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February 14, 2019

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Digital Colonialism: Local vs Global

 

Humanity is blessed by the wonders of the Internet. It connects the planet to an extent never experienced before in the history of mankind. Optimists rejoice in its capacity to emancipate whole peoples and nations without the complexities of structural development. However, one should start considering the implications of global connectivity.

 

The Internet can be considered as a liberating power but is, at the same time, a dominating force. In the past year, American Tech Industry has found its way deep into the legislative structure of the growing economies and new markets of the Global South. Through their services Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix dominate the majority of the local digital economies in countries such as India and South Africa.

 

Coined as digital colonialism, ownership over the newest internet technology allows American investors to control entire markets. The term refers to a new reality in which the people of the Global South have voluntarily subordinated their lives to Big Tech in trade for access to the world. Privacy and users data is exported and sold to foreign companies, allowing for the concentration of wealth and power in the US.

 

Identifying the position of BigTech in the Global South as a colonizing force, allows us to think differently about the Internet and social media. Local cultures are redesigned according to a uniformalised style of communication and constructing ones live. The American standard has taken over the Global South, and with it much of its potential for economic growth.

 

A power struggle between global and local

 

Some countries resist. India is making a pushback against the tech industry by insisting on a new regulation that would curb their power and influence. American companies used to have free reign in the region with minimal restrictions on data extraction. This has come to an end as India and China set the new standards on internet regulation in the region.

 

The Global South can count on centuries of anti-colonialist struggle. Perceiving the Silicon Valley as an imperial force reframes the discussion on the Internet as a field of power struggle between the global and the local. India and China, but also South Africa are resisting tech colonisation and inspiring others to reclaim local ownership over the digital economy.

 

For example, India asks foreign companies to store internet user data within its borders; and to limit price-competition between online retail companies and local businesses. In China, all global internet services and social media applications have been replaced by local versions. This nurtured the growth of Alibaba and Baidu, now mature global competitors.

 

China and India reflect a sensitive problem. Internet users do not have control over the data and software that drives their computers and programs. This leaves them unprotected to exploitation by the government and Big Tech companies, who shape their economy into a model prescribed by Silicon Valley.

 

Not only on earth but also in space things are stirring. Amazon recently announced it will launch over 3.200 satellites into orbit to provide broadband internet access to communities around the world. Although the company promotes its latest exploit as an act of good will to emancipate unconnected communities, the project is, in reality, a way to start exploiting that part of the world whose data and privacy is not yet commodified into an export product.

 

The world needs more and better regulation to protect internet users from the dominating force of Big Tech companies. One pioneer already sparked a counter-initiative called FreedomBox. Offering Free and Open Source Software, Eben Moglen – Columbia Law professor - advocates for internet decentralisation.

 

Freedom Box leaves the middle-man position of Big Tech out of the equation. It allows the software users to host necessary web services at home on a device they own and communicate by email or messenger services while keeping privacy and data storage intact. Another plus is that open source software precludes institutions from taking over the services it runs. That way, users are in full control.

 

In reality, development of open-sourced software is underfunded and investors are scarce. It will take an enormous effort to fight Silicon Valley. Local decentralised projects are a viable alternative to liberate vulnerable social groups in the Global South from tech giants. Only if their governments can overcome the dilemma between following the mainstream Internet services or staying independent and emancipated.

 

Our task, then, is to educate the people of the Global South about the implications of accessing internet services owned by foreign companies. Regulations are often too weak to prevent data abuse so users need to be aware of the implications. That is why their online behaviour should be carefully guided.

 

All in all, digital colonialism underscores the urgency of technological domination and exploitation of growing economies. The more countries submit to the power of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, the more our world will lose its authenticity and originality. Access to the Internet is crucial to living an emancipated live, yet to what costs?

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