Dossier 7: Algorithmic Colonialism


Eighty percent of Facebook users are not American, yet Facebook exerts its content moderation policies and ‘ethical’ framework on a huge percentage of the global population. This is pointed out by Berhan Taye, a researcher and digital rights activist, in the RadioLab podcast episode titled The Facebook Supreme Court. There is a domination of US tech companies making ethical decisions, from a US-centric perspective, that impact people around the world. As Michael Kwet writes in Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South, “by controlling the digital ecosystem, Big Tech corporations control computer-mediated experiences, giving them direct power over political, economic and cultural domains of life – imperial control.” This is one of the many forms and manifestations of algorithmic colonialism. 

Technological innovations are often asserted as universally positive, and existing beyond geopolitical borders, but it is important that we understand who has the power in relation to these technologies. Who creates the rules, the regulations, and whose interests are promoted through these technologies? The extraction of data, one of the raw materials of of digital colonialism, is paralleled and interwoven with the extraction of resources like labour, cobalt, and copper from more ‘traditional’ colonial systems. Michael Kwet writes that “much like classic colonialism, data has been ingested as raw materials for the imperialist powers, who process the data and manufacture the services back to the global public, which further strengthens their domination and puts everyone else in a subordinate situation of dependency.” These extractive systems enforce and expand already existing power hierarchies. 

Projects like Facebook’s Free Basics and Alphabet’s Project Loon took different approaches in their attempts to bring the internet to currently un-networked and under-networked parts of the world. Rather than internet infrastructures being developed locally or on a national scale, large corporations have the resources to further exploit individuals by providing ‘free’ or inexpensive internet. Zuckerberg himself thought that the Free Basics app, which gave people free access to Facebook-approved platforms, would serve as a gateway drug to people who’d never tried the internet before and encourage them to buy data (a very naive understanding of how systemic poverty functions). With very few alternatives for internet connection in many countries, it can be difficult to resist the ever-growing tentacles of Big Tech. But in 2016, India’s telecom regulator blocked Free Basics, saying that it violated net neutrality rules. Instead, a national internet infrastructure began to grow. And In January 2021, Alphabet decided to shut down their Project Loon, which aspired to beam the internet from high-altitude balloons. But Free Basics is still available, and even a necessity, in 65 other countries, among them 32 African countries.

The integration of tools developed by US tech companies not only help less economically powerful countries, they also cause problems. For example, researcher Abebe Birhane writes in her essay Algorithmic Colonization of Africa: “Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming, for example, can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology.” On top of that, these technologies often stand in the way and hinder the development of a local, context specific, digital economy.

Why are US technology companies so eager to connect unconnected countries? And to what extent do they actually ‘help’ local communities? In this dossier ON algorithmic colonialism we explore how algorithmic colonialism operates today and what strategies we can use to resist its extractive tendencies. Lilian Stolk asks a number of people from different places around the world, from Russia to Zimbabwe to China, to give us insights into how the internet looks from their perspectives. Margarita Osipian interviews Neema Iyer, founder of a technology consulting and development firm, about gender, equitable internet access, and how to improve data governance across African countries. For our image contribution, multimedia artist Ibiye Camp took us into the glitches and data voids of her imperfect digital world. We gather initiatives in African countries that are pushing back against the data and digital infrastructure exploitation of Big Tech. And we share a series of ‘must listen’ podcasts on digital colonialism that we discovered while researching this dossier.