Deeply interested in communication, decentralization and trust minimization.
We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain. The Internet is arguably the most important invention of mankind’s existence. The digital era ushered in the birth of so many groundbreaking advancements in science and technology in every aspect of man’s life; whether its communication, transportation, agriculture, education, health or lifestyle, the internet and its derivative values have their prints on every aspect of man’s life; it has become the entity in which almost everything revolves around.
However, has the internet truly lived up to its most desired expectation? Can we say the internet reflects the work of the men who truly played major roles in its recent massive successes; will the likes of Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen be proud of the present dynamics of the internet?
The web was initially a platform to democratize public spaces, it was supposed to be a free and open platform with a decentralized theme giving everyone equal access to it and its value. Today, however, the web has become monopolized by a handful of companies; there have risen gatekeepers of information and data; a few companies who are at the centre of whatever major value the internet is supposed to give.
In the past, the colonial empires like the British or French, dominated and expanded power by gaining control of very vital assets like natural resources, trade routes, railways and the likes.
These countries built on this accumulative advantage and gave their colonies or territories under them, a limit to how much they can self-actualize; in fact, any progress by a country under these empires must directly maximize the interest or wealth of their colonial masters.
These colonial masters expanded their territory by building on previous successes and power gathered, they imposed new cultures, languages, cultures, belief systems on these new colonies; illiteracy and ignorance were very useful oppressive tool and in the advent of removing them, it was primarily to maximize their interest.
Such form of the colonial era is now mostly history, with countries gaining freedom and becoming independent. However, there is a new colonial era, but this time it’s not by states but by private tech companies.
This might seem like a bold claim, but it isn’t, all the oppressive tactics and features explained above and others, are all existent; there is digital colonialism and it’s destroying everything the internet is supposed to be.
A very sound argument against everything I highlighted in the previous paragraph, is that these companies are privately owned and are in their rights to compete in the capitalist context which most of them operate from (so don’t blame them).
But, this argument would have been valid if the internet is not an ‘infrastructural structure’. Asides the first use case of the internet, the internet was designed as a platform for the masses to build on; it is the trade routes, it is the railway, it is the precious metals and the natural resources of the previous eras and unfairly gatekeeping it for utmost selfish reasons is equivalent to historical colonialism.
We must understand, that there is nothing wrong in benefiting more than others when you create more value; there is nothing wrong with compounding interest in a fair competitive clime, it’s only wrong when a few entities compound interest, benefit more, gatekeep and monopolize a commodity that was meant for everyone to exploit equally.
Think about the big-tech companies in the world like Alphabet inc (Google) and Facebook, also consider the tech hubs like Silicon Valley.
These companies have so much control of the flow of human data at their control and can seem to know everything we are doing. They leverage on these data to provide us with supposedly better products and services, but first, that doesn’t seem right; firstly, no one should have that much power of people’s data and then objectify it all in the name of creating better products, secondly, the unfair advantage of this existing data means they are always competing at an advantage, and thirdly these data ‘manipulation’ is a means to revenue maximization, hence, in the real sense humans are actually the real products and we are sold to advertisers or anyone they wish(think the correlation between the black slave trade and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal).
Once again, you say: “but they had to have created better value via the internet at first, and this made people subscribe to their product and services and anyone can go on the ‘free and open’ internet to create a competitor ”, which is a valid statement, but that’s not the case behind the existing digital colonialism; creating value is not the problem, but monopolizing and gatekeeping the platform on which the value can be created is the problem; the amount of data controlled by these firms make it almost impossible for other competitors to fairly compete using the supposedly “free and open internet”; their activities to keep expanding their tentacles and building systemic barriers — just like in historical colonialism- is also amongst the problem.
For example, the Facebook or Google tech hubs and centres being built in emerging markets like Africa, are all ploys to ensure they are the platform these markets build their digital infrastructure on and not the internet; meaning if these markets will use the ‘free and open’ internet, it would be via them and thus they remain regulators of the growth of these markets.
This is simply similar to how the colonial empires used trade routes to their advantage; it’s a good thing that developing countries can finally start using the internet to solve their problems and keep up with the rest of the world, but by only leveraging on the monopolistic structures of these gatekeepers;
— Firstly, the talent in these developing economies all aspire to work for these big tech companies as they can pay higher and are also sold to them as the ultimate dream.
— Secondly, the computational infrastructures made available to these emerging market are always behind due to the simultaneous improvement in the tech-capabilities of these big tech companies, thus meaning there’s always a gap just like the gap in AI(Artificial Intelligence) in the USA and Africa.
— Finally, the market monopoly of these big tech companies combined with the other two supposed favours I highlighted, means that these Entrepreneurs in these markets can barely compete by making direct competition products and have to settle for tags like “The Facebook Of Africa” to serve only their immediate market.
All of these holistically makes sense as an argument, when you consider the importance of the technology in the global world; countries that want to remain relevant on the international stage, need to quickly adapt tech because that’s where all the major value is concentrated.
So, the question of “why can’t these emerging markets refuse these big tech companies when they approach them? Or boycott their products”, is a delicate question because you must consider that these companies have become gatekeepers of the internet and bypassing their investment is mostly suicidal and they also want their citizens to benefit from the goodies of the internet, even though we have to agree in most cases it would be a sub-par diet.
I can never forget the day I was browsing an e-commerce app and clicked on a particular shoe to view it features only; after closing the app I went to another app and suddenly I began to see an Advert of the previous app but not just that, the Ad was about the shoe I was checking out, I couldn’t make this up, I saw this same advert almost on any internet-enabled app I opened days after checking out the shoe.
