A Literature Review for the Colonization of the Internet

By Hunter Dansin

The comparison of large tech companies and corporations to colonizing powers is not a new one. In this essay I examine the comparisons that have already been made and what can be contributed to the discussion.

“Digital Colonialism”

The most direct comparison that has already been made is the usage of colonial terms to refer to Facebook and other big tech organizations exercising influence over developing countries via free services. Specifically, Renata Aviala, a senior digital rights advisor to the World Wide Web Foundation, used the term “Digital Colonialism”. She says that it is: “the new deployment of a quasi-imperial power over a vast number of people, without their explicit consent, manifested in rules, designs, languages, cultures and belief systems by a vastly dominant power.”

This comparison is made in the context of Facebook's substantial influence over local information ecosystems in many countries. Aviala gives an example from late 2017, when Facebook caused a sharp reduction in page views of publications and organizations by changing the news feed without warning. The effects were most severe in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia — because Facebook is a crucial platform for many news outlets in those countries (especially smaller ones). She uses the term “digital colonialism” as a metaphor to describe influence exercised by big tech (mostly American corporations) over smaller countries.

This term was also used when a number of developing countries refused to sign an “international declaration on data flows”. The reason for the refusal was rooted in the disparity between local users and the location of data centers. For example, India has the highest number of Facebook users worldwide, but only one of fifteen Facebook data centers is located in Asia (Singapore). The rest are located in North America and Europe.

The connection of the term “digital colonialism” with real world geography and events was also made in a paper by Michael Kwet of Yale University titled “Digital Colonialism: US empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South”. This paper is directly and indirectly referenced in the conversation about colonialism in the digital age.

“US empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South”

Because it is the most in depth exploration of what digital colonialism means, I will attempt a basic overview of Michael Kwet's paper. Kwet, at the time of writing, was a Sociology PhD candidate at Yale Law School.

Terms Kwet uses:

Global South: A term “employed in a post-national sense to address spaces and peoples negatively impacted by contemporary capitalist globalization.”

Big Tech: A term commonly used to refer to major US tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

Big Data: “An accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional database management tools.”

The abstract states: “This paper proposes a theoretical and conceptual framework explaining how the United States is reinventing colonialism in the Global South through the domination of digital technology. Drawing on South Africa as a case example, it argues that US multinationals exercise imperial control at the architecture level of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware, and network connectivity”. It then asserts that imperial control manifests itself in five “forms of domination”: economic domination, imperial control, global surveillance capitalism, imperial state surveillance, and tech hegemony. Lastly, the abstract presents People's Technology for People's Power as a provider of solutions to counter the “rapidly advancing frontier of digital empire” (Kwet 1).

The introduction contextualizes the paper as a case study of South Africa and outlines the main goals of its research:

“This paper proposes a theoretical and conceptual framework for assessing digital colonialism, drawing on South Africa as a case example. In doing so, it makes three contributions to scholarship: (1) it theorizes digital colonialism as rooted in control over the digital ecosystem, (2) it provides a conceptual framework for digital domination in the Global South, and (3) it recommends practical alternatives that societies can pursue” (Kwet 2).

The following sections define the five “forms of domination” and propose “a theory of a freedom-respecting digital ecosystem” via People's Technology for People's Power (People's Technology). I will summarize each one.

The 5 Features of Domination

  1. Economic Domination: Kwet admits that the point of economic domination has not been empirically proven, however he points to early instances, namely the negative impact of Google ads and Uber on the economy, as examples of economic domination by Big Tech companies (Kwet 4). In each case, foreign entities extracted large amounts of revenue from, and exercised influence over, South Africa. Kwet submits this as evidence of corporations acting like the Dutch East India Company by undermining local development, dominating the market, and extracting revenues from the Global South (Kwet 5).

  2. Imperial Control: Kwet asserts that Big Tech exercises control of the Global South by control of infrastructure. He compares this to the construction of infrastructure such as railways in South Africa for the benefit of colonial powers (Kwet 5-6). Through control of hardware, software, and network connectivity, Kwet states that US corporations can shape infrastructure that is profitable for them and detrimental to South Africa. He provides as examples the engineering of copyright technology such as DRM, throttling, and centralized storage of media through services such as Netflix and Spotify (Kwet 7). He also explains how Facebook's Free Basics service, which offers a gated internet experience for free, can indirectly and directly censor free speech (Kwet 8).

  3. Global Surveillance Capitalism: Kwet gives an overview of “surveillance capitalism”, a term which he borrows from “several prominent scholars” writing in Monthly Review. Kwet asserts that Big Data is the “central component” of surveillance capitalism (Kwet 9). He uses Facebook/Twitter (social data), Amazon (e-commerce), and Google (search) as examples of a virtual monopoly on Big Data. Each of the tech corporations collects and processes data on its users, and that data is where their profits come from (Kwet 9) . Combined with whistle-blower reports that US tech corporations share that data with the NSA, Kwet asserts that Big Data enables “state surveillance” (Kwet 10).

