The Christmas holidays are over, extended in Spain to Three Kings Day, and the yearly ritual now heads directly to the sales season. A few years back it was a big social and economic event; now, in part because of the effect from Black Friday, it’s lost some relevance but is still marked on the calendar in red for many businesses.
And, of course, like with so many other activities, this year the sales season is affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Confinements and mobility restrictions as a result of the spread of the virus have already led to the closure of 67,500 businesses, approximately 15% of the total, according to data from the Spanish Trade Confederation. And according to the same source, this percentage may have reached 25% by the end of 2020.
In the last weeks of 2020, the citizens’ organization I preside, the European Association for Digital Transition (EADT), launched the ‘Save your zone’ campaign to encourage shopping in nearby shops instead of from the big e-commerce giants. We were one of the associations that, through the city halls, called on consumers to defend local businesses, which form an important part of our social, economic and even sentimental fabric. We did this with our own nuances, which is in our DNA: the strength of the consumer when he also acts as a citizen who is aware of the implications and value of his decisions on his environment, in the society he forms part of, and for his country.
The campaign was focused on Christmas shopping, but its objective remains. Now is sales time, and it seems that when it comes to lowering prices, there’s nothing better than the e-commerce giants we all know and have occasionally used. But whenever we find an incredibly cheap offer, it’s healthy to ask ourselves how it’s possible for the seller to put the price so low that nobody else can match it: Do they pay their employees less? Do they pressure their suppliers excessively and even unethically? Do they leave less revenue in public coffers than their competitors because they use sophisticated fiscal engineering to pay less taxes? Will so many offers seek to drive out competitors to, in the mid-term, raise prices?
We have known for a long time now that the essence of this phenomenon goes far beyond the business sector. This is a further manifestation of the still disorderly and unbalanced digital transformation process we’re living through. Our societies are changing at an historically unprecedented speed – further accelerated by the pandemic – as are business models and the workings of business competition. Many companies compete unequally against new technology-based companies, and in particular ‘big tech’, which thanks to their control of technology and data grow voraciously and, like Attila the Hun, crush any competition under their feet.
Fortunately, the social and political climate is changing, and the European Commission, judging by its institutional statements, sanctioning capacity and, above all, policy proposals – the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act – seems to have understood what’s at stake. The risk coming from technological dependence goes far beyond business, and even the economy as a whole. At the EADT, we are convinced that, plain and simple, not only our economic sovereignty is in jeopardy, but also our citizenship and political sovereignty. Or do we still not have enough examples of how misuse of technological capacity and abusive market dominance appropriates the privacy of our data or can threaten the cleanliness of our elections or even democracy itself, as we have seen recently at the U.S. Capitol?
Beyond where EU legislation finally ends up, we need to be aware of our role as European citizens and not just as consumers or users. The technological and digital transition we are immersed in needs rules, legislation to ensure that the digital divide, both for citizens and labour, is reduced, as well as to balance competition between companies and thus promote sustainable growth. This institutional reaction must be accompanied by our awareness as citizens to monitor, protect and decide on the use of our data, respecting the European values – equality, solidarity and justice – that have made Europe recognizable, a fully-digitalized economy.
By Ricardo Rodríguez Contreras
President of the European Association for Digital Transition (EADT)
January 10, 2021, published in elDiario.es