In my last post, I wrote about the importance of working towards digital inclusion, as the next billion internet users are expected to come from the Global South. Individuals and communities in the Global South stand to gain abundantly from accessing the internet. Improved education, health and livelihoods are just a few of the areas they stand to benefit from. However, its necessary to be critical about how the Global South will be impacted by the spread of digital technology, within the frame of data colonisation and its impact on inequality.
Data colonisation, also known as digital colonialism, is ‘the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit’[i]. Capitalism is evolving and data collection has become a key feature. Corporations are driven by the idea that amassing data is a business and economic necessity. The ability to monitor the present, predict the future and potentially influence behaviours of whole populations is driving the quest for domination of data[ii]. Our experiences and engagements online are the resources extracted, commodified and valued as properties of capitalist enterprises. We are constantly monitored and are under surveillance for data extraction; we have become a ‘resource into this capitalist production’[iii]. This compares to the colonial conquest of the past because it is driven by ‘acquiring large scale resources which economic value can be extracted’ [iv], the power of which rests in the hands of a few.
Data extraction and power imbalances
The perpetrators of this new form of colonisation are the tech giants in Silicon Valley but also in China – Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, TikTok just to name a few. The race to connect the disconnected in the Global South is apace. A number of these tech giants running programs to provide the infrastructure and software to facilitate connection. Devices provided, such as mobile phones with registered SIM cards, allows for surveillance and profiling of users. Afforded with only pre-installed websites, devices are accompanied by user agreements allowing these corporations full access to user data[v]. This scramble for data is because its new raw material fed into algorithms for Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, and churned into profit.
Another concern is the manifesting power relations when the collectors and analysers of the data are predominantly male and mostly located in the Global North. Their power to determine what is correct or what fits the stereotypical expectation heightens concerns about ‘Othering’ – a concept that already has implications for the Global South. Furthermore, the nature that data is collected and used can become a problem. If there is algorithmic discrimination or ‘nudging’ towards certain behaviours, e.g. technology for facial recognition in policing minority groups. This type of influence also makes it easy to reinforce stereotypes, pushing the marginalised further to the periphery.
There are calls for the Global South to nationalise its data, to declare data a national resource and charge the tech companies for this resource. That is a short-term measure. A long decoloniality view could be to disentangle the Global South from this new form of colonialism with a moon-shot goal of building an internet for the Global South.
[i] Couldry, N., and Ulises A. M., (2019) The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, Stanford University Press. At page xiii
[ii] Pinto, R.A., (2018) Digital sovereignty or digital colonialism?, International Journal on Human Rights, 27. At page 16
[iii] Couldry, N., and Ulises A. M., (2019) The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, Stanford University Press. At page xix
[iv] Couldry, N., and Ulises A. M., (2019) The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, Stanford University Press. At page xi
[v] Pinto, R.A., (2018) Digital sovereignty or digital colonialism?, International Journal on Human Rights, Issue 27. At page 18
Kwet, M., (2019) Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South Institute of Race Relations 60 (4)
Milan, S. & Trere, E. (2019) Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism, Television & New Media, 20 (4)
Birhane, A. (2019) The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa. Real Life Mag, 9 July
Jackson, J. (2019) Black Communities Are Already Living in a Tech Dystopia, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 15 August.