Kumi Naidoo at Web Summit 2019 Amnesty International THE REALISTS

Earlier this month I attended the tech conference Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal and one of the panels I was most looking forward to was “Breaking Up Big Tech” – featuring Amnesty International‘s Kumi Naidoo and Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

The opening statement from Kumi Naidoo was riveting. It resonated so much with the message I’m attempting to get across with The Realists, that I am reproducing it here in full:

When I was a young activist in South Africa in the 1980s we used to say “information is power.” Today “data is power.” And the asymmetrical nature of that power is terrifying. We have never had a moment in history where corporations and governments have the kind of access to who we are, who we engage with, what we like, even our medical conditions. Because if you have a Fitbit watch that can be triangulated into the data and so on. So the question about the breakup [of Big Tech]. It is of course a no brainer that, you know, just Facebook and Google control a global public square of one third of the population of the planet. And as citizens we are given a devil’s choice; we are told you can either opt in to use these online resources. And opting in means you have to give up your privacy, give up your autonomy and allow your data to be commoditized at the first level, but also then to be weaponized, as we saw that happen in the elections… […] So you either have an option to opt into that, or to opt out to the benefits of the modern world. And that is not the choice that we should be given.

Naidoo continued:

And bear in mind, while the breakup is where the conversation is, and we as Amnesty [International] would encourage that conversation to go forward, but be careful that’s not going to deal with the problem. Because you can break up these companies, and still have the same surveillance model, which is what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” […] People used to talk about the military industrial complex, today we can talk about the surveillance industrial complex. So given all of these things, the way things are going is threatening the very definition of what it means to be human. Right? And I would like to quote, if you think I’m being dramatic, let me quote the ex CEO of Google Eric Schmidt, when he said: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you are thinking about.” Is that a path for humanity going forward? That we give that amount of power to one company in the world? This is not what democracy looks like. This is not what empowerment looks like. This is not what good governance looks like. And this is certainly not what protects people’s human rights.

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