Data as the New Oil: Africa’s Struggle for Digital Sovereignty

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Data has become the new oil in the digital era, and tech companies are the new barons. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018 and rising awareness of the Six4Three case, Facebook has attempted to frame changes it made to its platform in 2014 and 2015 as being driven by concerns over user privacy. In statements to media organizations, Facebook has said it locked down its platform to protect users from companies that mishandled user data, such as Cambridge Analytica, as well as apps that spammed users’ news feeds or were creepy, such as Six4Three’s bikini-spotting app Bikinis.

However, among the documents leaked, there’s very little evidence that privacy was a significant concern of Facebook, and the issue was rarely discussed in the thousands of pages of emails and meeting summaries. Where privacy is mentioned, it is often in the context of how Facebook can use it as a public relations strategy to soften the blow of the sweeping changes to developers’ access to user data. The documents include several examples suggesting that these changes were designed to cement Facebook’s power in the marketplace, not to protect users.

The rise of ‘party cells,’ representatives of the Communist Party installed within private corporations, especially in the tech sector, has significantly increased in the past year. This intertwining of profit and politics serves the party’s interests, raising questions about the ethical implications of such practices.

The presence of party functionaries within tech giants like Alibaba has been met with mixed reactions. Some see no danger in this situation, arguing that global trade is a reality and exchanges between democratic countries are preferable. However, they also acknowledge that we do not live in a world where only good exists.

The question arises: Is this merely online trade or a form of Chinese imperialism? After the steel industry’s decline in the 2010s, Belgium’s high unemployment rate made it a prime target for foreign investors. The country is now grappling with the consequences of this economic growth, questioning whether it is worth the price.

In 2021, two of the top 10 tech companies were Chinese, with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, poised to join them. Due to a superior understanding of online behavior and an extensive online community with low digital privacy, ByteDance’s algorithm recognizes user preferences.

However, the Chinese state also significantly influences ByteDance, controlling data and censoring content. The Communist Party’s influence on TikTok is a matter of concern. While the company insists it complies with local laws, the Chinese government remains silent on whether it has access to TikTok users’ data. This uncertainty fuels fear and skepticism about the power of China’s tech companies.

Tech Titans vs. Democracy: The Global Struggle for Control

In April 2021, after an antitrust case, Alibaba was fined 2.3 billion euros, and the state bought shares in ByteDance. The Chinese regime has been tightening its grip on the tech market since late 2020, banning specific business models. The goal is to prevent big tech from overpowering the government, which they believe has led to adverse outcomes in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, in Nevada, tech companies attempt to establish their city independently of local laws.

Cryptocurrency firm Blockchains LLC wants to create ‘innovation zones‘ acting like completely independent local governments. However, this idea has faced heavy criticism and was withdrawn in August 2021. In Washington, the fight against the market dominance of Google, Apple, Facebook, and others continues. However, legal experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of these proceedings. They argue that even aggressive antitrust actions may not yield permanent results, and new monopolies could emerge in a few years.

The outsized power of tech companies, big or small, harms democracy. To rebalance this, we need to prioritize democracy over technology. Some experts call for a ban on the business model of collecting and selling user data. They argue that laws already exist to regulate these practices; they must be adapted to the digital age.

The uncontrolled power of mega-corporations and the growing gap between rich and poor are intertwined. Historically, capitalism worked best in the 50s and 60s when taxes for the richest were high, leading to economic growth and innovation. Today, greed for profit, new technology, and big politics create an opaque world that future generations will have to struggle to control.

With the ongoing battles in the business of our data, there is a need for African countries to develop strong data protection laws and regulations, as well as to build their capacities in data science and technology. This will enable them to harness the benefits of data while protecting the rights and interests of their citizens.

Data: Africa’s Double-Edged Sword in the Age of Digital Colonialism

On the positive side, data can be used to drive economic growth, improve public services, and stimulate innovation. For example, data can help governments and businesses better understand the needs and behaviors of their populations, allowing them to tailor their services and products accordingly.

This can improve efficiency and effectiveness in various sectors, including healthcare, education, and agriculture. On the negative side, there are concerns about privacy and data protection. Many African countries do not have robust data protection laws, meaning individuals’ personal information can be exploited without their knowledge or consent. This can lead to various harms, from identity theft to discrimination.

Moreover, there is a risk of digital colonialism, where foreign tech companies extract valuable data from African countries without providing adequate compensation or benefits.

The data extracted from African countries includes personal information, consumer habits, social trends, and other valuable insights. These companies use this data to train their algorithms, develop new products, and target advertisements, among other things. Data is the new oil, and these tech companies are extracting it in large quantities.

However, digital colonialism is less visible and more insidious than traditional forms of colonialism. It often occurs without the knowledge or consent of the individuals whose data is being extracted. Moreover, the benefits of this data extraction, such as technological innovation and economic growth, are often not shared equitably.

The tech companies reap most of the benefits, while the countries from which the data is extracted see little in return. This form of digital colonialism can exacerbate existing inequalities and hinder sustainable development. It can also lead to a loss of digital sovereignty, as African countries become dependent on foreign tech companies for their digital infrastructure and services.

An accomplished editor with a fervent passion for journalism. Possessing a career in the field, she is renowned for her meticulous editing, analytical acumen, and powerful storytelling. As an editor, Mariam consistently maintains the integrity and credibility of her work through rigorous fact-checking and in-depth reporting. She contributes insightful articles that highlight societal issues, provoking thoughtful dialogue and inspiring change. Her commitment to fostering growth among emerging writers and her dedication to the journalistic craft as a catalyst for societal change make her a respected figure in contemporary journalism.

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