The European left should join the worldwide movement for ‘digital sovereignty’ claims.
transform!s Roland Kulke spoke with Alexandre Costa Barbosa, an internationally connected researcher and activist for a just internet.
|transform!s Roland Kulke spoke with Alexandre Costa Barbosa, an internationally connected researcher and activist for a just internet. The following are his insights on advocating for a fair internet and digital capitalism in the EU, emphasising the need to consider not only our interests but also those of the working classes in the Global South.
This article is part of transform!’s Economics Working Group Blog Series.
There is still time to implement an internationally-oriented popular digital sovereignty claim in Europe for the world. European left-wing parties must critically embrace the digital sovereignty narrative by proactively and systematically shaping it toward a sustainable digital transition. Some may say that it is all about the old (but gold) digital inclusion agenda. I argue here, however, that popular digital sovereignty is more than that. This article aims to introduce and outline some approaches from the Global South that may help you in the European countries to get into a virtuous cycle. We start from the premise that it is possible to direct the technological course to those who can carry out the social transformation in the regions.
On 17-18th July 2023, the EU-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Summit took place in Brussels. One of the main results was the establishment of a digital alliance between the two trade blocks. With a three-year roadmap, the declaration names privacy, cybersecurity and trade as fundamental goals. This declaration, signed by the government of the EU as well as the CELAC, passes in silence over meaningful internet access for citizens, proper connectivity, digital literacy, and essential public digital infrastructure.
Despite the EU’s supposedly cooperation-oriented agenda, it and its member states often pursue their digitalisation agendas within a neo-imperialist framework.
2019, the international “Internet Governance Forum” took place in Berlin. When Angela Merkel, then Germany’s chancellor, was confronted with a question about the risks of promoting digital sovereignty within Germany and the European Union, she stated:
“Of course, digital sovereignty is very important. But it is possible that, even if we use the same term, we now understand different things worldwide. In my understanding, digital sovereignty does not mean protectionism or the dictates of government agencies as to what information can be disseminated but rather describes the ability to shape the digital transformation in a self-determined manner, whether as an individual, a single person, or as a society.”
Considering the state and the individual dimensions of digital sovereignty, Merkel’s response reflects the attitudes of many politicians and academics in the EU. According to the hegemonic definition of digital sovereignty, state digital sovereignty involves national security guidelines and scientific and technological development. On the other hand, for individual citizens the relevant dimension would concern their agency and autonomy over their data. This approach is severely limited and ignores communitarian, collective, and inalienable aspects of sovereignty.
It is essential to recognise the ambiguity of the “digital sovereignty” concept, but if focused on social structures, digital sovereignty can be vital as a guiding concept for promoting the rights and interests of vulnerable populations. Think of Food Sovereignty as an outcome of the global alliance of farmers (“Via Campesina”) and social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil. We should not only dispute hegemonic digital sovereignty narratives and imaginaries but redirect the concept toward the common good and the public interest. Hence, left-wing parties and social movements must build an internationally popular digital sovereignty coalition as soon as possible.
The Brussels Effect is correct regarding the digital agenda. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that Merkel’s desire for the EU being able to “self-determine its technological path” – has also been a historic claim from the world majority. The Cybersyn project, by the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, which aimed to create a distributed cyber system for decision-making, is a good illustration of the fate of those who worked in favour of national sovereignty in the Global South.
Specifically, regarding the internet, today few political parties in Europe remember the Snowden revelations of one decade ago. Since then, BRICS countries have been pushing for their views of digital sovereignty (which are not within the scope of this article). As Renata Ávila has systematically shown, by the way, Latin America has pioneered promoting government-funded free software agendas. Moreover, the plan, based on free software, innovation, and open educational resources, likely enabled savings of 752 million euros per year in licensing in 2006. It is worth considering that experience of thinking about and encouraging meaningful Internet access and allowing people to share interoperable digital infrastructure on a global level.