  4. Imperial State Surveillance: Kwet asserts that the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, in which partnerships between the NSA and tech corporations were outlined, provide evidence that that the US government leverages Big Data and surveillance to support its policies in the Global South (Kwet 11). He compares this to the surveillance of black miners at the end of the 19th century, as well as US contributions in support of apartheid in the 1960s and 70s (Kwet 10).

  5. Tech Hegemony: Kwet compares ideologies adopted by colonial powers, such as eugenics and Social Darwinism advocated by Francis Galton in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to the vision of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) theorized by Klaus Schwab. Schwab's 4IR is similar to the vision pushed by Big Tech corporations (Kwet 13-14). According to Kwet, this “Manifest Destiny for the digital age” considers “Big Data, centralized clouds, proprietary systems, smart cities littered with surveillance, automation, predictive analytics, and similar inventions” as the future of computing and technological progress (Kwet 14). Kwet asserts that it is dangerous to “fast-track Big Tech products into the classroom” because it risks reinforcing Big Tech's hegemonic ideology and the dependency of South Africa on services provided by US corporations (Kwet 14, 15).

Kwet's Solution: People's Technology for People's Power

“People's Technology for People's Power” is a reference to the People's Education for People's Power movement that anti-apartheid activists launched during the 1980s “in support of direct democracy in education” (Kwet 15). His solution to counter digital colonialism is a “People's Technology” movement that embraces Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and internet decentralization (Kwet 12-13).

Kwet cites Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement, which itself was founded to combat proprietary software and the dominance of big tech companies like Microsoft. The movement defines four freedoms that, when followed, keep power in the user's hands and not the developer's. Kwet asserts that the freedom to use, study, share, and improve software are essential for South African's digital independence (Kwet 12). He also asserts that in addition to FOSS, citizens need “Free Hardware without digital locks”, and a neutral internet. He cites Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, who states that “the trio of Free Software, Free Hardware, and Free Spectrum (internet connectivity) form the foundation for a Free Culture...” (Kwet 12).

The other piece to the People's Technology movement that Kwet presents is internet decentralization. He gives an outline of the currently centralized architecture of what is a large part of the internet for the majority of users. Specifically, he states that “a small number of corporations” own the servers that billions of users access, which “facilitates colonial dispossession” (Kwet 13). He then presents efforts such as FreedomBox, GNU Social and Mastodon, which allow users to host their own servers and control their own data, as potential alternatives. He asserts that the use of Big Data is not the problem; it is the collection. For Kwet, colonial history will be repeated through digital means unless there are structural changes (Kwet 15).

Further Study

Digital colonialism treats internet technologies developed and controlled by large US Corporations as a method of real world colonization. Upon further research, it does not appear that Renata Aviala and Michael Kwet directly agreed on the meaning of the term, but in practice they use it the same way. While one may criticize the term as sensationalist and extreme, the examples provided by Avialia, Kwet, and other activists who decry digital colonialism are too compelling to ignore. Kwet's paper, despite having a bias against Big Tech, successfully shows that US tech corporations have an unhealthy and shocking amount of influence on the Global South. He also suggests practical ways to oppose the infrastructure that keeps user's locked into centralized tech products.

This review has helped clarify the difference between “digital colonialism” and “colonization of the internet”. Digital colonialism refers to the use of digital technologies as a new form of colonialism in real world countries. Colonization of the internet refers to the internet as the space that was colonized. Some questions that can further explore this distinction are:

  1. What metaphorical “places” were colonized in the internet? (E.g, e-commerce, communication/social interaction, media consumption, data storage and analysis).
  2. How were they colonized?
  3. What are some ways that “colonial powers” exercise and maintain control?
  4. What are the positive and negative effects of this control?
  5. What are some ways to positively counter this control?

Sources

Odrozek, Kasia. “Resisting Digital Colonialism.” Internet Health Report, Mozilla, 8 Apr. 2018, internethealthreport.org/2018/resisting-digital-colonialism/.

Cellan-Jones, Rory. “Facebook's News Feed Experiment Panics Publishers.” BBC News, BBC, 24 Oct. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/technology-41733119.

Kwet, Michael, Digital Colonialism: US Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South (August 15, 2018). For final version, see: Race & Class Volume 60, No. 4 (April 2019) ; DOI: 10.1177/0306396818823172. Available at SSRN: ssrn.com/abstract=3232297 or dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3232297

Hicks, Jacqueline. “‘Digital colonialism’: why some countries want to take control of their people’s data from Big Tech.” The Conversation, University of Nottingham, 26 Sept. 2019, theconversation.com/digital-colonialism-why-some-countries-want-to-take-control-of-their-peoples-data-from-big-tech-123048

“Facebook: Company Profile, Data Center Locations.” Datacenters.com, 2020, www.datacenters.com/providers/facebook

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