Regulating Big Tech: Considerations for the Digital Single Market

The question of how to regulate Big Tech remains a topical and controversial one – and one that requires urgent attention.  Yet countries, battling with seemingly bigger problems such as poverty reduction, post-COVID-19 economic reconstruction, wars, natural disasters, and global warming, do not seem to have the capacity to pay proper attention to it. 

Some might ask what harm Big Tech poses to us, considering that their digital platforms  benefit our day-to-day interactions in multiple ways, including through efficiency, convenience and access to new products and services. The immediate answer is that these same platforms cast quite a dark shadow, with harms that include digital surveillance and data extractivism, censorship, manipulating user behaviour, facilitating the circulation of misinformation, and defying labour laws, amongst other rights violations. That’s all besides the fact that their unregulated global monopolies can limit the potential of new, local market entrants.

Understanding the potential harms that come with technological innovation is important because it not only brings awareness but also opens up a dialogue for inclusive data governance, particularly in the Global South, which is often left vulnerable and unprotected from these digital harms.

In late January 2023, I had the privilege of participating in what was referred to as a “residential institute” organised and hosted by IT for Change, called the Frontiers and Frames for a New Digitality. It was five days of intellectually enriching training that brought together researchers, development professionals, social movement and grassroots organisers, scholars, and activists in the digital industry from the Global South. The main aim of the institute was to learn, engage and discuss the different digital equity and justice issues affecting the Global South. 

The discussions were provocative, and topics included the theory behind digitality, the social contract, data capitalism, data governance,  the geopolitics that govern the world order, with themes such as “taming intelligent corporations”, and the “political economy of hate”.

As a digital policy researcher with a keen interest in digital trade, one of the takeaways for me was the importance of continuing to probe into the digital vulnerabilities we face in the Global South considering that current digital trade rules are shaped by Big Tech companies

The biggest contracts from governments often go to Big Tech, and they sustain their monopolies because of their unassailable scale and scope from having been first to market,  compounded by market capitalisation and dominance. Like most business monopolies, this enables them to use their massive profits to consolidate their market position and engage in extensive lobbying and control. Power is exerted in other ways. Cloud services, for example, are now hosting a lot of public data, which has become modern time’s most valuable resource – and Big Tech companies spend a lot of time identifying countries that do not prevent them from hosting such public data. The corporate dexterity of Big Tech companies allows them to outsmart digital laws in pursuit of their interests. This was described as the “hegemonic political order of digitality” in the discussions. 

This is a cause for concern considering the risk of unregulated cross-border data flows and the resulting data vulnerabilities for countries with little to no data protection laws. We are seeing a risk in the geopolitical order where the resourced Global North monopolises the digital world, and the Global South is once again reduced to supplying raw data, is subjected to experimental projects, and makes up bulk consumers of data products.

Considering these threats, African countries have come  together to integrate their markets and move towards a digital single market  under the African Continental Free Trade Area. The main strategy for the Digital Single Market is the The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, which is to be achieved by 2030. The aim of the strategy is to develop common standards and a data protection framework that simultaneously align with domestic country contexts, regional requirements, and global standards. It is anticipated to be an inclusive strategy, even for those who often have fewer opportunities to formally participate in trade-related activities, for example, the poor, small businesses, the youth and women. 

A  key question then arises, how do African countries de-risk themselves from the power and prowess of Big Tech within the Digital Single Market? With the stark socio-economic inequalities and poverty in Africa, citizens and governments are vulnerable to the lobbying tactics from Big Tech companies in exchange for social benefits and funding, which comes at the expense of domestic tech alternatives. Within the Digital Single Market, and without regulating Big Tech, it is still unclear who will be the key data players, and who will have the monopolies to benefit from the increase in data flows on the continent. What new power dynamics and political interests will be created, or old ones be reinforced? How will the Digital Single Market decrease or perpetuate the existing inequalities between and within African countries?

Some of the possible solutions that were tabled at the institute that are applicable include:

  • Evaluating your country’s domestic data strategy, particularly by favouring domestic data-enabled innovation and evaluating whether foreign data services may disrupt existing economic activities in negative or positive ways;
  • Encouraging competition in the data markets. See, for example, the  discussion in the blog “Too Late to Regulate: Competition in the Digital Economy”;
  • Promoting robust regulation against intrusive and discriminatory profiling of African citizens;
  • Structuring the market so that Big Tech can be regulated to mitigate anticompetitive practices;
  • Addressing the weaknesses in privacy consent models.

The task at hand seems arduous in the face of the power and control that Big Tech already has in the world today. But policymakers, governments and civil society need to engage in concerted efforts towards this reform. By engaging in these conversations and mapping a way forward, we can contribute to the formulation of an inclusive and just Digital Single Market for African countries.