Colonisation ended a century back. Since then, a new world order has emerged, and the number of sovereign states has doubled, or even tripled.
The end of traditional forms of colonisation and the emergence of new sovereign states are contemporary events and complementary to each other in a broader context.
Unfortunately, the curse of colonialism is far from becoming a thing of the past. Instead, it has morphed itself to adjust to a new digital reality in the 21st century. This new form of colonialism can be called pseudo-colonisation or e-colonisation.
It is quite a task to identify the scope of e-colonisation in a short discussion like this. GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) is a newly introduced term to represent the four big tech companies originating from Silicon Valley, also popularly known as 'Big Four'. Since the onset of technological revolution, these companies have monopolised the markets to such an extent that governments, let alone smaller businesses are often coerced to bend at their will.
Unlike past colonial trends, the so-called wealthy nations in the West have also fallen victim to the clutches of e-colonisation and they are no longer in the driving seat of colonialism. But it may be the least developed ones that are suffering the most from e-colonisation thanks to the lack of proper institutions and political power in those countries. Yet, there exists no specific international legal framework to enforce accountability on these companies.
But why was this situation allowed to deteriorate to such an extent? Taking a look back at their origin may help.
In the late nineties and early two thousands when most tech companies were founded, they were ambitious. All of them are primarily registered in the USA.
These startups were out to disrupt the status quo, connect people and give them unprecedented access to information. It indeed worked as a positive tool for the masses as evidenced by instances of protests and movements for rights and justice worldwide, especially in the Arab and the global south.
But what was unnoticed is how most of the companies make money. Most companies got big by providing free services to the users while exchanging data about their users and selling ads. The Cambridge Analytica scandal helped many of us understand that this same data could also be used to manipulate them.
Most companies got big by providing free services to the users while exchanging data about their users and selling ads. The Cambridge Analytica scandal helped many of us understand that this same data could also be used to manipulate them. E-colonisation in the era of globalisation
For instance, the influence of big data in the Brexit referendum as well as the 2016 US election changed the way people look at the big techs. Since then, stricter data protection laws have been adopted worldwide, although they haven't been consistently enforced.
The next issue is the liability question: who's responsible for what's being said or done on the platforms run by big tech?
It's a question that experts have been asking for years. But it moved to the front pages when in January 2021, following online calls for violence, a mob stormed the US Capitol. Years before that, nationalists in Myanmar had already used Facebook to incite violence against the countries' Rohingya minority.
In Congressional hearings, Facebook has acknowledged its mistakes for neglecting its duties to monitor the spread of misinformation and hate speech and it pledged to do better. But increasingly, governments say that such pledges alone are not enough. Some, including Germany, have passed laws that force the platforms to take down incendiary posts quickly or face hefty fines.
Speaking of fines; there's another discrepancy by the big techs to shed light on: taxes.
For many years, these companies have not been paying their fair share of taxes around the world, although some countries have introduced national taxes to make the companies pay accordingly.
Many believe that a global taxation framework may be needed. While the Trump administration stalled international talks on the matter, the Biden administration has signalled its willingness to come back to the table and hope for a deal by this summer. But that's far from certain.
Taxes aside, some also argue that the companies have become too big, which leads us to the final issue: competition.
These companies essentially perform like monopolies thanks to their gigantic presence and often elbow out the other companies with anti-competitive practices.
A century ago, John D. Rockefeller was basically what Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg is today. Rockefeller had built up an empire that controlled over 90% of the oil in the US. But it is said that his success was built on unfair practices. After that, in 1911, the US Supreme Court ruled to split up his corporation into 34 companies.
Similarly, a hundred and ten years later, in 2020, US Democrats said in a report that every one of the Big Four companies runs a monopoly like "the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons" (precisely referring to the Rockefeller era). Many companies say that they have to effectively sell their products on Amazon's marketplace because they do not have a viable alternative.
On top of that, Apple gets to decide what software people use on their phones and charges supra-competitive prices. According to the lawmakers, Facebook acquired at least 63 companies like Instagram or WhatsApp whenever they became severe competitors. On the other hand, Google has favoured its services in its search engine and advertising business, the report said.
Given this scenario, many people came up with the old proposition that split the Rockefeller empire to apply to these companies. But it's a challenging thing to do and far from certain. However, the debate is gradually gaining traction in mainstream geopolitical discourse.
Moreover, these companies still remain outside the purview of international law. Thus, recognising these systemic discrepancies is a far cry, which continues to foster an unjust global economic system. 0
Perhaps the states should shape their respective laws to take control of the issue as found in the instances of Germany and other developed legal systems by now. Till then, this e-colonisation shall continue haunting the states, especially the Global South, for some time.
Forhad Ahmed is a Lawyer and a Lecturer at the Department of Law at Feni University.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.