Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022

West India Company: The Rise Of New Imperialists In Digital World

The so-called Big Tech corporations, including Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Microsoft, are at the forefront of a new form of colonisation that is aimed at controlling every aspect of our lives, from what we eat and drink to how we think and feel.

West India Company: The Rise Of New Imperialists In Digital World
The rise of new imperialists in digital world. Getty Images

“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

Marc Andreesen, a member of Facebook’s (now Meta’s) board of directors and one of the most powerful figures in Silicon Valley, posted this tweet in 2016 in a rare moment of corporate plain speak. It came soon after India had effectively banned Free Basics, a project that sought to expand Facebook’s control over the country’s digital market under the guise of “free internet for the poor”. By calling India’s decision anti-colonialist, Andreesen revealed he not only viewed Facebook’s forays into the Indian market as a form of colonialism but also that the natives were harming themselves by snubbing it — much like they had by kicking the British out all those decades ago.

Andreesen later apologised for the tweet. But he is hardly the only technology tsar known for controversial outbursts on Twitter. Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, has more than 88 million followers on the platform. His tweets have landed him in legal trouble but also connected him with his girlfriend, Canadian singer Grimes. So deep is his love-and-hate relationship with Twitter that Musk has now purchased the platform for $44 billion, making it a part of a growing technology empire, with operations running from the under the ground to space, led by the world’s wealthiest private citizen.

Musk is not lonely at the top. Eight of the world’s 12 richest individuals are technology entrepreneurs, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. These include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former CEO Steve Ballmer, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and, of course, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Musk claimed he purchased Twitter in order to promote free speech, following posts in which he suggested the platform had become too politically correct for his comfort. “Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said in a statement. Such grandiloquence is typical of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who love to present themselves as the vanguard of a new order in which technology has broken down barriers, levelled the playing field and made human society open, equal and free.

But the reality is quite the opposite. The so-called Big Tech corporations, including Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Microsoft, are at the forefront of a new form of colonisation that is aimed at controlling every aspect of our lives, from what we eat and drink to how we think and feel. Their business models, built around their enormous economic and political clout as platforms, are exploiting billions of people and arm-twisting other businesses and even governments.

Musk’s homilies to free speech notwithstanding, the likely reason why he bought Twitter is that it is a platform with some 330 million active users around the world. Platforms are not just businesses that sell their own products and services to consumers. Instead, they connect lots of other businesses with their markets. These include app developers looking for people with digital devices, online vendors in need of online buyers, and millions of companies from virtually every industry that may not sell online but still need to advertise their products and services to people who are online.

Twitter’s user base pales in comparison to Facebook, a platform with nearly 3 billion active users. India alone has nearly 240 million users of the platform, more than any other country. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, also owns platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

Nor are social media the only platform-based corporations. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, comprises the Android mobile operating system in addition to Gmail, YouTube, the Chrome web browser and, of course, the search engine itself — totalling more than 4 billion active users. Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have similarly amassed enormous user bases worldwide, making themselves indispensable intermediaries for other companies.

The Covid19 pandemic has come as a shot in the arm, so to speak, for the technology industry. As the world went into lockdown and more and more people turned to digital platforms to connect with each other and to study, work and shop, these corporations enjoyed unprecedented growth. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon crossed a whopping $1 trillion each in market capitalisation as technology stocks soared. Musk personally became more than five times richer between January 2020 and April 2021. Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide lost their jobs and went into debt.

Today, Apple and Microsoft’s market value is higher than the GDP of all but seven countries. Even the economies of countries such as Canada, Russia and Australia are not as valuable as these corporations.

Big Tech has effectively become the infrastructure upon which the rest of the world runs its business. In turn, these corporations enjoy extraordinary leverage over companies that rely on their platforms — and over the national economies that depend on those companies for survival. This is especially true for poorer countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America that are desperately trying to digitise their economies and enhance internet connectivity to become more competitive globally.

Even governments are increasingly relying on technology corporations to deliver a range of public services online — from banking and money transfers to health and education. Such clout allows these corporations to not only dictate how third-party services operate on their platforms but to also influence national economic and trade policies — as well as policies regarding how to regulate the technology industry.

Big Tech corporations have become essential intermediaries for other businesses not only because of the number of people that use their platforms but also because of the staggering volumes of data they produce about these users. Every app that users download, every link they click, every product they check out are recorded and accumulated to assemble extremely detailed “psychometric” profiles. The comments that users post online are analysed and categorised, not only to distinguish the things they are interested in but also to discern the opinions they express on different issues and the emotions they exhibit in different situations — such as stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.

These data are then combined with information about users from a range of other sources, such as medical, travel, education, insurance and credit card records. Facebook collects data about a staggering 52,000 traits for each person from various online and offline sources, according to one estimate.

The psychometric profiles allow technology corporations to know the thoughts and beliefs, likes and dislikes, desires and aspirations of each person, which are used not only for predicting what users would like to do online but also for “micro-targeting” advertisements at them. Such micro-targeted advertising is the reason why you might see an online promotion for a neighbourhood restaurant not long after texting your husband you were hungry — or a spam email for dental services if your father messaged you he was having trouble with his gums. But it can also take more exploitative forms, such as a bank micro-targeting high-interest loans at people in financial difficulty.

