Research Intern at Jindal Centre for the Global South
O.P. Jindal Global University
The COVID-19 has taken cognizance of data and statistics but it has also exposed and in many cases, widened the global gap in quantitative capability. For instance, insufficient death documentation systems in Africa have made it difficult to trace the evolution of the pandemic. Countries are increasingly being offered a variety of corporate sector data solutions and other non-traditional information sources to solve these concerns and address these data deficiencies. Under the growing ‘digitisation’ of the world, Digital Colonialism has been emerging as a field of study. This paper will focus on the new ‘scramble for digital resources’ and outline the various threats associated with this new concept of neo-colonialism.
The North has mostly envisioned and drafted the international laws governing commerce, capital, and property rights. When developing nations finally understood their true implications, they were often too ingrained to agree to institutional reforms that would more equitably represent their best interests. Regarding the geo-economics of the global digital revolution, a similar scenario is emerging. A worldwide digital order is taking form gradually and firmly. Digital “systems” are revolutionising several social sectors, such as the information industry through Google, commerce via Amazon, and urban transportation through Uber. Such networks are mostly owned by multinational, US based monopolies. They collect free raw data from underdeveloped nations and transform it into “digital expertise,” which is then used to reorganise and dominate all industries. Besides perpetuating a strategy of economic exploitation of underdeveloped nations, this new kind of digital reliance has catastrophic political, social, and cultural implications. Developing nations continue to be on the periphery of digital governance processes, with no collective objective or plans. By default, the developed world continues to define global digital society norms and policy principles based on its priorities and strategic perspective. If current trends continue, developing countries will be forced to rely heavily on digital technology. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness about the entire framework in which the global digital order is unfolding today and is not in the interests of the developing world, as well as to contend for the necessity for a coherent solution to the grave challenge that it poses.
What is Digital Colonialism ?
The decentralised capture and management of data from individuals, with or without their official approval, is referred to as “digital colonialism.” The phrase “data imperialism” has been utilised to characterise the expropriation of big data across the Global South, notably by the two significant worldwide data superpowers, the United States of America and China. Our communities are restructuring themselves around network infrastructures with disconnected, machine-based intellect. These digital networks or systems, as the conscience of our communities, will effectively connect and thereby manage all fields. They are internationally coordinated, corporate-owned, uncontrolled, and prone to monopoly. Almost all of them are now headquartered in the United States of America. This is a critical geo-economic and socio-political problem that necessitates immediate response.
The rising condition of the data-driven capitalist system is a perpetuation of prior imperialist times’ exploitative regimes. Many Northern firms benefit from the private data they collect from across the world, compromising the digital integrity of governments in the Global South, imitating previous tendencies of colonial resource exploitation. The fact that the Global North controls the flow of digitalisation, it can make it difficult for Southern economies, particularly those in Africa, to build their own digital economy, industrial capacity, and other domestic sectors as noted in ‘The Costs of Connection’ by Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias.
Historiography of Colonialism
During the late 19th century, dominant colonial powers partitioned Africa under the pretence of White supremacy, engrained anti-Black emotion, and authoritarian control in what became recognised as the “Scramble for Africa”, the formation of imaginary lines drawing up colonies, as well as the coercive exploitation of Africans. Due to the course of capitalist development there emerged a strong perception that an industrialised countries’ economic, and consequently political, destiny depended on exclusive possession of its markets and raw materials. Even the infrastructure that was created in colonies was geared to extract natural riches. Corporations had a significant role in colonial growth, assisting in the imperialist economic goal. These corporations became a tool to enable the flow of additional revenues through exploitation. Eventually, the colonies’ status was assigned to other Global South countries in Latin America and Asia. Commercial enterprises progressively became more involved in colonial administration in order to serve their own and the colonial powers’ commercial interests. Colonisers viciously decided to take over regions and misused wealthy lands to maximise their own economic gain and global economic prowess, both explicitly and through trading companies, to serve the industrial capitalist structure built on the backs of colonised people and lands, which became the cornerstone for neo-mercantilism.
Historically, colonialists landed on colonial coasts to extend their dominion by enslaving indigenous labour to harvest valuable natural resources and raw materials, while also constructing crucial facilities such as railways to ease the transportation and export of these frequently seized items. Today’s colonialists, on the other hand, are digital. They create communication networks such as social media networks and internet connectivity with the sole aim of collecting data, profiting from it, and/or retaining it as raw material for data analytics.
Data and Digital Colonialism
Data is indeed a global currency now, and access to data is currently the most important commodity to nations and enterprises, rather than wealth, natural resources, or advanced weapons. The data might be retrieved and supplied as a commodity to firms and political organisations whose income is based on identifying their targeted audience in order to promote political messages and objectives or offer tailored consumer products. For instance, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica revealed that personal data of around 50 million Americans was used to help Donald Trump win America’s 2016 presidential elections.
The nineteenth and twentieth century colonial powers built vital infrastructure such as railways for the primary intention of commercially exploiting the colonies’ natural resources. Today, giant tech companies such as Facebook and Alphabet are establishing network connectivity infrastructure for benefitting from the use of their online services, instead of developing community infrastructure for long-term economic prosperity.
Eduardo Galeano’s book “open veins” where he describes the economic exploitation of Latin America by the colonial powers of the Global North, can be viewed today as being the “digital veins” that traverse the seas, connecting a tech ecosystem owned and controlled by a small number of primarily US-based firms, but with the same intention of exploitation of the neo-colonised.
