Digital colonialism describes the domination of Western companies in the provision of digital services in developing countries. These tend to be overwhelmingly US-based, and can be found in messaging, social media, search, music, storage, hosting, and domain names. While other names have been used to describe the phenomenon, the term digital colonialism dates mostly from the Net Mundial initiative, a series of meetings and events organised by the Brazilian government to shine a light on digital inequality in the global south.
Western digital dominance is easy to see at all levels. Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb, all provide services that are not only largely based in the US, but also tend to follow a very specific mentality centred around Silicon Valley. The values of a small area in California are exported around the world.
The reason for this dominance has various explanations. The Internet itself started as a US military research network, so US-based services and developers had a starting advantage. For a large period of time, Internet governance relied on US-centric ICANN (which has since undergone internationalisation efforts). Furthermore, early venture capitalists invested mostly in US companies, and this dominance carried forward. Network theory teaches that early advantages are often difficult to overcome, and the network favours winner-takes-all from an architectural perspective. Furthermore, the US was able to convert this early advantage in expertise and funding into large corporations. Finally, potential competitors have been more inward looking, and not intent on global dominance. China has developed hugely successful companies like JD, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba which rival US counterparts in size, but these are mostly directed towards the internal market. The same happens with other successful companies such as Flipkart (India), B2W (Latin America), and Odigeo (Europe).
The result is a US-centric Internet from the perspective of infrastructure and content. From the infrastructure level, the largest hosting, domain name, storage and content delivery networks are US companies. In content, Google and Facebook stand alone in their dominance of what people see and read around the world.
The problem is that the content dominance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as these companies use their already strong dominant position to maintain the market dominance in what is often called the “rich-get-richer” effect. Newer content providers in developing countries are competing with companies that have considerable resources, infrastructure, and consumer recognition.
And now the tech giants use the dominance in other ways that further their interests. Facebook has a program called Internet.org which, in partnership with other tech giants, is supposed to give free or cheap Internet access to people in developing countries. This is done through the Free Basics program, which gives free access to a few selected mobile apps. While the idea of giving free Internet access is good, the reality is that this program cements Facebook’s content dominance, so people tend to equate Facebook with the Internet. It also hinders local apps from competing with the selected Free Basic apps.
Google has a program called Project Loon, which will attempt to give online connection to people in remote rural areas through balloons. While laudable, it is possible that this will still be used to maintain Google’s market dominance, as well as being able to collect useful data from users.
What can we do to stop this digital colonialism? Last October I attended a session at Mozfest organised by the always amazing Renata Avila. People from around the world talked about their experiences with digital colonialism, while discussing potential solutions.
Some participants suggested that governments in developing countries have to get more involved in trying to encourage local solutions to stop the reliance on Silicon Valley companies. However, a good number of participants were very suspicious of governmental solutions, and seemed to favour grass-roots, bottom-up, decentralised approaches. And then there was even one tech-bro from Silicon Valley who suggested that “we all have money to fly all the way to London to come to this meeting, we should fund something ourselves”. Needless to say, I had to point out that I had paid a £20 train ticket from Brighton, but I digress.
I think that both the Statist and Libertarian solutions are missing the point. We should indeed be suspicious of governments, which may want to impose their own political agendas. But we should also be suspicious of the mentality that thinks that we can all get along in a cyber-utopia ruled by benign venture capitalists and funded by bitcoins. Breaking the Silicon Valley dominance cannot be done just by creating a new app, resources are important. A possible way forward could be to rely on government funds to kick-start projects, but we do need decentralised solutions that are scalable.
In the end we need to recognise that tech giants are dominant because users like these services, and changing customer perception is going to be difficult. A lot of activists seem to parrot Brecht’s “The Solution“, the people are wrong, so we must find a new people.
Any real solution needs to win back the people, not dissolve them.