Digital Divide Decolonize the Internet

Internet café with a woman and a baby
Just like here in Liberia, Facebook offers its "Free Basics" service in other countries in Africa and South Asia. A slimmed-down version of the Internet is offered. Users* must pay with their personal data. | Photo (detail): John Moore/Getty Images

The internet is characterised by power structures. Digital colonialism shows how established hierarchies can also become entrenched on the World Wide Web. But activists and artists are growing increasingly resistant.

By Ina Holev

At the start of the millennium, lots of people still held the hopeful belief that everyone is equal on the internet. Driven by military think-tanks, it began to receive interest within the world of science and an initially small public audience by the late fifties, at which point the internet seemed a utopian environment. All users were supposed to be equal behind the mask of anonymity, and therefore everyone was meant to have equal rights. No hierarchies – including amongst users from different countries.
 
But this hope for the internet to be a discrimination-free space remains an illusion to this day. On the contrary: power structures are firmly rooted even within the technical infrastructure. They carry on the history of colonialism within the virtual sphere as well: in the shape of “digital” or “electronic colonialism”.
 
For instance many artificial intelligence algorithms are racist. Many of the facial recognition programmes used for surveillance are unable to identify “people of colour”. Black women in particular are often mismatched by these technologies. This is mostly down to the programmers of these applications: they are usually white males from a Western background. They themselves find it much harder to differentiate between “people of colour” than between white individuals. That characterises their perspective on the world more or less consciously, and consequently the technologies they develop.
 
Things are still as they always have been. Even though the internet is about global networking, the world is divided into “North” and “South”. The colonial structures created from the 16th century onwards are reflected in new ways today. High-tech industry would not survive without raw materials from the South. Today, precious metals are transported along the old slave ship routes to the North. They are extracted in southern lands in some cases under appalling conditions – such as the cobalt mines in Central Africa.
 
Then the mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices produced by international corporations are put together by factory workers in cheap-labour countries, where working conditions are often bad.
 
But the problem here does not just concern the manufacture of goods: in the Philippines there are content moderators who spend each day going through social networks to find violent videos – on behalf of the big social media companies, and without any psychological support. 

The cartels of Amazon, Facebook, Google …

But digital colonialism goes far deeper than that. It pervades almost the whole of the internet and describes “a new, quasi imperial power structure imposed by dominant powers over a large number of people without their consent” – that’s the way human rights lawyer Renata Avila defines this continuity of colonialism.

Even though we talk about the World Wide Web, there’s a global divide between “North” and “South”.

 
Avila is an activist from Guatemala and she’s one of the best-known critics of digital colonialism. In the “Internet Health Report” published by the Mozilla Foundation – which is officially run as a non-profit organisation – she is especially critical of the closely linked relationship between politics and technology. For instance she points out that the US government instructed American firm Adobe to shut down Cloud services in Venezuela in response to civil unrest in Autumn 2019. So above all Avila is petitioning for tighter regulation of cartels, as well as technology that serves the common good. She demands alternatives to the global corporations that dominate the internet – Amazon, Facebook, Google and others. It’s essential to strengthen local initiatives. “Decolonise the Internet!” – that’s what she wants.
 
However, local alternatives often fall at the first hurdle – the fact that there’s no internet access at all in many parts of the world, or connections are far too slow. It’s a dilemma, because obviously the products and services offered by the global players are used in many regions of the Global South. And the internet giants are all too ready to offer their services in those areas as well – but not for nothing, of course. But because money is generally in short supply here, customers tend to pay for these services primarily by providing their personal data.

Of the 70 000 Wikipedia authors active worldwide, not even 1000 of them come from Africa.

In this context, Facebook rolled out its “Free Basics” internet service in some African and South Asian countries in 2014. This product is an app that gives you a “lite” version of the internet. It’s especially designed for regions with poor infrastructure and shows selected websites free of charge, while many others cannot be accessed at all. However, use of “Free Basics” is conditional on logging in through a Facebook account – in other words providing personal data.
 
India banned the service in 2016, and along with several other countries is one of the main critics of digital colonialism in this format. Most of the nations taking this stance have a colonial history and now benefit from comparatively well-developed infrastructures. They are in a position to improve their own national services – and their local economies as a result. Many activists in such places criticise this trend as well, because they envisage no improvement in terms of data protection with this strategy. Instead of (mostly) American corporations, it would simply be the local governments and companies accessing the user data. In that case the narrative of digital colonialism would be abused to profit their own political agenda.
 
In view of this background, it’s no wonder that all the knowledge available on the internet is anything but free and objective. One example is Wikipedia: most of the authors there (and on the associated Wikimedia network) are male – and many of those are white; they often write from a privileged and one-sided perspective. “Just 20 per cent of Wikimedia contributors come from the Global South,” points out Indian internet activist and author Anasuya Sengupta in an interview with Deutsche Welle. She has founded the group “Whose Knowledge?” with the aim of making Wikipedia more diverse and more objective.
 
The “Wikimania” convention, an annual event for Wikipedia enthusiasts, took place in Cape Town in 2018, which was the first time it has been held in sub-Saharan Africa. Knowledge from the African continent is particularly under-represented: of around 70 000 Wikipedia authors active worldwide, only about 14 000 come from countries in the Global South. According to Dumisani Ndubane of Wikimedia South Africa, not even 1000 of those are from Africa. That’s set to change.

Narrative traditions can’t be digitised

But is knowledge only of value if it’s archived on the internet? Activist Karaitiana Taiuru from New Zealand answers that question from the Maori perspective, pointing out that not every form of knowledge is recorded in writing and therefore cannot be archived digitally either. In that context, Taiuru highlights in particular the oral narrative traditions upheld by many indigenous cultures.
 
The result of digitisation is often just a written record of knowledge in accordance with Western and established narrative patterns. For Taiuru, all knowledge on the internet always remains an integral part of the hierarchical culture, as “colonial perspectives interwoven with technology”.
 
In the course of the debate about digital colonialism, we are seeing an increasing number of ideas from the art world – especially media art. Many artists style themselves as “cyber-feminists” and criticise the colonial power structures of the internet – and they do so using the very same digital media. For instance video artist Tabita Rezaire from French Guiana portrays her work in the crude internet aesthetic of the early 2000s. By doing this, she is going back to the utopian roots of the internet. In her installation “Deep Down Tidal”, Rezaire works with shimmering images, distorted voices and confusing animations. The characters in her videos become submerged in ocean worlds, at the bottom of which lie the internet cables that connect mainly the countries of the Global North, and make accusations of prejudice in the digital environment.
 
Human rights lawyer Renata Avila from Guatemala wishes that the critics of digital colonialism would unite. The point is that in many areas the internet needs to be redesigned bit by bit. It remains a utopian dream that one day there will be a decolonised, fair and discrimination-free internet, she is well aware of that. In that respect the digital world is no different from the analogue one.