To unravel digital colonialism Africa has to stop reliance on tech giants for infrastructure

BY ANTONY MUTUNGA

There is no doubt that the digital economy in Africa is on the rise. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the number of people using the Internet in Africa soared to 24.4% in 2018 from 2.1% in 2005. 

The growing adoption of technology is fast transforming the continent. The rapid adoption of mobile technology has seen the continent leapfrog fixed-line Internet connections and increase financial inclusion.Despite technology creating solutions for health, environmental and overpopulation challenges that Africa is facing, the continent relies much on overseas technology companies to create the needed digital infrastructure. As a result, major tech companies such as Google, Huawei and Facebook are dominating and controlling the continent’s digital market, creating the notion of digital colonialism, which refers to the technological domination of a sovereign state’s social, economic and political processes by a foreign nation.

Just as the political colonialism of the 20th Century where European powers came up with infrastructure such as health facilities, transport networks and seaports while they exploited labour from their colonial subjects and suppressed them, so is digital colonialism of today. The only difference is, unlike before, the powers are now using digital infrastructure. These overseas tech companies have time and again assisted African countries to build digital infrastructures with the promise of improving their economies. In doing so, the companies have control over critical functions in the digital ecosystem. With data considered one of the most valuable resources in the world today, the tech firms are able to take control of the African digital ecosystems and all the data it has to offer. Basically, these tech firms have their own interests, which is to harvest the data, store and make a profit from it.

The tech companies also have control over social, economic and political functions mediated by their technologies. Having collected the data, the major tech companies are able to sell the same, which can in turn be used to push for particular results. The data, for instance, can be used to sway elections or determine what goods and services a certain population prefers. Africa still has a huge number of its population unconnected. With digital infrastructure bringing with it high costs, most African countries have been unable to set them up.  As a result, these countries have continued their reliance on the tech giants to handle their connectivity, access, and infrastructure issues. As a result, the tech giants have continued to profit as they masquerade as saviours in eliminating the digital divide. 

Due to their sizes and reputations, tech giants have been able to create a monopolistic environment where they control everything from how the digital infrastructure will be built to what services will run on it. This has caused limited competition as the tech giants have so much control they can outdo or simply buy off their competition, making it particularly difficult for the local tech industry to grow and be able to protect the population’s data.Legislation, when it comes to data protection has also enabled the tech giants to continue with digital colonialism. A panacea is yet to be found for most African countries due to weak laws and authorities with minimal powers, which leaves the population’s information exposed. The international corporations have been able to get loopholes in the laws that allow them to exploit the people. However, laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was implemented at Europe in 2018 have come up to protect the rights of the user’s information.The law changes how tech companies store, process and profit from a user’s information. The law also gives the user the right to have their data withdrawn from collection as well as the right to erasure which gives one right to demand their data to be deleted. In order to have their data protected, African countries have to take a similar stance as Europe and come up with a similar legislation. Already Kenya, in the recently enacted Data Protection Act No. 24 of 2019, is taking queue.The new law complies with GDPR and it establishes the office of the data commissioner while setting out guidelines for the security and protection of one’s data being processed in private and public institutions. 

Despite being the right move, the laws have not been able to fully keep the tech giants at bay. In the past, the tech giants have violated different laws and paid fines. Recently, for instance, Google agreed to pay $1.10 billion (Sh111.6 billion) to French authorities to settle a fiscal fraud probe. This confirms that despite data protection laws, tech giants are willing to violate the law if the end result is worth it. To do away with digital colonialism, Africa has to first stop its reliance on major tech giants in terms of digital infrastructure. It is without a doubt that these tech companies have helped the continent’s digital economy grow, however, as long as most users cannot fully understand or control their computers, then we will continue being at their mercy. There is a need to move to free and open-source software rather than proprietary software. In doing so, the users will be able to see how these corporations handle their data. There is also a need to teach the younger generation how the digital economy works and how the tech giants operate rather than teaching them how their apps work.   

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