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Saturday, April 13, 2024

In the whirl of Digital Slavery

Slavery is a potent and touchy term, recounting a repugnant violation of fundamental human rights and should not be used carelessly. 

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 a repugnant violation of fundamental human rights and should not be used 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 labor to their owners in return for food, clothing and shelter. The digital slaves also offer free access to their data in return for 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 and digital slaves own nothing. The digital slaves are, to some extent, more pathetic than traditional slaves. 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 for their digital identity.

Read more: A wolf in watchdog’s clothing: Indian digital media rules widely flayed

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 of 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 the 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 to 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 labor 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 labor, 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.

Read more: Controlling Dissent or Regulating Digital Media?

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 organizations. 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.

The importance of privacy

Privacy means that only authorized recipients can enter 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 as 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 August 23. This day raises awareness about the gruesome nature of the slave trade and reminds people about the transatlantic slave trade and its implications.

Read more: Crackdown against digital media and its impacts for PTI

The 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 behaviors that could lead to modern forms of exploitation and slavery.


The writer is Prof. in English and Freelance Columnist. He can be reached at Prof.abdulshakoorsyed@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.