Digital Colonialism

The digital world is nowhere near representing a democratic space.

Art by Miles Huynh and Monica McNaught-Lee.

The data you use is built on colonialism. 

Colonialism never ended, continuing to this day, manifesting itself in newer discrete and non-discrete forms. With the rise of technology and media, asymmetrical dividends of power is the main reason for its large-scale success as certain bodies dominate whilst others are exploited.  

Colonialism is built on the controlling and ownership of external labour, resources and knowledge whilst exerting power over the state, which is mimicked within the digital realm from mineral mining to big data. 

The phone in your pocket, the laptop in your bag, the monitors in Fisher library, and the softwares they all operate on are the cumulative efforts of digital colonialism. 

It starts with countries employing technology within the colonial era. Along the ocean floor lies a tech ecosystem, a network of transoceanic cables that connects us to one another online, which are largely controlled and operated by corporations based in the US. Much of these are owned or at least leased by leading growing monopolies such as Google and Microsoft, allowing them access to further data extortion.  

British imperialism incentivised and propelled the first few networks, as it benefitted their communication with colonies and had access to their raw materials such as rubber and copper to create these fibre-optic cables in the first place. 

The labour of building digital systems, both tangible and intangible, is at the employment of exploited people of colour. The extraction of minerals is completed through cheap and unsafe labour in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa teeming with cobalt and Chile in South America abundant in copper.  At the risk of damaging  workers’ health and the environment, large corporations benefit from the low wages. Wages per month can only go as high as 2,000 AUD in Chile, 1,874 AUD in Bolivia and 723 AUD in Argentina. In comparison, Australian miners can earn as much as 150,000 AUD a month. 

Filters on social media content are a long way from being developed, and thus people are employed predominantly in Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines. Laborious hours in front of a screen are spent every day to physically filter and flag online content which often results in psychological trauma and PTSD from the distressing violent and sexually explicit contents faced. Content moderators can receive up to only 7,000 AUD a year with no form of job security as often these jobs are employed as contractors. 

In countries such as Kenya, centres have been established for data tagging which is crucial to the foundations of the digital realm. These workers get paid up to 188 AUD a month to sit in front of a computer for hours at length and tag data. An example are captcha tests you may have encountered where it may ask you to click on the images that have a car, these data annotations were not done by a filtering program or software, but real people behind screens who are severely undervalued and exploited. 

These countries that are often exploited for minerals and labour are also taken advantage of through data extraction in education systems. In countries like Brazil and South Africa, education systems are reliant upon corporations to provide devices at a low or no cost. As a result, they lose say in which software is used and their personal information is converted into data. When companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple offer their technology to students, data is then extracted for their systems and clouds, placing higher value and importance on these commodities than the people they are taken from. 

Data has been commodified for imperialist powers to use this raw material to then regurgitate back to the global public through services and goods, further intensifying dependency and dominance upon subordinate chains of production. Imperialist powers, such as the US, seize control over digital knowledge and infrastructure creating inequitable labour divisions where manufacturing is now at the bottom of the hierarchy to be undervalued and big techs at the top creating facades of artificial intelligence. 

Data is power.  

It is a much-coveted commodity corporations are squirming after at any means necessary, resulting in the misuse and abuse of workers of colour across the globe. Lack of regulations and protection schemes allow for Big Tech and large corporations to profit off undervalued and unseen work of labourers.  

We are a part of this system. We cannot be complicit. We need to advocate for stronger regulations, decapitalising and demonopolising software systems that should be publicly available. Only then can we decolonise the digital realm.