In the whirl of digital slavery | By Prof Abdul Shakoor Shah

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In the whirl of digital slavery

WE are experiencing the greatest technological revolution in the history of mankind. This revolution is four times greater in terms of impact than the industrial revolution.

Furthermore, it has only just begun. Slavery is a potent and touchy term recounting repugnant violation of fundamental human rights and should not be functioned carelessly.

Self-ownership in a legal sense and escalating trafficking of personal data to supply algorithm-based analytics and AI is enabling a new form of digital enslavement that has the budding to cut back liberty and perturbing risk of collective and individual autonomy.

Slaves offer free labour for their owners; in return of food, clothing and shelter. The digital slaves also offer free access to their data in return of some services.

Traditional slaves had to pay to get freedom from their ruthless masters. The digital slaves also pay for their shift from one platform or app to another in the form of data.

Both the traditional or digital slaves own nothing. The digital slaves are to some extent more pathetic than traditional salves.

The traditional slaves were under compulsion to work as slaves but the digital slaves are willing slaves.

They are happily and willingly ready to leave their friends and acquaintances, their reputation and all other external aspects of their digital identity.

Users have no assurance that the value of the free data they provide bears any relation to the value of the free services they receive.

We generate data around the clock from awakening to sleep even during our sleep too. Where we are, how we pay our bills, how many there are of us at home, what videos we watch, what websites we visit, what we buy, where we go, who our friends and family are, where we work, what teams we support etc.

With every passing day we generate an ever-increasing volume of data. According to a study published in 2018 by the Harvard Business Review, the value of the data generated by a household of four people is about $20,000 annually.

Data that is valuable not only from the advertising point of view, but also insofar as it is a vital component for Artificial Intelligence.

In the digital world we are all slaves to Tech-giants namely the Big Five. We provide dates free of cost.

This free labor enables digital ‘Big Five’ (Apple, Facebook/Meta, Amazon, Google and Microsoft) to hoard vast fortunes.

In return, we receive free apps and other internet services. We have no property rights on the data.

This relationship between the digital networks and their users is digital slavery. There is, of course, no assurance that, for every individual, the marginal value of the free internet services is equal to the marginal value of the users’ information.

Much like the marginal value of slave labour far surpassed the marginal value of the food, clothing and shelter that the slaves received.

Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, squabbles that presently data is abundant and thus almost valueless, whereas the designers of the networks are scarce and thus generate most of the value of the digital network services.

This self-serving argument is analogous to arguing that slave labour, in the heydays of slavery, was plentiful and that most of the value was generated by the designers of the slave plantations.

The system is also unjust, since the owners of the digital networks exert irresistible authority.

They possess the entrée to the digital data on which their users rely, much as old-style slave-owners owned the access to their slaves’ basic provisions.

The slave-owners were in a position to abuse their market control to their own material gain, much like the digital networks nowadays are doing.

As a result more than 40 million people around the world are enslaved today. Chancellor Merkel suggested that digital data should be priced and users must be able to sell their data contrary to that we are digital slaves and our digital identity is fully controlled and used by organization.

The notion of ‘self-sovereign identity’ of digital users is at risk. Most of the users are entirely unaware of the digital system.

They consider ‘Privacy’ in their own hands while it is the other way round. Privacy means that only authorized recipients can entrée your digital identity; ‘trustworthiness’ means that the information enclosed in your digital identity is correct.

The Cambridge Analytical scandal and other misdeeds suggest serious problems concerning privacy.

We are living in the digital regime under powerful digital monopolies, linked to the rise of inequalities in major market economies, large-scale exploitation of digital users for political purposes, and the prevalent incapability of digital users to clutch the business purposes that their data serves intimidation to dent market economies and democratic processes.

It is so easy to be taken in by the positive spin surrounding ICT. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must include digital slavery in its declaration.

The digital world is shaping and reshaping our beliefs, dictating how and what we consume and enforcing the rules.

International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is observed annually on 23 August.

This day raises awareness about the gruesome nature of the slave trade and reminds people about the transatlantic slave trade and its implications.

Transatlantic slave trade affected over 15 million people, including children, for more than 400 years.

This day is observed in memory of all victims of the slave trade and also aspires to promote critical examinations of such behaviours that could lead to modern forms of exploitation and slavery.

—The writer is an educationist, based in Lahore.

 

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