Indeed, business enterprises are not the only ones interested in micro-targeted advertising. In recent years, psychometric profiles have been employed in election campaigns around the world, with political parties using them to influence the decisions of prospective voters. Political advertising, too, can abuse psychological vulnerabilities. For instance, a party that stands against immigration could micro-target people who have lost their jobs with advertisements blaming immigrants for job insecurity. One example was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the UK-based consulting firm used data from 87 million Facebook user profiles, harvested illegally through a third-party app, to help in the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump, among other clients.

Data are the new oil in the age of what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. But just as traditional capitalism needs people not only as customers to consume but also as labourers to produce, so surveillance capitalism needs users not only as shoppers who buy online but also as labourers who produce the data that drives the customisation of products and their advertising. Thus, even as technology companies scramble to expand their user numbers, they also clamour to get users to engage in different activities online — to click more links, to post more photos, to tweet more tweets, which are then analysed, categorised and capitalised. The difference is that while labourers know their work creates market value for a company and demand wages for it, online users rarely recognise the value of their labours for the platforms. Indeed, they are happy Facebook and Google let them use their platforms for “free”.

One of the ways in which platforms try to increase user engagement and time spent online is by filtering what users readily find in their feeds, limiting it to what they believe users would like, based on their psychometric profiles. This is a virtuous circle: the more users engage in online activities, the more data they generate about themselves, the more precise their profiles become — and the more likely they are to find only things they like on these platforms.

But many view this not as virtuous but as a vicious circle. Technology platforms conceive of liking as sameness: if you liked something before, they expect you to like something similar again. So, if you clicked on an article arguing against Covid19 vaccines, chances are you would find more and more links to similar articles and few that emphasised the benefits of vaccination. Thus, even as they continue to promise an open, borderless world, platforms effectively trap users inside “filter bubbles” that constrain their view of the world and prevent them from appreciating diverse perspectives.

This approach to content filtering is especially detrimental when it comes to social media platforms, which are slowly becoming the primary means through which citizens worldwide — and especially young people — learn about news and current affairs. Living inside filter bubbles is known to drive people towards extreme viewpoints and turn them less tolerant of alternative opinions. Indeed, platforms such as Facebook intentionally prioritise extreme views in user feeds as they are likely to generate more engagement. Hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories are also more likely to proliferate inside filter bubbles — again because they tend to produce more user activity in the form of reactions and comments.

The result is a society that is increasingly fragmented along partisan or ideological lines, with people on different sides unwilling to speak with or listen to each other. From the United States to Myanmar, Facebook has been accused of fomenting social upheaval and political polarisation through its content filtering policies, a charge that the corporation denies.

One reason why platforms have been able to get away with murder is that regulation in most countries is too slow to catch up with advancing technology. Privacy and data protection laws are an example. In many countries, such laws put the onus of data protection on citizens rather than technology corporations. But most people are poorly informed about how their personal data may be misused to make them vulnerable to economic and psychological exploitation. They are happy to trade their data for the convenience of personalised social media feeds and the comfort of filter bubbles. Indeed, as digital platforms encroach deeper into our lives, opting out no longer remains an option even for people who are aware of the perils.

Countries like India, therefore, need to adopt a three-pronged approach to curtail the clout of technology corporations and thwart their abuse of power. First, there is an urgent need for regulation that gives common users more control over their data and prevents its misuse. One model is Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), implemented in 2018, which makes it the responsibility of companies to seek free, informed and revocable consent from users before gathering and processing personal data. Moreover, GDPR applies even to companies that are not located in Europe if they are collecting data from European residents.

Compliance with GDPR has not been satisfactory, despite the risk of heavy penalty, because of jurisdictional and logistical issues in its implementation. But it is perhaps the best model available for helping countries update their data protection laws. Legal scholars have called it “the most consequential regulatory development in information policy in a generation”.

Data protection alone won’t be sufficient as it won’t spend the platform-based power of technology corporations. Therefore, a second important move is to revise competition laws to prevent platforms like Facebook from monopolising the markets. The Competition Commission of India has already been dealing with cases related to Facebook’s buyout of WhatsApp and the consequent changes in WhatsApp’s data sharing policy. But despite a willingness to prioritise the rights of users, the commission has been hindered by the inadequacy of antitrust regulations. This needs to be amended.

Local regulations can at best have a limited impact on the biggest technology corporations, many of which are incorporated in the US. Therefore, containing them also requires a global approach to internet governance that challenges the colonialist ambitions of Big Tech. US governments have time and again failed to crack down on Silicon Valley corporations and their monopolistic and manipulative tendencies — partly because they serve American geopolitical interests. The US dominance of internet governance forums, which focus primarily on administration rather than regulation, has put paid to any international pushback.

But if the internet is a global public good, then its governance should also be globally shared. Countries like India, which have become the largest markets for many technology corporations, should especially take the lead in devising new protocols and policies that break up monopolistic platforms, create opportunities for more publicly oriented enterprises to emerge and succeed, and turn the internet into the equitable public sphere it was envisaged as.

(Saif Shahin is an Assistant Professor of Digital Culture at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. His research lies at the intersection of media, technology and society. He earned his PhD from The University of Texas at Austin and previously taught at American University in Washington DC.)