Digital Colonialism:The Modern Struggle For Nations
The concentration of data is the concentration of power
Silicon Valley corporations are taking over the digital economy in Africa and Asia, and nobody is simply paying close attention. Digital colonialism has stealthily crept in unnoticed. In Africa for example, Facebook and Google dominate the online advertising industry, and are considered an existential threat to local media. In the transportation industry, Uber has captured so much of the traditional taxi industry that drivers have been petrol bombed in the “South African taxi wars”. Similar battles have broken out in Kenya, likewise mega cities in Nigeria like Abuja, Lagos and Benin city.
In the same way, Netflix is not only pulling subscribers away from local television services, they are buying up content in Africa. The streaming giant is now the number one source of internet traffic. Big Tech companies are wrecking havoc on Africa and Asia. There is a crisis in the tech ecosystem, and it is called digital colonialism.
What is digital colonialism?
In the past, Europeans dispossessed natives of their land, exploited their labour, exercised extraterritorial governance, and enforced perpetual dependency through strategic underdevelopment. In their pursuit of profit and power, Europeans took ownership and control of critical infrastructure, including ports, waterways, railroads etc.
Natives of the land were exploited to extract raw materials, which were sent back to Europe for manufacturing. Surplus European products would then flood the colonized states, undermining the indigenous population’s ability to develop its own local industries. Colonial powers deployed this infrastructural domination across their vast empire.
Similar to the technical architecture of past colonialism, digital colonialism is rooted in the design of the tech ecosystem for the purpose of profit and plunder. Big Tech corporations use proprietary software, corporate clouds, and centralized Internet services to spy on users, process their data, and throw back manufactured services to subjects of their data.
For example, Google siphons user data from a variety of sources –Google search, Maps, Ads, Android location services, Gmail –to provide them with one of the richest collections of information on the planet. Through the Open Handset Alliance and proprietary control of their “killer apps”, they ensure the world’s data flows into their corporate cloud. They then process the data for consumer and business services.
Thus, tech corporations have expanded their products across the globe, extracting data and profit from users all around the world while concentrating power and resources in one country, the United States of America (with China as a growing competitor). Poorer countries are overwhelmed by readily available services and technology, and cannot develop their own industries and products that compete with Western corporations. They are also left unable to protect their people from being exploited. Control over how these technologies work forms the foundation of digital colonialism.
Software is often proprietary, which means that users cannot read, modify, or share the source code. This prevents them from understanding and controlling how their software works. However, Free Software is not enough to protect the public interest because in recent years, surveillance capitalism has given rise to centralized internet services outside of user control. Platforms like Facebook function as “information intermediaries” which stand between end users. For instance, do you want to send a picture to a friend? You send it to Facebook first, and then your friend downloads it from Facebook.
American Big Tech companies are just as dominant outside of the US as they are inside of it. And with US markets relatively saturated, they are seeking to colonize emerging market. This calls for a redress.
Microsoft and Google, for example, are investing in efforts to place their software in Africa and other ones classrooms through programmes like Microsoft Partners in Learning and Google Classroom. This hooks young people in their products from an early age, and biases African software developers towards their software ecosystem.
Big Tech corporations are also building their own server farms in foreign countries to capture emerging markets and shift them towards the Silicon Valley model of a centralized cloud economy. Some media commentators maintain that for all the problems of Big Tech, they offer valuable services. A common trope is that Facebook “connects the world’s users”. Using the same logic, people still praise the British for providing colonial subjects with railroads. The obvious point is that these systems were designed for domination, when they could have been built to benefit local communities.
At the same time, countries in Africa and other poorer ones are less able to protect their people from exploitation. Countries with power – the United States, the EU states, Australia – are the ones calling the shots on Big Tech companies.
Users around the globe are being subjected to the norms set by US-based companies. “Code is law” in the sense that computer code constitutes proprietary regulations binding all users. If YouTube wants to block, say, the sharing of content protected by fair use, there’s no much that foreign jurisdictions can do.
The same goes for speech regulation, content moderation, and freedom of association: The major social network use algorithms and employee rulebooks to censor content, shape what people see in news feeds, and determine which activist and other social groups people are allowed to form their platforms.
How can this be handled?
The African Union and their Asian brothers should come up with legislation to combat this impending danger that has enslaved us. Also, let users be careful on all platforms they register on and thoroughly read the terms and conditions on such platforms. Most times, consent is willingly given to these tech companies by blind clicking on such requests. African nations and other countries being exploited can take a stand today to rule out digital colonialism, just as its classic predecessor was stamped out.
Christine Obioma is a creative wordsmith, content creator and copywriter. A graduate of Information Management Technology from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri.
She has passion to inspire, inform and transform individuals using her pen. When she is not writing, she enjoys baking, reading self-development books or observing nature.