/ 29 June 2018

Break the hold of digital colonialism

(John McCann/M&)
(John McCann/M&)

In July 2017, Lindelani Mashua was sitting quietly in his car. A handful of people approached, doused it with petrol and set it alight. Mashua, an Uber taxi driver, was burned to death. The “taxi war” on the e-hailing services had begun, and many metered taxi drivers vowed to fight to the death.

Later in November, the Financial Mail reported that Google and Facebook are the nemeses of the South African press. Google, it explained, takes 70% of local online advertising, and social media — led by Facebook — another 12%. South Africa’s major media groups take just 8% of the pie. The next month, MultiChoice announced that 115 000 Premium subscribers defected to other services, with many probably switching to Netflix.

There appears to be a transfer of business to United States corporations. What is going on here?

In South Africa, the US is colonising the digital economy, which will mean, increasingly over time, the whole of society. US-based Big Tech products are spreading, threatening to decimate local industries. At the same time, Western doctrines of what a digital society should look like — the models of how to construct a digital society — have captivated local audiences. South Africans are facing a very powerful threat, and they must change course quickly if they are to avert an insidious new phenomenon, digital colonialism.

Colonialism: Old and new

During colonial conquest, the Dutch arrived at the Cape and steadily they and other Western nations dispossessed African peoples of their land and mineral wealth.

Today, a handful of Big Tech corporations are colonising the digital economy. Like the railroads of colonial empire, US multinationals have consolidated control over the structural components of the digital ecosystem, which has been engineered for ruling-class dominance over social, political and economic life.

Gafam (Google/Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) comprise the world’s top five companies, with a combined market value topping $3-trillion. Gafam and a few other Big Tech corporations now control most of the critical functions that can be performed in the digital world: social networking (Facebook, Twitter), smartphone messaging (Facebook, which owns WhatsApp), internet search (Google), desktop and laptop operating systems (Microsoft Windows), smartphone and tablet operating systems (Google, Apple), online advertising (Google, Facebook), Cloud computing (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, IBM), transportation (Uber, Lyft and, in South Africa, Taxify), lodging (Airbnb) and streaming video (Google, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu). The list goes on.

Each of these companies accumulates profits from rent (in the form of intellectual property or access to infrastructure) or surveillance (in the form of Big Data). Many times it is both. Uber, for example, sucks up 25% of each transaction, taking it back to corporate headquarters, while vacuuming up a vast trove of customer and driver data.

Power dynamics

Today’s tech economy is designed to concentrate power in the hands of the few. One reason for this is “network effects”, whereby each person using the network makes it more valuable. Just as we don’t want 50 phones each with 50 numbers, we don’t want 50 messaging apps or search engines. Eventually one network, or a few, rules them all.

Another reason we see corporate concentration relates to the nature of artificial intelligence. AI ingests huge quantities of data to make predictions about the future. The gigantic and unique data collections amassed by tech giants improve the quality of their AI systems. No South African entity will rival the position of a Facebook, Google or Amazon.

Economies of scale also create barriers to entry. Who is going to challenge YouTube, with its massive server farms, requirements to scan uploaded content for copyright infringement, advanced recommendation engines, contracts with industry players and integration with Google?

This isn’t to mention the dynamics of “really existing capitalism” — acquisitions of competitors, financial backing from Wall Street, corporate lobbying and US government support.

These problems are publicised in the Western media but rarely discussed is the source of this conundrum. In the digital world, problems of privacy and monopoly power are rooted in the design of the digital ecosystem. In particular, the rising dominance of centralised Cloud computing and artificial intelligence — combined with proprietary elements — has vested corporations with control over the digital experience.

A freedom-respecting digital society requires free and open-source software, as well as public and personal ownership and control of hardware. Free and open-source software grants people the freedom to use, study, modify and share the software. With it, communities can understand and control the software directly, giving them the power to control the computer experience.

But free and open-source software alone does not provide enough protection. A company such as Facebook might use free and open-source software but, if Facebook runs off the Cloud, communities can’t modify the Facebook experience.

As software services moved from our own devices to company Clouds, multinationals seized control of the computer experience and have exploited it to their advantage.

Using Clouds, corporations realised they could discover your likes and behaviours by tracking your every click. The US government took notice, and the National Security Agency began piggybacking off Silicon Valley corporations to surveil the entire global community.

The emerging arrangement is termed “surveillance capitalism”. The foundation of surveillance capitalism is Big Data — enormous data collections made intelligible by advanced statistics and artificial intelligence.

As the saying goes, data is the “new oil”. When applied to humans, the sensitive details of everyone’s lives are the oil — the raw material for exploitation and profit.

Implementation and ideology

Last year, University of the Witwatersrand vice-chancellor Adam Habib wrote: “Considerations of [technological innovations] have not even entered the public discourse and we are at a collective risk of once again merely being victims of economic forces and processes beyond our control.”

Indeed, US-based Big Tech players are positioning themselves to colonise emerging markets at the digital frontier. Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM are opening Cloud centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This positions them to house your data, lock your products and services to their platforms (via Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, etcetera) and improve speeds and latency for their Cloud services.

With ownership and control of the Cloud — as well as the major platforms and software services in the digital economy — US multinationals are in the unrivalled position to take over foreign lands.

Despite his worries, Habib’s plan for digital development appears to play into this digital colonisation. He, along with the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and so many others, have so far bought into the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR), a term coined by World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab. According to Schwab’s theory, the merging of biotechnology, robotics and networked digital computation has given rise to a “fourth” revolution in human history.

But Jeremy Rifkin, the author of the popular work, The Third Industrial Revolution, has noted that the 4IR is little more than an amalgamation of trending technologies, most of which have been around for decades. In the US, the centre of Schwab’s so-called revolution, the term is never used — not in the press, not in scholarship. In South Africa, almost every conversation about digital technology mentions it.

The concept serves a useful purpose at the periphery of empire: it steers inquiry about tech into the WEF agenda. Reflecting its elite board of trustees, its ideology privileges the private sector and treats the current digital order as if it is the only one possible. Humanity is stuck with Big Data, intellectual property, centralised Clouds, the “internet of things”, “smart” cities littered with surveillance, automation, algorithmic decision-making, Big Tech corporations and surveillance capitalism. Or so we are told.


Around the world, there is a growing movement to challenge the technological design of the digital society, changing it from one that concentrates wealth and power to one that brings power to the people. One popular concept is the FreedomBox — a “personal Cloud” system that aims to re-decentralise the internet by providing an option for the direct sharing of information, without the need for centralised Clouds.

Earlier this year, researchers at the MIT Media Lab commended technologies like these in a feasibility study. Scholars at Harvard, Yale and in the Global South are working on these initiatives. A decentralised internet — combined with free and open-source software — could dramatically strengthen public privacy and reduce the monopoly power of Big Tech corporations.

To make this work, millions of people have to use the technology. Grassroots organisations and activists could pressure the government to subsidise the development of “people’s technology” in co-operation with global researchers.

With Operation Phakisa in education, schools could replace Big Tech products with free and open-source software and FreedomBox networks. This would acclimatise the public to software such as GNU/Linux, which is excellent for coding, and the basics of networking and privacy.

Technologies designed for freedom are absolutely necessary to change the current trajectory. Strategic development and implementation, combined with sound policies, education and grassroots activism can counter digital colonialism. The time to act is now.

Michael Kwet is a visiting fellow from the Information Society Project at Yale Law School