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A Deeply Colonial Internet

New report by Pollicy highlights nine modes of economic extractivism from Africa that are abetted by the rise of tech companies.

Ghosts of the past never truly let our present be free. Instead, in ways both hidden and visible, they spread their tentacles and constrict our experience and imagination of the world. In the wide sweep of human history, we see even minor events reverberate in unpredictable ways centuries later. How could we then expect something as pervasive and dehumanising as colonialism to cede ground to a seemingly benign and free internet? Quite to the contrary, technology has merely turned invisible the chains of subjugation that western powers have strung like a noose around the global south aspirations for equality and dignity. Such is the dominance of a tiny area of land in California that we often simply don’t know that we are eager (albeit ignorant) allies in this grand colonial scheme.

In the 19th and early 20th century, industrial capitalism had an extractive core to it, wherein European nations deployed coercion to use cheap labour and resources from the global south for their own economic benefit. Colonial powers also directly transferred wealth to the home countries through generous salaries, pensions, imports and other means. For example, British journalist William Digby estimated that half of India’s revenue income was sent to Britain in those days. The global south was also treated as a captive and powerless market, with trade rules being set in a way that hindered the growth of local industries and reinforce the dominance of foreign firms. Research has shown that an exogenous decline in colonial trade — which means less economic extraction — led to greater industrialisation of colonised nations, which in turn led to higher national self-worth and anti-colonial activity.

Despite its early anti-establishment promise, ‘internet capitalism’ has inherited this inequity in global power relations that colonialism bequeathed to us, with the US replacing Europe as the primary benefactor. There is an eerie similarity between the modes of extraction and dominance under both regimes.

Just like colonial subjects were denied political representation, the current structure of the internet privileges some thoughts and ideas over others on social media. Conversations around tech governance are also driven by stakeholders in the US/Europe, and global south voices often having only token representation. Since US-based Big Tech companies are the social media of choice globally, their content moderation policies — which are set in the US, with minimal representation from the global south countries — determine who has access to these online spaces and, by extension, a voice online. Most of the knowledge in the world is created by contributors in the global north. For example, less than 20% of Wikipedia’s 70,000 active contributors are from the global south, with less than 1000 from Africa. This inequity under-represents and under-values some cultures in the internet’s shared infrastructure.

There are 7000 languages and dialects in the world, but only 7% are reflected in published online material. 98% of the internet’s web pages are published in just 12 languages, with more than half of them in English. While this is primarily a result of uneven access, it also represents a vicious cycle of denial of participation. Global forums like RightsCon are dominated by the global north. Even when online in 2020, nearly 60% of the participants and a similar share of session hosts came from Europe and USA. Global south organisations find it difficult, expensive and alien to participate.

Just like colonial trade rules were set to transfer economic value from the colonised to the coloniser, internet governance forums are dominated by global north voices, and therefore set rules that are more conducive to their economic interests. The G20 has take a lead through its ‘Osaka Track’ on cross-border data flows. However, three large global south countries — India, South Africa, and Indonesia — boycotted the proceedings because ‘they ‘denied policy space for digital-industrialisation in developing countries.’

Global south countries do not have a seat at the table at standard-setting bodies that form the backbone of the internet. For e.g., nearly two-thirds of attendees at IETF come from EU, USA, Canada and Australia. Large countries like Nigeria and Kenya are completely unrepresented, and become passive consumers.

Just like the colonial regime promoted the wholesale transfer of economic resources to the colonial power, the internet is also designed to extract economic under-development in the global south in a way that perpetuates these inequities and denies dignity to people in the global south. Internet companies exploit cheap labour by transferring menial or dangerous tasks, without the protections they offer to US citizens. For e.g., when Facebook reached a $52M settlement with content moderators in four US states, their colleagues in India and the Philippines were left out.

