Big tech monopolies are a form of digital colonisation
A woman holding a sign saying 'The wrong Amazon is burning'

Big tech monopolies are a form of digital colonisation

Parminder Jeet Singh

By: Parminder Jeet Singh
Date: 2 March 2023

The digital economy presents unique challenges for the movement against extreme corporate power. It must be understood to be resisted, says Parminder Jeet Singh.

As apps like Uber and Amazon spread around the world, the corporations behind them want us to see it as good for everyone – more developing countries are getting access to these platforms, and it doesn’t matter who provides them. But at the core of the digital economy is a fundamental problem of data monopoly that is not well understood. Just last year the chief of the IMF – who doesn’t normally make radical statements – said that we are heading towards a digital Berlin Wall.

The changes brought in by the digital economy are comparable to the start of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of machines. This was not just a technical or economic shift, but a social, cultural and political shift as well. For the first time the physical power which had earlier been provided by human beings or animals was embodied into a machine, and a whole 300 years of the Industrial Age was the result.

What is happening today in the digital economy is that for the first time, systemic intelligence has been disembodied from human beings into machines. Not just the intelligence we know in a computer, which is a kind of recorded or reflected intelligence, always to be acted upon by human beings, but a somewhat autonomous systemic intelligence. Intelligent machines are able to run whole sectors, activities and actors almost autonomously.

Uber famously doesn’t own any cars – instead, its platform is like a brain which is functioning and nobody is actually taking those decisions, human beings are largely out of it. Of course, management decisions and incentives to the system are set by human beings, but once the incentives are fed in, it’s an autonomous system. Amazon is a similar kind of brain, orchestrating logistics providers, traders, manufacturers, suppliers, payment providers. Like a brain does to the body it is able to control and orchestrate everything in one go.

Data as a raw material

It is often said that data is the most valuable asset in the digital economy – but I can give you truckloads of data, and you’re not going to be able to do anything with it. Data is a raw material which provides intelligence about the subjects of data. And therefore, the real asset is intelligence, whereby these digital platform companies can be called intelligence corporations. The corporations that are at the top of the value chain today are those corporations which own the intelligence of a sector. In many ways, these corporations supersede the intellectual property-owning organisations which until recently have been at the top of global value chains.

In the age of digital transformation, the new value chain involves data produced in developing countries and collected by platforms which are majorly-owned by big tech companies in the US and China. The product of intelligence resides inside servers and is controlled by these companies. UNCTAD statistics show that 90% of the ownership of the top 70 platforms in the world is divided between big tech companies based in the US and China. This is a greater concentration of wealth and power than we have ever seen.

Digital colonisation

What this is leading to is a form of digital colonisation. Industrial colonisation consisted of a chain of economic activities where raw materials were produced in the colonies, which were forced to remain as producers of raw materials for industrialised countries, from where the finished products were then sold to all, including to the colonies. The digital version of this dependency is happening today. And once we get dependent on what is called ‘outsourced intelligence’, that dependency is acute. Because unlike if you stop being able to import Mercedes cars, the data that has been collected about you over many years is not easily replaceable with domestic alternatives.

This process of digital colonisation is a global challenge we all face. One of the most important steps to address it is to have data infrastructure as public infrastructure. Some of the biggest work being done on this is surprisingly in Europe, because this is the first time that Europe is actually no better off than say India or Indonesia – although they call it a ‘data sovereignty’ issue (and not colonisation). India also has had a committee report on a non-personal data framework, of which I was a member, which recommended mandatory sharing of important data by platforms with start-ups, public agencies and researchers. Just like in the Industrial Age, when roads, ports and bridges were common to everybody, certain kinds of data could then be used by everybody equally within the country.

Ultimately what is needed is a digital industrial policy, which directly addresses the excesses of data and digital corporations by giving preference to domestic industries – insulating industries and helping infant industries, as an industrial policy framework should do. Europe is bringing in a barrage of laws in this direction, but it is still shy of directly naming the problem – because of its ideological attachment to the free market. But the problem of who provides these digital platforms and how is one that collectively we must address.

Parminder Jeet Singh is the executive director of IT for Change in India. This is an edited extract of a talk given to an Asia-Europe People’s Forum webinar in October.

Cover of 99 magazine, issue 25

This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.

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Photo: Mark Dixon/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)