Thursday 1 March 2018

Emergence of a New Breed of Colonialism - Data Colonialism

Written By: Lucca Belli

Unless you lived in a cave over the past decade, you should have heard that “data is the new oil” or that data have become “the world’s most valuable resource.” However, rarely in our history has the emergence of new, extremely valuable, resources not resulted in power struggles leading to fundamental changes in political and social structures.

The Scramble for Data is unleashing a new breed of colonialism, aimed at controlling the networks and platforms that will redefine – and are already shaping – the economies, societies and private lives of all the colonised.

Worryingly, the hunger for data is turning a quintessentially open internet, able to empower billions of individuals, into a series of closed and easily controllable cyber-spaces, where a few dominant players have access to, and exert, unprecedented influence on every aspect of our lives.

The Scramble for Data is already unleashing a new breed of colonialism, already shaping the economies, societies and private lives of all the colonised.

It is important to realise that the internet as we know it, is not immutable and that an open and user-empowering environment is a threat not only to authoritarian regimes but also to those corporations that base their profit on directing users’ behavior according to their commercial interests.

The internet environment is empowering by default, allowing all users to be not only mere passive consumers but also producers of content and innovative services that can be freely shared and accessed by virtually all other users. However, such a configuration is not incontrovertible, and internet openness has been put under increasing pressure in recent times.

Indeed, data are “the new oil” not only because their collection and processing are extremely lucrative but also because they are powering an increasingly wide portion of the global economy.

The high profits and competitive advantages deriving from massive data extraction and processing are stimulating a vicious circle where the fundamental goal of any major internet company is to monopolise users’ attention, to extract all the possible data, profiling users’ tastes and habits, while understanding their weaknesses to ultimately direct how they behave, earning particularly hefty profits out of this capacity. 

This is precisely why operators that integrate content and app providers have been trying to direct users’ attention to their vertically integrated partners, nurturing a never-ending Net Neutrality debate. This is also why the purpose of any application provider is to hook individuals into its service, creating the most addictive configuration. Just ponder – how long does it take you to check your favourite app when you wake up in the morning?

A free internet user represents a risk

In a data-driven economy, limiting and steering users’ options to browse the open internet becomes much more lucrative than letting individuals freely explore the net as they wish and build new innovative – and competing – services. Attempts to limit internet openness have been at the core of Net Neutrality disputes over the past decade, and the rationale of such attempts is quite straightforward.

When users are not tamed into predefined consumerist experiences, they are free to develop and share new competing services or use services that are not controlled by the dominant providers, thus producing data for the dominant providers’ competitors. A user that freely produces and consumes innovation (for this reason called a “prosumer”) represents a risk.

However, by contrast, when users’ attention is artificially concentrated into your service or those provided by your vertically integrated partners, prosumers turn into passive data wells to be drilled ad infinitum. The more time an individual spends on a given service, the more data on him can be extracted, refined and traded.

Crucially, the purpose of data collection is not limited to understanding users’ tastes any more. It is increasingly aimed at identifying the vulnerabilities of users’ minds, that may be exploited to trigger desired reactions. This is precisely why Facebook brags about being able to identify when Australian and New Zealander teenagers are more vulnerable, or why Cambridge Analytica vaingloriously boasts of the efficiency of its psychological profiling of British and American voters to orientate the Brexit referendum and the last U.S. elections.

A user that freely produces and consumes innovation represents a risk.

Now, pause for a moment, think that this kind of influence is already possible in very developed countries, and try to imagine what type of control could be possible in developing or underdeveloped countries, where data are still untapped, digital policies are scarce or nonexistent and, when they exist, they are implemented by severely under-resourced administrations.    

These concerns interest both developed and developing countries alike but are particularly relevant in the developing world, where digital colonizers are rushing to drill as much data as they can out of the currently unconnected individuals who are increasingly seen as unexploited data wells.

Dominant application providers and telecom operators are rushing to offer zero rating plans, like Facebook’s controversial Free Basics programme, that provide low-income users with subsidised access to pre-selected applications – among which, obviously, Facebook. Try to imagine how addictive it can be to provide people with a low level of literacy sponsored access to services that are explicitly conceived to create dependence. 

Providing sponsored access to applications designed to hook up users may remind us of the strategy of those tobacco companies providing free cigarettes to youngsters. The goal is not only enticing new users, it is clearly to create an exclusive addiction to one’s product.

Freebasing free basics

Sponsoring selected applications is a very astute stratagem to concentrate attention on specific services, particularly when the cost of Internet access is high and when operators impose very low download limits to their customers. Indeed, if I wanted to favour my own services, I would either block or downgrade my competitors or, if net neutrality frameworks forbade such discriminatory behaviour, I would contour the ban by defining very artificially low data caps while excluding my services from the cap.

