Author: Daniele Coleman
Affiliated organisation: University of Michigan Law School
Site of publication: repository.law.umich.edu
Type of publication: Journal article
Date of publication: 2019
To discuss the extraction, synthesis, and control of user data is to discuss the pulse of commerce, the ever-looming power of large tech companies, and the shift of human emotional interaction to everything in our daily lives. However, to discuss the extraction, synthesis, and control over user data and critical connectivity infrastructure by Western tech companies in African countries with limited infrastructure, limited data protection laws, and limited competition—combined with social, political and economic power imbalances and decades of resource pillaging—is to discuss digital colonialism.
Colonization and the Role of Corporations
Corporations, aiding in this colonialist economic agenda, also played a dominant role in colonial expansion. As early as the seventeenth century, dozens of companies were granted trading monopolies by their respective governments throughout the world. Their monopoly over trade in specified territories allowed these corporations the power to safeguard this monopoly and the power to exert rights over their countrymen who lived and worked within the territory. The granting of monopoly status by colonialist governments made these highly risky ventures safer for investors with profit as the primary motive. Investing in trading companies emerged as one of the earliest forms of venture capital as, “money could be raised in return for shares, profits could be divided among shareholders, and shares could be transferred among members and outsiders.”
However, the AU Convention has only been ratified by four of the fifty-four AU member jurisdictions and needs to be ratified by fifteen member jurisdictions in order to take effect
Although these companies were principally chartered to facilitate “trade,” they were also legal extensions of the crown, a fact that afforded them the right to assert sovereign powers over the non-European peoples within the colony—a power they frequently exerted. Trading companies gradually became more intrusive in the governance of the colonies to further their economic interests and those of the colonial powers. As the intrusion grew, more demands were made on non-European states, through threat of military action, to concede to the interests of the trading companies. Eventually, chartered companies, as extensions of the crown, were an authoritative force in territories, playing an imperative role in territorial annexations and profiting from raw materials and valuable minerals—their primary reason for existing.
“Digital colonialism” is the decentralized extraction and control of data from citizens with or without their explicit consent “through com munication networks developed and owned by Western tech companies.” As professors Hendricks, Marker, and Vestergaard from the University of Copenhagen posit, this structure has four fundamental actors:
(1) The Western tech companies who create and provide the technology and infrastructure that harvest the data for ad targeting and ad distribution;
(2) The advertising and consulting firms who use the technology provided by (1) to target various groups with highly personalized ads and messages aimed at increasing profits;
(3) The “local companies, parties, and organizations who pay (2) to help them impose their different agendas for the respective countries”; and
(4) The citizens who knowingly and unknowingly act as data sources for (1) and as target groups for (2) and (3).
Laying critical connectivity infrastructure owned by Western tech companies, to extract and control untapped user data, however, is the vanguard for this cultural and economic dominance. The extraction, analysis, and control of data in African countries with limited infrastructure, limited data protection laws, and limited competition, combined with social, political, and economic power imbalances and decades of resource pillaging is what gives the above consequences true power.
“Digital colonialism” is the decentralized extraction and control of data from citizens with or without their explicit consent “through com munication networks developed and owned by Western tech companies
According to the Oxford New English Dictionary, currency is defined as a system of assets, property, and resources owned by someone or something in general use in a particular country. Data is the new currency, and access to data—rather than money, natural resources, or advanced weaponry—is now the most valuable asset available to nation-states and corporations. This development lays the foundation for large Western tech companies’ movement into African markets.
Facebook’s Free Basics and Project Aires, and Google’s Project Csquared and Project Loon, are just a few projects deployed by Western tech companies in Africa as they expand their global reach for profit.71 Much like the colonialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who built critical infrastructure like railroads for the sole purpose of continuing to economically exploit the natural resources of Africa, giant tech companies like Facebook and Alphabet are building network connectivity infrastructure for the benefit of profiting from the use of their online services, rather than building local infrastructure for sustained economic development in African countries.
Much like chartered companies in the nineteenth century, who used limited trade competition to create monopolistic economic control within the colonies, these giant tech companies can control how the connectivity infrastructure is built, what apps and services users have access to, and what happens to the data due to the lack of competition. With Free Basics spanning sixty countries, reaching hundreds of millions of mobile phone users in Africa alone, Facebook has the most data points about new users from emerging markets, and the best resources to synthesize this data into usable information—more than the majority of other companies in the market and most governments. This makes Facebook the centrepiece of control for extremely valuable data sets, at no benefit to the users or the countries themselves.
Limitations of Data Protection Laws
Yet in Africa, there is no continent-wide consensus of an approach to personal data protection, as some countries have little to no data protection laws or constitutional protections, while others have robust data protection laws. Based on 2017 data, there are seventeen countries in Africa that have enacted comprehensive personal data protection legislation. Three more countries, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, have enacted personal data protection legislation that is currently moving through the law making process. In addition, the African Union (AU) adopted the AU Convention on Cybersecurity and Data Protection (AU Convention) in June 2014, which provides “a personal data protection framework which African countries may potentially transpose into their national legislation.” However, the AU Convention has only been ratified by four of the fifty-four AU member jurisdictions and needs to be ratified by fifteen member jurisdictions in order to take effect. Nevertheless, there are common themes and principles between the GDPR and comprehensive data protection legislation adopted by some African countries.
Data is the new currency, and access to data—rather than money, natural resources, or advanced weaponry—is now the most valuable asset available to nation-states and corporations
Unfortunately, big tech companies can violate (and have blatantly violated) these laws, since they have the time, money, and resources to fight for their desired outcomes, even if they stand in direct violation of pre-established laws.
Another clear limit to data privacy laws is that the lack of protection against the mass concentration of data by dominant players is compounded by the lack of competition enforcement measures. Competition, data protection, and consumer protection law are inextricably related, and data privacy legislation often does not take this into account—Kenya’s DPB included. Without these protections, enormous amounts of data will be centrally held and owned by dominant players who have the resources to stomp out their competition, leaving the fate of millions and sometimes billions of people’s personal and sensitive data in the hands of a select few.
Digital colonialism is just as oppressive as the early colonialism from the nineteenth century. Large tech companies, typically owned and primarily operated by White men, are extracting data from uninformed users and controlling that data to profit via predictive analytics. Unfortunately, strong data protection laws will not prevent this domination. While modern data protection laws may constitute a step in the right direction, further reflection is required to answer the question of how society can protect user data in an increasingly digitally-dependent society.
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