Moreover, in an era of multiple fragmentations, rather than genuinely working to enable a re-globalisation or alternative globalisations, the EU is still attempting to promote its outdated hegemony. Ten years before the working definition of the so-called multistakeholder-based “internet governance” Brazil already had a committee in place (since 1995) charged with implementing that approach for developing Internet policies. The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee – CGI.br – enabled the long-lasting discussions that allowed the enactment of its Internet Bill of Rights in 2014 (Marco Civil da Internet, MCI). Internet actors worldwide recognise MCI’s innovative, rights-based, and pluralistic approach. Still, in an attempt to lead digital regulatory development (such as with the GDPR, the Data Act, the Digital Services Act Package, and the AI Act), the EU seems to ignore outside regulatory paths. For instance, why not push for an official recognition of Brazil’s contribution to regional and global Internet development? These issues are central to the current dispute around the digital sovereignty concept. What I mean is that the acknowledgment concomitantly enables cooperation-based sovereignty claims and the legitimisation of several emancipatory digital agendas.
European leftists should strive for consensus among parties and social movements and fight for a unified digital strategy with global and equitable participation. That is, focusing on local political organisation and harmonisation while envisioning and enabling alternative technological paths and imaginaries from its former colonies. A good start is learning from other regions. Brazil offers another valuable example in the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), one of the most significant urban reform social movements worldwide, and the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), the party of the brutally murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco, and which represents the renewal of the Brazilian left.
Three years ago, MTST launched its technology sector, teaching programming in peripheral urban areas, developing projects for popular organisations, providing crowdfunded free Internet Access and free meals, etc. It has been revolutionary, and you can find its trajectory in a booklet launched on May 1st entitled “Homeless Worker Movement In Brazil and the Struggle for Digital Sovereignty.” As Vitoria Cruz, leader of MTST’s Tech Sector, declared during the launch:
“Over time, we diagnosed that what we have done within MTST is exactly the fight for digital and technological sovereignty. One that considers technological appropriation for organisation and people power, claims meaningful access to the real Internet, critical digital and tech education, and develops and promotes worker-owned platforms”.
MTST states that digital sovereignty must start from the level of the workers. It means conceiving and developing workers-owned platforms. It is about reappropriating technology development by the working class, focusing on enhancing labour organisation and enabling income generation. MTST has been doing that over the past three years: promoting technological capacity-building in peripheries developing platforms for decent work and tools to enhance the collective organisation. The movement’s approach has been acknowledged as one of the very few definitions of digital sovereignty in Brazil by researchers from the Getulio Vargas Foundation during a Brazilian Internet Governance Forum session in late May. At the political party level, guided by social movements, PSOL has learned from that grassroots experience and is translating it at the institutional level.
The recently created collective of the party, Technology and Digital Sovereignty, launched a manifesto for popular digital sovereignty based on social movement experiences. Titled the Decalogue for Popular Digital Sovereignty (available in Portuguese here), it was just released at the PSOL National Congress. It considers access, education, digital labour, open technologies, data use and protection, security, anti-public and private mass surveillance, tech utopias as imaginaries, etc. We will outline and suggest some integrated agendas to enable short-term reflection and action – but we want to avoid any spoilers for the upcoming more detailed program.
We must fight for more than meaningful connectivity, and combine the fight for Internet access with its use; hence, digital literacy: ‘meaningful connectivity’ or ‘meaningful access’ concepts are under dispute worldwide. We should acknowledge that and defend that ‘meaningful’ here does not mean just having not a proper device or an affordable and fast Internet plan. We mean equitable and inclusive access. The left must engage in “technical” connectivity policy discussions by promoting a model encompassing all human development needs, such as a roof, food, basic sanitation, and education. We do not mean a simply competency-based digital literacy but a critical and practice-oriented digital education based on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, as mentioned in MTST’s booklet, and the experiences in the Slums and indigenous communities of the South. For that, we may raise the voice of the incredible experiences of Internet Community Networks in institutional forums and instances. For instance, the EU-CELAC agreement expects to hold four regional high-level meetings on the “Bi-regional Connectivity Policy Dialogue.” Just the fact of being ‘high-level’ is critical here. The left in Latin America and Europe must follow this closely and ensure that vulnerabilised communities and workers have a voice in these meetings.