With one move, you kill competitors that do not have the financial capacity to sponsor access to their service, you create dependence on your subsidised application, and you assure that low-income individuals – i.e. a considerable percentage of developing countries’ inhabitants – give up their “most valuable resource” not only willingly but also celebrating you as a philanthropist.

The purpose of data collection is not limited to understanding users’ tastes anymore. It is increasingly aimed at identifying the  vulnerabilities of users’ minds, that they may be exploited to trigger desired reactions.

The purpose of sponsoring access to a limited set of applications is evidently to make sure that (new) users develop an addiction to your services, always remaining passive consumers and never being able to create new apps competing with what you sponsor. While providing controlled communication free of charge, zero rating plans – the majority of which are based on the combination of low data caps with sponsored services – ensure that users’ data will keep on flowing unidirectionally into the servers of the applications’ sponsor.

This pattern is already quite visible in many countries, as highlighted by the Zero Rating Map that was presented at the UN Internet Governance Forum in late December, 2017. The most zero rated app in the world is Facebook. It may be argued that, in developed countries, consumers are driving demand for Facebook, but such rationale cannot be applied to developing countries where people are not even using the Internet. No wonder that in many such countries the majority of people are persuaded that “Facebook is the Internet” as a result of very effective zero rating strategies.

Securing collection and eternal use of personal data of individuals from developing countries, about which almost no data exist, is a great move, notably in the perspective of training Artificial Intelligence with more diverse data pools. Indeed, data are such a precious resource also because they are essential to educate the deep learning networks that power AI, extracting unknown inferences via big data analytics and, ultimately, taking databased decisions on individuals. And so far, very few data are available about developing countries’ populations, thus making such data even more valuable.

With all due respect for the new cyber philanthropist, the offer of “free” services without even mentioning that the purpose is to collect (extremely valuable) personal data ad aeternum really reminds us of the image of sixteenth-century conquistadores offering mirrors to Indios in exchange for gold. Only if one were completely unaware that data are the world’s most valuable resource, would one give them away in exchange for free Facebook.

Uneducated individuals will be excused for this naïve behaviour, but their governments will not. The lack of understanding of the governments of many developing countries is leading their citizens into becoming permanent free data producers for the benefit of a few dominant players. Frankly, those who produce value, for free, for someone else, for their entire life are called slaves.

It may seem that, for low-income people living in the developing world, the only choice is to give a free and perpetual license to extract and exploit their data, in order to have digital crumbs in return. For these people, one may sadly conclude, the right to determine how their data can be disclosed and used, the right to freedom of expression and the possibility to freely innovate and become a digital entrepreneur are simply unattainable.

But is this true? Are low-income people really condemned to be exploited for the rest of their lives? Luckily, there are alternatives to this bleak scenario and these bottom-up initiatives are not only starting to show that they work but also to have the visibility they deserve.

These bottom-up initiatives are not only starting to show that they work but also to have the visibility they deserve.

Many groups of individuals around the world have not resigned themselves to being digitally colonised and have decided to take their economic, social and cultural development in their own hands, establishing their own crowd-sourced infrastructure, known as Community Networks.

Do it yourself

From Argentina to Spain, from Nepal to the UK, local communities have decided to be the protagonist of their digital futures and are building their own networks, to overcome lack of Internet coverage. These communities demonstrate that Internet openness and online privacy are not amenities for the privileged but basic needs to which everyone is entitled and that everyone can and must enjoy.

Importantly, community networks represent a new paradigm, where connectivity is considered and is managed as a common good. Indeed, these networks are designed, owned and managed by the local communities that decide to create them and that retain control of them.

Community networks respect net neutrality by design and by default because there is no need for the provider to favour a commercial partner or disfavour a competitor. The community is the provider and all network users are partners in developing shared connectivity. Therefore, community networks specifically focus on the needs of local populations, providing community-tailored services, creating new opportunities for learning, trading and creating new job opportunities for those living in previously disconnected areas.

These experiences tellingly demonstrate that, when the unconnected have basic information on how to build their network infrastructure and the freedom to choose this option, they can connect themselves with no need to be digitally colonialized. 

It is time to start realising that empowered individuals, able to decide how their data are used and free to access and share content and innovation, represent a great benefit for society and are a driving force for a sustainable Internet. By contrast, mere consumers of predefined applications only represent a great benefit  for the digital colonizers.

Open Internet policies are essential to protect individuals, but it is time for people to understand that they can build their sustainable connectivity themselves and reclaim their right to network self-determination. If governments are not up to the task of protecting individuals’ rights and expanding connectivity, people should simply do it themselves. 

Lucca Belli, Senior Researcher at the Center for Technology & Society at FGV, Rio de Janeiro and Associated Researcher at centre de droit public comparé, Paris 2 University. This article was originally published on Open Democracy.


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