Is big tech the new East India Company?
We examine whether big tech companies are following in the footsteps of colonial powers as they expand across the world
Colonialism has left a deep and enduring mark on the world. Its roots have anchored themselves across the globe, and its long shadow maintains an unequal balance of power and wealth between the Global North and South.
There are many architects of colonialism, with the East India Company – and its complex history of trade monopolies, war and slavery – among the most notorious. The company established infrastructure, like railroads and ports, in foreign lands to extract raw materials, which, in turn, were used to manufacture goods. Many of these were often even sold back to the countries from which the materials were taken. This method allowed many imperialist entities to substantially expand their wealth at the expense of others.
Although these practices are largely confined to the past, some suggest big tech companies are following in their footsteps. These companies are, too, accused of engaging in trade monopolies, play a key role in the industry of war, and are even swept up in allegations of benefitting from modern slavery prevalent in supply chains. Where goods once traded included cotton, silk or tea, today they’re minerals mined to make electronic components, and information. Although the days of the East India Company are over, is big tech today partaking in a form of modern colonialism by entrenching themselves in the new power networks of technology and data?
Seizing first-mover advantage
Digital colonialism, says Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, is the use of technology for the political, economic, and social domination of another territory. It’s principally achieved through the ownership and control of the digital ecosystem, comprising software, hardware, network connectivity, data, platforms, and intellectual property (IP). Kwet adds the US is “by far” the leader, with China and Europe vying to close the gap, alongside some Global South-based corporations seeking to impose their influence abroad, in what he terms “South-on-South” colonialism.
Big tech takes advantage of a borderless internet to impose its products and services in poorer countries, maintaining its dominance by retaining control over technology and property. This means the Global North, in effect, controls a potentially highly lucrative part of their respective economies, Kwet says – making inroads before local companies can. Uber, for instance, had set up in Africa before African companies could compete on the same footing. Global South populations, in turn, play the role of passive user, consumer, and producer of low-level goods and services, ranging from mining to sweatshop labour.
Colonialists of the past established trade monopolies, frequently engaged in warfare and built the slave trade industry
To expand its empire across the Global South, Kwet says tech firms employ various tactics. They set the rules, like IP, and seize the first-mover advantage. They also take advantage of networks by blocking interoperability between platforms, which could allow many services to operate instead of just a few.
Instead of colonising the land and establishing infrastructure for extraction, Kwet continues, through digital colonialism, tech giants colonise the technology for data extraction and rent. He adds that networks like Facebook extract data, process it on server farms, and use it to provide services in a scenario in which the South cannot compete. He explains the North also has “heavy machinery” in place, like cloud centres, that are required for data-driven services. Kwet says these aren’t easy to replicate, and are comparable to machinery once used to drill deep beneath the surface to mine minerals like diamonds and gold.
Navigating the choppy waters of colonial overhang
Big tech takes advantage of relationship patterns that were established historically, argues Olufunmilayo Arewa, Shusterman professor of business and transactional law at Temple University. In Africa, she says, European powers once exercised control over social, political, and economic institutions, with countries integrated into the global economic system primarily as a source of raw materials, including people and agricultural products. The colonies, in turn, imported manufactured goods from the powers that controlled them. Arewa believes these patterns are mirrored in the modern era, as African nations still maintain similar economic relationships with external powers – with an added digital dynamic.
“African countries are an important source of raw materials for the industrial and digital economies, including metals such as tantalum, which is important for electronic components,” she says. “Many countries in Africa, however, remain economically marginalised, in important respects, and a capacity gap is evident, particularly in key skills needed in the digital economy.”
She says the introduction of new technologies draws attention to lawmaking within Africa, as many current laws and regulations were put in place before the digital revolution. The poor fit of existing regulations, many of which may predate modern technologies and business practices, is an issue of ongoing contestation globally, with the lack of regulatory oversight giving tech companies a green light to experiment in various territories as they see fit.
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Undoing digital colonialism, Arewa suggests, would involve establishing relationships not built on colonial parallels. “This would mean engaging with countries in the Global South as partners, rather than grounds for exploitation,” she says. Several measures can be adopted from a trade perspective, meanwhile, according to Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for World Trade Organisation (WTO) Studies at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. He believes there should be no obligations on digital issues in free trade agreements at the WTO, such as forcing countries to liberalise e-commerce, with these agreements now the “most important legal instrument” for exacerbating digital colonisation. Countries should also have the flexibility to impose restrictions on cross-border data flows, and mandate localisation of servers within their territory. This, Abhijit says, will help developing countries create a vibrant domestic digital sector without becoming dependent on imports of digital products.
He adds countries must also be able to tax digital players, and nations must not be “arm-twisted into not imposing taxes on foreign suppliers of digital services” either. This is on top of governments being able to sufficiently regulate the digital sector, in light of provisions in existing trade agreements that “tie the hands of governments”.
Data is the new tea
The continued appropriation of data from the stream of the collective human experience is a phenomenon of historical significance, comparable with the original land grab, says Nick Couldry, professor of media, communications and social theory at LSE. He believes this “data colonialism” exacerbates historic power dynamics with regards to the world’s resources given that data, and the value derived from it, represents a completely new type of asset to “grab and appropriate”.
The continued appropriation of data by companies thriving in Silicon Valley has been likened to the original land grab
Couldry adds historic colonialism evolved over the course of four centuries into complex imperialist political structures and cultures of racism. It’s much too early to say, therefore, if data colonialism will ever evolve in the same way. He says, however, the underlying principles of colonialism, which centred on imposing ‘Western superiority’ to appropriate resources across the world, will continue through the rhetoric of big data. This language of ‘dataism’, he adds, is based around the idea that the maximum amount of data must always be gathered, whatever the cost.
Data colonialism can, in principle, thrive everywhere, so it takes place not only in the Global South but also in the North. Ultimately, though, the key targets for data extraction will always be shaped by historical colonialism, Couldry continues, leaving many African countries vulnerable to the Trojan Horse offerings by companies like Facebook. He uses Facebook Free Basics as an example of a free, limited internet service for developing markets that was found to ignore local sites and prioritise Western ones instead. “Where we think data colonialism is headed, as it grows within the power structures already inherited from capitalism,” Couldry explains, “is to make possible an entirely new type of social and economic order, based on much more intensive governance of people in the interests of value extraction."
The only way to end digital colonialism, Kwet adds, is by reconstructing the digital economy in a way that strips out the system of private property and production for profit, and replaces it with one organised by society to service society on egalitarian terms. This includes free and open source software, a phasing out of IP, stronger privacy laws, and a digital tech deal that would fund the production, maintenance, and access to technology for everyone. This must be formulated collectively by people across the world, he says, fuelled by a movement that intersects with broader political, economic, and social justice ambitions.
Couldry says he’s “optimistic” about resisting data colonialism in the long term, “provided we’re not misled by false solutions”. He says a good starting point would be to imagine a world that refuses to intensify data colonialism and instead relies less on data-extracting platforms for the conduct of our daily lives. For this to be effective, though, it must be through collective means, as there’s no other way to resist something as large as an entire social order except by “imagining and starting to live out a different one”.
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