Almost everyone familiar with the internet, especially e-commerce platforms, is familiar with the personal experience I just shared, even if contexts may differ; you click on something and it’s like the entire internet is monitoring your movement.
The excuse is data science or ‘Big Data’, that these are just mechanisms used by companies to provide we customers better services; “we want to make sure we show you content that you only want to see”, “we want to make sure you only see ads of things you’re interested in”.
As well-intended as all of these might sound, it doesn’t change the fact that you and I are being objectified; as long as the end goal is to make a profit, reinforce market domination or strengthen a product’s moat, then we are being ‘used’ and sadly that is not what the internet is supposed to be, a certain few private entities shouldn’t be objectifying the data of almost everyone for enlarging their ‘digital empire’.
Some people point to the terms and conditions that we agree to before we use these digital products; they explain that as long as we agree to our personal data being to serve us better, then we shouldn’t complain at all. However, as I said previously in this article, is there really a choice? Can we really afford to boycott the internet or the services of a very important tool like Google?
The fact that a person’s choice is skewed in such a way that one of the choices is almost an outright disadvantage, then there is hardly any choice on the table. It’s the same illustration I made under internet colonialism; the importance of the internet and the fact that almost everything revolves around it means that refusing to use it and its most important products, is almost suicidal in the digital era.
It’s more problematic when you consider the competition amongst the few gatekeepers of the internet; these few ‘monopolistic’ entities are always thinking of ways to use data to stay on top; we can see the constant war between Facebook and Twitter with either always looking for ways to accuse the other of violating the data privacy of users, another is the Facebook scandal or the YouTube scandal and so many other instances of these companies just pushing too much.
The fact is, these companies basically have to keep seeking ways to collect people’s data and ‘sell’ for profit (although many words have been created to sugarcoat the fact that the data is being sold for profit).
The reality is, privacy is barely existent anymore; you don’t have to be actively monitored by a creepy stalker before your privacy is being violated.
Asides, the very obvious existence of cybercrime, internet fraud or hacks, the internet is not yet as secure as it should be. Security remains a major feature for the internet to be really trusted and widely adopted. This is not just a random claim and I have to agree that the levels of security actually vary from one entity to another; for example, think of how difficult it would be to hack Apple or Google’s database system: almost impossible.
However, it’s this large variation in security and trust that is the problem; once again the ability of only a few entities here and there to guarantee a particularly essential feature, means that feature is almost nearly unavailable when you consider the fact that the internet is supposed to be public infrastructure.
A very popular and typical example is Africa (Sub-Saharan Africa in particular); amongst many other reasons, the growth of e-commerce in Sub-Saharan Africa has been stunted because most people cannot trust putting their credit card details online while only very few platforms can afford the technology that might bypass that particular requirement or secure people’s funds.
Trust and security is a basic feature of the internet because people won’t trust a platform where their data or finances can be easily hacked or manipulated. If a basic feature like security is not almost guaranteed on an infrastructural entity like the internet, then we have to begin to ask serious questions around how we can reform the internet to be able to serve everyone on a level playing field.
It’s obviously easier to point out problems and propose no clear possible solutions — even if not perfect or certain — as to how those problems can be solved. Hence, what do I propose can be done to reform our beloved internet into a better infrastructure for everyone?
Firstly, laws against big-tech monopolies must become stricter and not just be relegated to certain actions like acquiring a direct competitor or other forms of direct monopolistic actions; competitive bottlenecks remain one of the biggest strategies for monopoly as it leverages on existing advantage to either deter new entrants into a market category or to give existing super companies advantage when entering into a new market, for example, the data and market share advantage Google had with its search engine when entering into the mobile market as Android; it was easier to knock off competitors because they are Google and have enough data and market share despite being new in that market category.
This is problematic as these companies (like Amazon) keep expanding their reach into other market categories by leveraging on existing networks and data, hence policies like the anti-trust law must not just be put in place to tackle seemingly direct monopolistic actions but also seek to restrict the spread of these ‘colonial masters’ tentacles by placing strict policies on branching into other markets.
Secondly, the data privacy laws must also be more stringent and act as a supporting tool to the stricter policies I clamour for in the first point above the big tech companies should be restricted from using existing data to enter into new markets no matter how seemingly related the market categories might seem, it is a form of data manipulation and exploitation as it gives them an unfair head start over existing or potential competitors and also explicitly translates to an indiscriminate objectification of the data of people.
The data privacy issue can also be curbed or solved by using decentralized technologies like Blockchain technology; the Blockchain technology is famous for its seamless application in cryptocurrency and Bitcoin, however, there are already similar applications and advocacy of one of the most secure technologies existing to be adopted into other areas like identity management and data privacy.
Blockchain technology is a decentralized technological system that stores transactional data in several databases connected through peer-to-peer nodes, it may not be the exact solution but decentralization — which the internet was supposed to be about — seems to be the best way to create an internet with an infrastructural capability to secure and protect the data of people, and since it is a completely decentralized technology, then it should be really considered.
Finally, the third problem of trust or security is more of a consequence of a lack of adequate protection of people’s data; if the data of everyone can be easily protected by any tech company regardless whether you’re a billion-dollar company in Silicon Valley or a startup in Yaba in Nigeria, then there will be an almost general and equal capability to prevent the hacks on any private account. And blockchain technology once again remains a useful technology for securing and protecting the data of people and is a major pointer to how we can create an almost entirely safe internet for everyone wherever you may be.
Conclusively, decentralization and improved tech policies seem to be at the heart of creating a better and fair internet structure for everyone. The internet was supposed to be an infrastructure that gave everyone access to self-actualize and create value no matter how competitive it became, but we are failing at that and now, it is time to fix the internet to model what it was supposed to be, it is time to decentralize the internet.