Dominance of the Global North, especially the US in forwarding Digital Imperialism
WSIS [ World Summit of Information Society ], with an aim to bridge the global digital divide became a platform where the Global South advocated a more equitable worldwide distribution of the Internet’s technological resources, as well as equal participation for all nations in international Internet administration. The Tunis Agenda is an example of the discontent expressed towards the US control over global data. The agenda in November 2005 advocated for a multi-stakeholder governance structure for the Internet and also called for the creation of an Internet Governance Forum. “We believe that all nations should have an equivalent role and responsibility for global Internet governance, as well as for maintaining the Internet’s integrity, privacy, and resilience.” [ Tunis Agenda, 2005 ]
This was a direct allusion to the United States government’s hegemonic control over ICANN. US maintains a direct control over ICANN’s administration and due to its being a non-profit organisation, it also is subjected to the laws under US legal jurisdiction. This implies that there can be an intentional interference in its functioning to advance the country’s interests which makes it a tool in the hands of the US. Therefore, its rules become the basis of the global digital rules. The efforts of the Global South have failed to yield efforts to maintain an equitable digital order. India proposed the creation of a Committee for Internet-Related rules and Governance at the United Nations General Assembly in 2011 , having a role and framework comparable to the Digital Economy Policy Committee of the OECD. Members of the OECD opposed the plan, considering it a state endeavour to have command of the Internet.
Digital commerce must be regulated inside a pre-existing, comprehensive conceptual structure for the growing digital societal structure, much as WHO does for health, UNESCO does for education and cultural artefacts, UNEP does for climate change, and FAO does for food and agriculture.
Breach of Data laws due to benefits outweighing penalties
The existence of extensive data privacy regulation doesn’t quite guarantee that digital businesses will adhere if the advantage of the breach outweighs the expense of penalty.
Uber is an example for this claim as it has flouted several rules in countries and has continued to operate since the cost of penalties for running business is lower than the benefit of operating. Uber’s legal breaches are worldwide as evident in the event of 2016 when a French Court condemned Uber for breaking French transportation and protection rules. Google found itself in a similar situation when Google Books, a Google operated ebook distribution service, planned to scan a plethora of books into a digital format while ignoring its copyright rules. Despite a fine of $3.6 trillion, Google books went ahead with the project.
Due to an imbalance between data protection and Internet freedom, there seems to be an unrestricted infringement of rules and misuse of data. In light of the freedom of the Internet as in the US, it became easy to manipulate data of Americans as in the case of the 2016 Trump elections. Apart from privacy and security concerns, we are now observing a real conflict between regulation and autonomy. It is being observed not just for individuals, but for entire nations and is aided by advanced technology and tremendous data collection and analysis, from the digitization of social programs and the capability to completely regulate and interrupt those facilities, even digitally. As a result, the world’s disconnected people are contested terrain for cyber giants, because whomever secures their digital aristocracy owns the secret to the future. Without a question, the IT sector has a significant impact on how campaigns, governments, and politics work.
In return for their private information and the opportunity to receive advertising, these corporations provide crucial facilities for citizens. In most nations, the government and private investors cannot match the pace and resources that these large businesses have for connecting underdeveloped regions. These firms frequently combine their services with the distribution of hardware, application, and restricted content, leaving neither citizens nor the state with many options. New subscribers are often entitled to private, lengthy agreements that grant the corporations complete access to all of the user’s information.
Way Forward for the Global South
The initial and most critical step for developing countries in the lengthy and laborious path towards an equitable, rule based global digital order is to search for a new UN based arena for Internet/ digital governance. This new organisation should assist in the development of digital norms, laws, and institutional framework, as well as agreements. Collaboration amongst developing countries in this critical field should be expanded by investigating a potential South to South platform on digital community challenges. These challenges will only grow more relevant and difficult in the future. A major knowledge development element should be included in such a forum.
A starting step is to begin unofficial efforts to build strategic knowledge, customs, values, and institutional framework for the information world from a Southern perspective. Research institutions, think tanks, and seminars and meetings should promote and facilitate this. A global digital framework that is fair and equitable for all, especially developing nations, is desired. Such an order must be founded on norms negotiated in a transparent and democratic way. There needs to be a collaboration between the governments and civil society involving all stakeholders in order to devise the perfect plan. Fair and managed data regulation to achieve the perfect balance between protection and freedom is also desirable. “Localising digitization”, which necessitates the storage of consumer data locally. While the digital payment sector and global trade proponents have criticised this for restricting essential information flows, it is a step toward building a rather more fair power balance and Regional-level data flow regulations might retain safeguards while supporting positive sector advances. There are also prospects for “nationalising” data being investigated, wherein data is transformed into a valuable asset for which huge tech corporations are forced to pay at a value that favours people.
Digital colonialism is equally as repressive as early 19th century economic colonialism. Big digital corporations, generally managed and owned by Caucasian males, are gathering data from uninformed people and using predictive analytics to gain. Nevertheless, strict privacy rules would not stop this hegemony. While contemporary data security rules are a move in the right direction, more thought is needed to address the topic of how societies can secure personal data in an ever more digitally reliant world.
As a result, national leaders, particularly those pushing for equality and fairness, need to become conscious of the risks that rising digital commercialisation entails for marginalised people throughout the world, as well as the influence on democracy and dignity. To begin tackling worldwide disparities and accepting a future that prioritises digital liberty and basic human rights, innovation should be promoted and entrenched at the local and individual levels to ensure its universality and sustainability. Initiatives should be adopted to ensure that the widespread adoption of new technology does not result in increased disparity, isolation, or the enforcement of values and behaviours that are alien to the local community.
Digital commodification’s shocks are creating a new chapter in capitalism’s longstanding history of violent displacement. As a result, discussing options for social alternatives is critical. [ Schiller, 2000 ]
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.