E-Colonialism: The idiom of a Neo-Imperialism of global agents
When Digital colonization and Internet Governance usurp Sovereignty
Published : Thursday, 26 November, 2020 at 12:00 AM Count : 301
Almost every country in the world was colonised at one point. Though most gained independence in the last century, colonialism is in no way a distant memory for nations who still experience an imbalance of power. In the past, empires expanded their power via the control of key assets, from trade routes to oceans, from railways to precious metals. Now, we additionally also have technology empires that control data and computational power to dominate the world. Digital colonialism 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. Is this a new form of imperialism, not by nation states but by a few technology guardians and corporations?
Why "colonialism"? If people are happy using platforms like Facebook, why frame it in negative terms? Because it's serious. The foundations of freedom and democracy are at stake when centralized. Global agents have the power to monitor, process and mediate all user communications. They analyse personal data and make collective behaviour predictable, and the knowledge is privatized and protected by trade secret laws. Honestly, one cannot find positive terms to describe the relationship we have with big tech companies today: it is based on the erosion of basic human rights and data extractivism - and it offers few benefits in return.
Beyond tensions of privacy and security, we are witnessing a real confrontation between control and freedom, not only of the individual, but of entire populations and regions, enhanced by technologies and massive collection and analysis of data. From predicting to influencing behaviours, from automation of public services to fully control and the ability to disrupt those, even remotely. From gaining access to a global communications platform to losing the ability to protect the rights of those who are interconnected in such platforms. We are witnessing a different form of global domination and control.
Never before a small sector had so much power over the entire World, to monitor the present and predict not only future behaviours of individuals but entire populations. The problem is more alarming when we consider how the two sectors are merging in joint ventures, in a quest of global domination, penetrating every government, every citizen movement, mediating every act of any connected person's life.
The Internet is responsible for anything and everything digital today. Just how the old colonial systems would capture ground anywhere they went, digital or e-colonization involves the Internet eyeing all the activities of all its users. The knowledge gained about Internet users is then used in influencing their decisions. This could be for influencing a user to buy a particular product or choosing the party that should come to power in a country. In the words of Bill Gates, "The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village." The social, economic, and cultural aspects of the Internet, along with its technical architecture, are responsible for shaping some of the factions of the world we see today.
Just think of how dependent the local information ecosystem is on the whims of the E-Colonisers. Never mind volatile politics or media freedom. Users were never asked, because the relationship with an E-Coloniser is neither fair nor democratic. The world's offline populations are the disputed territory of tech empires, because whoever gets them locked into their digital feudalism, holds the key to the future. A truncated version of the Internet for the poor is an information diet low in calories, one of mere subsistence and not of human development and economic growth.
We not only need to resist it but also need accelerated regulatory reform in the spirit of antitrust legislation. We need to contain the expansion of big tech and their ability to extract data from people on abusive terms. We need a reinvented knowledge and data commons, and we need to innovate collaborative, publicly funded forms of artificial intelligence for the common good. This is not a job for grassroots movements alone. To burn down digital colonialism we need governments, municipalities, regions, cooperatives, collective forms of social innovation and collaboration. We need everyone to become aware of what's at stake, so we can take back our public infrastructure, and build our own sustainable platforms for the future.
The Internet is shaping the world into a virtual colony, without altering the geographical boundaries. This digital colonization is being considered highly influential in shaping the future geopolitical scenarios. Gone are the days when colonization meant dominating a weaker country by establishing power and control in its territory and over its people. Today, analysts say that data is to this century what oil was to the previous one. Internet, its usage, and its applications have experienced an explosive boom worldwide in the last decade. All the data on the web is publicly available to everyone. Be it general knowledge, conspiracy theories, or someone's personal information, one click is all one needs to get hands on it.
A tsunami of such data does not provide us with information alone. The data also talks a lot about the people using or extending this data. It is no secret that our lives today have as much a digitally virtual identity as the physical ones. However, we are not as conscious of the data we put out on the Internet as we are of our physical selves. But governments and for-profit business and other organizations are exploiting our freedom on digital mediums to colonize us virtually. Today Electronic Colonialism can even influence the seat of presidency in the territory of a political superpower, and worldwide colonization of data can definitely make or mar other geopolitical scenarios too.
The concept of colonization via cyberspace is as old as the concept of cyberspace itself. Undoubtedly, the Internet brings a lot of advantages to our table. However, any form of capture over countries that are still developing, will not aid their development henceforth. The digital divide and the factions will only exacerbate the geopolitical and social gaps, creating more trouble between nations. To avoid this, regulations and norms must be implemented to ensure the uniform sharing of authority across the world over the Internet.
Our lives today are as much about our physical being as they are about our data. The only difference is that while we are conscious of our physical lives, we are seldom aware of how our data is being used by its custodians, which may not necessarily be a government but could very well be a multinational company based in a developed country or using their data-bank for profit from anywhere.
When an individual lives within the territorial boundaries of a country, the latter is expected to safeguard the former's identity, information, and privacy. However, who guarantees the same when lives and their data are no longer restricted to geographical boundaries but co-exist at multiple virtual locations in a 'connected world'? More importantly, how much control do they have over their identity and data?
The Internet was built by the people and for the people. It is essential that we, as consumers and companies respect and maintain that spirit and preserve the World Wide Web as a 'worldwide' resource in the true sense. As more and more individuals go online and more and more information is turned digital, a strong race to compete for the ownership of data will be visible, traces of it are not visible already. We are all living our lives within the specific national geographical boundaries yet within the virtual boundaries of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Airbnb, Uber, and hundreds of other mobile apps. And the strength of the "coloniser" would be judged by the vastness of the data "colonised".
Avik Gangopadhyay, an author, educationist & columnist, writes from Kolkata, India