Ensure global decent work and develop workers-owned digital platforms for a solidary economy: Platform cooperativism is getting traction, but it is only a sustainable promise if the infrastructure ownership is with those who sell their labour power to the platforms. Besides, software development must consider workers’ needs beforehand. To ensure that, there is a need to promote effective policies and regulations, on the one hand, and on the other hand to invite workers to join “user experience” workshops and to provide feedback on design formularies in a real process of co-creation. Concrete great examples are the MTST’s Contrate Quem Luta (Hire Those Who Fight), WhatsApp-based social assistance that bridges workers from the movement with left people who need some household service provision. Another is ASOCLIM, which first consolidated the organisation of cleaning workers in Ecuador and then developed a web-based platform. Besides, we must ask: if decent work is possible in Europe, why is it not possible elsewhere? If it works, apply pressure to disseminate it by condemning the horrible rates countries have scored in the Fairwork index, the initiative led by the Oxford Internet Institute and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center that rank digital platforms according to the standards of decent work of the International Labor Organisation. In the most recent reports, in Brazil and Nigeria, the highest grade was 3 out of 10 by one platform company.
Moreover, developers and data scientists must unionise and act in partnership with exploited “Gig Workers” (gig has always been the reality for workers in the South, as Prof. Rafael Grohmann emphasises) and microworkers. That is also how we may create global workers-owned digital platforms for a solidary economy. However, we should not ignore that infrastructures for data hosting and processing will only be feasible if funded and owned by states rather than the US companies’ data warehouses oligopoly of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, IBM, and Oracle. Cooperative ownership should take place at the application level. In the infrastructure state, the state plays a fundamental role. In any case, I hope some of you have attended the Tech Worker Conference or had the opportunity to get to know MTST’s work on technology in the UN’s Internet Governance Forum.
Think and act beyond systemic regulation, promoting locally adaptable public and sustainable digital infrastructures: Left parties must be pioneers in regulatory discussions regarding emerging technologies and digital platforms, enabling broad and representative participation of citizens and being clear that “innovation” is a market-oriented concept by default. But we must go beyond and proactively propose alternatives. We should promote shared, sustainable, and open-source technologies by supporting the organisation of progressive code developers in partnership with unions and workers’ social movements. The state should fund this infrastructure and create campaigns and programs to encourage cooperative platforms through public procurements and fiscal incentives—notably, of technologies that are sustainable not only in being non-extractivist, but also by virtue of being anti-racist, anti-LGBTQIAP+phobic, anti-misogynic, open-source, and socialist. We mean technologies at the level of mining and processing, infrastructure, hardware, software, and data. We pose some questions relevant for future debates: What are the benefits for society from infrastructure such as the GAIA-X? How do we disseminate the needed infrastructure without imposing it? In addition, how can initiatives of the ‘National Research and Education Networks’ (NRENs) in Europe be shared with other countries? And how can the recent ban on Big Tech companies in the educational sector strengthen advocacy and law-making in non-European countries? How to shed light on Kerala’s government banning proprietary software in education among policy-makers at a global level? We could create an International “Software Independence Day”, in reference to the date inaugurated in the Indian state on September 25, 2022.
We, as leftists, must acknowledge that sovereignty remains a fundamental principle of the shifting international order. Given the increasing relevance of the local, I envision digital sovereignty from the municipal level through a network of cities governed by left parties. Initially, it could enable knowledge sharing on tackling digital inequalities and strategies to deal with corporate interests while safeguarding citizens’ rights. In the second instance, it could allow for the sharing digital public infrastructures and applications. In any case, it requires research-based advocacy in partnership with local public universities and NGOs to keep these advancements in place.
Let’s call for a digital sovereignty that supports the struggle for people’s power in the era of the information society. To truly achieve popular digital sovereignty, seeking alternatives to developmentalism, defending the creation, testing, and scaling of technologies that do not perpetuate and accentuate stigmatisation and prejudice, enabling income generation and the integration of cooperativism and trade unionism. Promoting essential public digital infrastructures and strengthening alliances with left-wing parties and social movements worldwide to share knowledge and technologies is critical.
Let me conclude with Milton Santos’ hope: “The world is formed not only by what already exists but by what can actually exist.” Please enable European countries to take the opportunity to learn from the South.