innovations in a non-discriminatory and egalitarian fashion? Which institution would be the benchmark for the corporations’ online communication-related services? The most agreeable answer of all these could be the UN.
Therefore, the UN, with its longstanding legitimacy among the civil society fora around the world, can build an institution that safeguards our human rights exercised through online communication, making progressive and scientific learning possible.
While millions are waiting to be free from exploitative and manipulative practices of big-tech online platforms run by corporations for-profit over people, there are already bright signs around when people, sometimes those who have been part of these wrong practices, coming out to create alternative online platforms with humane tendencies for people without any motivation of profit.
For example, the omnipresent internet search engine from Google has now an effective alternative such as DuckDuckGo, which is run by just 124 employees. Therefore, it is not a daydream that the UN can become a place for creating, standardising and regulating online platforms for people’s basic communications. It can build an institution that can safeguard our data and arrest the degeneration of democracy.
Amit Sadhukhan is an assistant professor of economics, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Jameel Barkat is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Biomedicine, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.