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Digital Imperialism

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Digital Imperialism

“Big Brother is watching you,” wrote George Orwell in his epoch-making novel 1984. And that ‘Big Brother’ is, perhaps, all round us today as we are being watched at every step of our life by some invisible power. Over the past few decades, transnational “Big Tech” corporations based in the United States have amassed trillions of dollars and gained excessive powers to control everything, from business and labour to social media and entertainment in the developing world. They know us more than we know ourselves. They store the information of what we do and what we like, and manipulate us without us knowing about them. Living in this digital imperialism has been the most significant experience of the humankind in the 21st century.
There is no denying that we are living in an era that is characterized with an overwhelming influence of technology on our lives. The use of technology across the world has increased rapidly in recent decades resulting in a reshaping of how individuals and states interact, function and develop. As such, our world is now heavily interconnected and sees digital technologies impacting nations’ ability to thrive politically, socially and economically. We are now reliant on digital technology to do our everyday functions in life. The Covid-19 pandemic also rapidly increased our reliance on ICT technology. We have become so much dependent on digital platforms that passing hardly a few minutes without gadgets in our hands seems a gigantic task. Even to find the recipe of a favourite dish, we prefer to go into the digital world. We just open Google and this mighty search engine goes through millions of options to take us to the most appropriate one to satisfy our needs. And we are happy to have such great help. But, our overdependence on Silicon Valley giants is making us mental slaves to them. We are being colonized by them through their digital power and prowess. We are falling pretty t o another form of imperialism: digital imperialism. The phone in your pocket, the laptop in your bag, the monitors in a library, and the software they all operate on are the cumulative efforts of digital imperialism.
Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells recognized in the early 2000s that network communication is the most important power in the world. He argued that power always derives from what people think and talk about, and nowadays this discourse takes place — not exclusively, but almost entirely — on social networking platforms.
He posits that whoever gains control over these networks will inevitably have power, and it follows directly from this that political and economic actors in the international relations system are now fighting for this network power, as only those who dominate the creation of meaning and reality can win on the front lines. With this power, they can effectively destroy the enemy’s possibility to counter narratives, especially once those narratives become overwhelmingly dominant.
Under classic colonialism, Europeans dispossessed native peoples of their land, exploited their labour, exercised extraterritorial governance, and perpetuated dependency and plunder through strategic underdevelopment. Corporations like the East India Company played a pivotal role in this process. In their pursuit of profit and power, Europeans took ownership and control of critical infrastructure, including ports, waterways and railroads.
Under this arrangement, imperial powers designed railways for plunder. They bypassed the villages of the indigenous populations and linked up commercial and military outposts to the sea ports. Native peoples were exploited to extract raw materials, which were sent back to Europe for manufacturing. Surplus European products would then flood the colonies, undermining the indigenous population’s ability to develop its own local industries. Colonial powers deployed this infrastructural domination across their vast empire. In other words, under classic colonialism, the sole purpose of the colonising powers was taking ownership and control of territory and infrastructure, the extraction of labour, knowledge and commodities, and the exercise of state power.
This process, however, evolved over centuries, with new technologies added into the mix. By the late nineteenth century, submarine cables facilitated telegraphic communications in service of the British Empire. Later, new developments in recording, archiving and organizing information were masterfully exploited by US military intelligence. Today, these lines are crossing the oceans, wiring up a tech ecosystem owned and controlled by a handful of mostly US-based corporations.
Similar to the technical architecture of classic colonialism, digital imperialism is rooted in the design of the tech ecosystem for the purposes of profit and plunder. If the railways and maritime trade routes were the “open veins” of the Global South back then, today, digital infrastructure takes on the same role: Big Tech corporations use proprietary software, corporate clouds and centralised Internet services to spy on users, process their data, and spit back manufactured services to subjects of their data fiefdoms.
For example, Google siphons user data from a variety of sources – Google Search, Maps, Ads, Android location services, Gmail – to provide them with one of the richest collections of information on the planet. Through the Open Handset Alliance and proprietary control of their “killer apps,” they ensure the world’s data flows into their corporate cloud. They then process the data for consumer and business services.
Thus, tech corporations have expanded their products across the globe, extracting data and profit from users all around the world while concentrating power and resources in one country, the US (with China a growing competitor). Owing to this factor, vivid revolutions have taken place in many countries of the world, also known as Twitter revolutions. Countries such as Georgia and Ukraine were first driven into social, economic and political turmoil, and then their administrations were destroyed. And all this was done through “a-social media,” including Twitter. Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina take the lead among those most galvanized through Twitter. These countries are almost periodically staggered by social and political turmoil. It will not be long before Twitter’s area of use spreads worldwide – perhaps within the next decade – and Twitter will become the sole platform where proxy wars are carried out throughout the world.
Poorer countries are overwhelmed by readily available services and technology, and cannot develop their own industries and products that compete with Western corporations. They are also left unable to protect their people from exploitation. American Big Tech companies are just as dominant outside of the US as they are inside it. On the other hand, countries with power – the United States, the EU states, Australia – are the ones calling the shots on Big Tech companies.
These companies, e.g. Microsoft and Google are now seeking to colonise emerging markets. They are investing in efforts to place their software in Global South classrooms through programmes like Microsoft Partners in Learning and Google Classroom. This hooks young people into their products from an early age, and biases Global South software developers towards their software ecosystems. Big Tech corporations are also building their own server farms in foreign countries to capture emerging markets and shift them towards the Silicon Valley model of a centralized cloud economy.
This poses a problem: Users around the globe are being subjected to the norms set by US-based companies. “Code is law” in the sense that computer code constitutes privatised regulation binding all users. If YouTube wants to block, say, the sharing of content protected by fair use, there’s not much that foreign jurisdictions can do.
The same goes for speech regulation, content moderation and freedom of association. The major social networks use algorithms and employee rulebooks to censor content, shape what people see in news feeds, and determine which activist and people from other social groups are allowed to form on their platforms.
The global information economy has provided freedom-enhancing affordances for previously marginalized groups, but has also enabled extractive practices in the form of digital imperialism. This tide of digital imperialism may be stemmed by the enactment of privacy laws that safeguard the personal data of the users. The threat of digital imperialism remains and we have to be proactive to save our future generations from this monster.

The writer is an Advocate High Courts.

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