The Digital Justice Manifesto

The manifesto contains 16 principles concerning both the reclaiming of individual and collective data and control over the technostructures.

  • Español
  • English
  • Français
  • Deutsch
  • Português
  • Información
-A +A

On November 25th 2019, on the sidelines of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Berlin, a network of activists and intellectuals published a "Digital Justice Manifesto" entitled "A Call to Own our Digital Future"[1]. The aim? To take back a "digital power" that is today concentrated in the hands of a few private and state actors.


The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is an annual multi-stakeholder forum dedicated to the discussion of public policy issues surrounding the functioning of the Internet[2]. Created in 2006 at the request of the participants in the second World Summit on the Information Society of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Tunis, its evolution is emblematic of the excesses of the Internet and the digital world in general. Indeed, as Indian activist Deepti Bharthur, among others, explains: “For sometime now, the efficacy of the forum itself has been repeatedly called into question – given that by design it is a space that is process and not outcome driven, which makes it in the view of many, analogous with inaction. This, combined with the increasing influence of the private tech sector, who bring in powerful and coordinated presence and strategies to bear upon the forum, is neutralizing any potential for other voices such a forum may have”[3].


It is in this context that on the sidelines of the 2019 edition of the IGF in Berlin, a network of digital activists mainly from the South decided to publish a "Digital Justice Manifesto". The document is about 15 pages long. In this age of social networks and “just-in-time” news items, isn't that a bit (too) long? Parminder Jeet Singh, one of the authors of the text, doesn’t think so: "We had a choice between being comprehensive or being punchy. We preferred to be comprehensive. Now it's up to us to communicate effectively from this base” [4].


The range of issues covered by the "Digital Justice Manifesto" is indeed impressive. As is the radicality of the proposals put forward. There are 16 of them in all, formulated as so many "principles" which either concern the reclaiming of individual and collective data, or control over the technostructures within which these data and the resulting "intelligence" operate.


A collective effort


Behind this text are activists from the "Just Net Coalition", a network of organisations founded in Delhi in 2014 to defend "a just and equitable Internet"[5]. At the time, these activists were already denouncing an Internet that was under the control of a few large multinationals and national governments. Nearly 6 years later, the situation has not really changed, on the contrary: "There is no time to lose in taming the power of the digital.  We can either surrender our digital future, or we can take ownership of it”[6].


In March 2019, in Bangkok, the JNC organized a three-day inter sectoral and international workshop on "Equity and Social Justice in a Digital World"[7]. The idea was to bring together “on one hand civil society actors in different social sectors who are facing digital challenges and opportunities but do not feel well-equipped to deal with them, and on the other hand, digital activists who are inclined to work on issues of equity and social justice but have not had structured opportunities to do so effectively” all from a North-South perspective. It was from this meeting that the outline of the manifesto was born, and the working group charged with finalizing it was set up.


Reclaiming individual and collective data


The first eight principles thus argue that data (and the intelligence that flows from it) should be seen as extensions of the individuals or communities from which they emanate. This means that it belongs to them, and to them alone, and not to who firsts collects it, as is currently the case. It also means that these data require specific protection, control and use rights mechanisms that are still largely to be invented. In this respect, the manifesto calls for data to be processed as close as possible to its point of origin and for the conditions for its cross-border circulation to be decided nationally, two principles that are directly opposed to those that the digital giants and their state sponsors are now seeking to generalise at international level[8]. Finally, any “data-creating work ought to come with data rights”. Here, the authors are thinking, for example, of Uber's drivers or Deliveroo's delivery drivers, who are (poorly) paid for some of the tasks they perform, but are not paid in any way for their creation and processing of data, which is the main value of these platforms. This "digital labor" should therefore be accompanied by specific economic rights, not only in terms of remuneration but also in terms of ownership or even control over the very functioning of the algorithms and, more broadly, of the platforms.


Technostructures by and for individuals and communities


The manifesto also denounces the centralized and privatized control exercised by a handful of private actors over key digital technostructures such as software or applications, for example. For the authors, in fact, " Unlike in the offline world where socio-economic interactions mostly take place in public or quasi-public spaces, in the digital world they are all enclosed within privately owned techno-structures", which creates unprecedented threats to individual and collective freedoms, while generating new forms of dependence and exploitation. To remedy this, they advocate that basic digital infrastructures should be governed as public utilities, including "computer platforms, search engines, social networks, e-mail services, basic security systems, payment services and e-commerce platforms". According to the JNC, these technostructures should be as decentralised as possible with open access and guaranteed interoperability, which implies at the very least that digital monopolies should be dismantled. Finally, the text considers that individuals and communities should have full possession of the software they use and the possibility to control it, including, if necessary, by modifying it according to their use.


Towards a democratic digital governance, from local to global


Finally, the last three principles relate to the "governance" of digital technology, which, according to the authors of the manifesto, should be carried out in a democratic manner, from the local to the global level. This would imply, first of all, a three-stage classification of the processes and sectors subject to digitization. Firstly, those for which datafication is simply not desirable, regardless of the advantages that it offers. Second, those for which datafication could prove useful in the long term, but with a slowdown and governance that allows for the management of unintended consequences or necessary adaptations. Thirdly, those for which datafication could already prove positive in the short term, but again, provided that it takes place under the control and supervision of the populations and their representatives.


At the same time, the manifesto also calls for the standards underpinning the operation of the digital environment to be developed exclusively by public interest bodies in the interests of independence, technical quality and interoperability. The text concludes with a call for "a new digital model that is local-to-global (…) which supports localness and furthers democratic self-determination, without compromising on the important benefits of the globalness of the digital".


What about the environment?


For all of its claims to exhaustivity though, the manifesto still suffers from an absence of size: the ecological issue is nowhere to be found. Thinking of a socially just and democratic digital economy makes little sense, however, if the result does not take into account the physical limitations imposed on us by the current ecological crisis. And given the colossal and growing environmental cost of digital technologies, the question is not a rhetorical one. In their defense, the authors of the manifesto respond, if only indirectly, to this concern through their three-step classification of the digitalisation process. The deployment of 5G, for example, is quite widely perceived, within the network, as a good example of a development whose costs (particularly environmental costs) far outweigh the benefits and which should therefore be rejected collectively.


But above all, during a meeting held prior to the publication of the manifesto, the JNC decided to set up, among other things, a working group specifically dedicated to the link between ecology and digital justice. Enough to keep on following this essential work, which receives little media coverage.


Cédric Leterme PhD in Political and Social Sciences, research fellow at the CETRI-Tricontinental Centre (


[4] Remarks made during an informal presentation of the text to other JNC members the day before the official publication.

[6] Unless otherwise stated, quotations are from the Digital Justice Manifesto, JNC, 2019.

[8] Notably within the WTO (see: C. Leterme, "Global Business of Bytes", Le monde diplomatique, November 2019). Among these principles are "free flow of data across borders", "the refusal of obligations in terms of data location" or "the refusal of obligations in terms of disclosure of source codes and algorithms".
Subscribe to America Latina en Movimiento - RSS