Tax evasion is rampant, with global north countries blocking any multilateral efforts at creating a more equitable economic structure. For e.g., just three Big Tech companies avoid paying $3B in taxes in poorer countries, an amount comparable to the entire GDP of Liberia and Burundi. With data emerging as a key economic resource, internet companies are extracting this resource from Africa and Asia, and transferring them for the exclusive economic use of the global north. Initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics seek to increase control over the data of individuals from the global south.

And yet, we don’t speak enough about tech colonialism because our public spaces have been dominated by civil society and philanthropic voices from the global north. Their battles become the righteous battles. Their ideas become the ideas of the future. Their acceptance becomes the barometer of the legitimacy of global south voices. Organisations like Whose Knowledge and Rest of World have been on a mission to bring to the main stage of tech discussions the voices of those who are systematically and culturally excluded. A new research paper by Pollicy adds to a growing chorus of voices that shine light on under-represented perspectives.

The report lists nine ways in which the spread of technology has facilitated economic extraction from Africa. Four of these involve a naked appropriation of local resources — labour, capital, data, and natural resources. So-called ‘global’ tech companies outsource low-pay and low-skill jobs to Africa, while retaining lucrative and empowering jobs in the west. They exploit the under-development of these countries by paying as little as $9 for a day of work, a pittance even when adjusted for purchasing power. Most importantly, they deny local labour dignity of work and the protections that all labour (not just American or European ones) deserve. For example, Facebook compensated US-based content moderators $1000 for mental health issues developed on the job, and an extra amount if they developed PTSD. But this wasn’t extended to those in the global south. They remain second-grade employees of this ‘free’ internet, who are trapped in the vicious cycle of low economic development and flailing institutions that cannot stand up to Big Tech.

Tax evasion is a well-known fact, but what is not discussed as often are the invisible forms of unfair trade practices. Fueled by a glut of venture capital funding in the west, tech companies like ride-sharing apps can absorb the losses they incur while undercutting local competitors on price and driving them out of business. The economic aspirations of local industries and workers are deflated; and transferred whole-sale to the high valuations that these loss-making enterprises fetch for their western (and East Asian) shareholders. Many western tech companies continue to extract natural resources even from countries where it is leading to a humanitarian crisis, such as Coltan mining in eastern DRC. All this makes one wonder if we have even truly left our abominable colonial past behind us.

Modern-day economic extraction is not limited to variants of colonial methods, but also manifests itself in serious and insidious ways. Technocapitalism propagates itself through constant experimentation and testing. But testing in the global north — which requires safeguards and processes — is expensive. Enter the vast unregulated plains of the global south! Cambridge Analytica, for example, tested their algorithms — unencumbered by regulations — in the cauldron of ethic strife in Nigeria and Kenya, before deploying it in the US and UK. Such algorithmic exploitation exploits regulatory arbitrage by not adequately compensating the global south for being test subjects.

Companies also short-change African and Asian populations by not investing enough in making these tech platforms safe for local communities. Advances in automated content moderation often bypass local languages, creating an orgy of harassment and violence on such platforms in the global south. To protect their economic empires, they often go out of their way to please local autocrats, trampling upon civil liberties in a way they won’t dare do in the US or Europe. By offering seemingly ‘free’ products, they trap people from the global south as captive audiences beholden to their platform. This potent concoction of lack of choice mixed with unsafe product quality would have been a scandal in any other sector. But the tech sector defies even these basic norms of economic fairness.

Pollicy’s report gives us a glimpse into pervasive yet under-reported economic extraction from Africa enabled by tech companies. This phenomenon is restricted not just to Africa or to economic extraction. Many aspects of tech reflect a deep-rooted callousness for the interests of the global south. For the past half millennium, the global south has been used for the comforts and development of American and European interests. That has placed the latter at a pedestal — in multi-lateral negotiations, on tech innovation, cultural mind space, and purchasing power. It is time for the self-proclaimed guardians of human dignity, especially those in the west, to question their own biases and blind spots. Not doing so would make them complicit in this systematic ‘minoritisation’ of the world’s majority.

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