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Big Tech is reinventing colonialism in the digital era says Michael Kwet in discussing centralized control of the Internet at the root of current problems like privacy and monopoly power and the associated rise of Big Data and the surveillance society

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LYNN FRIES: “Humanity is stuck with Big Data, intellectual property, centralized clouds, the internet of things, smart cities littered with surveillance, automation, algorithmic decision-making, Big Tech corporations, and surveillance capitalism. Or so we are told.”

It’s The Real News. I’m Lynn Fries.

That text was from Break the Hold of Digital Colonialism, a commentary on the present Western model of technology and the future, by Michael Kwet. In this program, with Michael Kwet, we explore findings that in the digital world the problems of privacy and monopoly power are rooted in the design of the digital architecture with its concentration of digital power in few hands, corporate and state. And to fix this problem, the design of the digital ecosystem has to be reengineered and re-decentralized. Michael Kwet joins us from New Haven, where he’s a visiting fellow at the Information Society Project at the Yale Law School, a leading research center in the intersection of the law and the digital society. Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL KWET: Thank you for having me on, Lynn.

LYNN FRIES: Start by commenting on this situation of concentrated corporate control over critical functions of the present digital ecosystem.

MICHAEL KWET: If you look at what’s happened in the space of about 20-25 years, as there’s been a rise in economic and political concentration in the technology industry, which is today largely attributed to Big Data, but there’s an underlying structure beneath it. But if we’re to look at various industries, most things that have a function, so an operating system, you’re pretty much on Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. If you’re on a phone, it’s probably going to be Google Android or Apple iOS. If you’re using a taxi service, e-hailing service, it’s going to be Uber or Lyft. And so on and so forth. Web servers, for example, is another one, so you have Amazon, you have Microsoft Azure, Google and IBM is a distant third and fourth. And so on. So basically, we’re looking at a situation in which most of what we do today–social networking of course, with Facebook and Twitter–is concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.

LYNN FRIES: Turning now to the issue of governance, explain some of your thoughts on how the structural domination of the digital ecosystem is undermining national and local sovereignty, because it’s a privatized form of political, social, and economic governance.

MICHAEL KWET: So first of all, the Internet is open. So a lot of services that people are using on a day to day basis, Twitter, Facebook, Google search, you can’t really just block it. If you’re going to block it then you’re censoring everybody. And you’re surveilling them to make sure that, you know, they’re not accessing those kinds of services.

So what these companies are then doing is they’re determining a large part of what your day to day experience is using these services. So if they determine what the free speech policies are, then that’s what it is. If they say you can’t see Alex Jones on your Facebook then you can’t see it on that platform. And they have, in a certain sense, they have the right to do it. But the problem is that they’re so dominant that they’re effectively censoring what people in effect use all the time. Right? So it’s a coupling of the fact that they’re making these policies for people who then rely on these services for their day to day communications. Effectively winds up privatizing just not only their speech but their rights of freedom of association. So, if you have a certain activist group, that activist group can be shut down by Facebook. And if a lot of people are joining activism on something like Facebook then it’s going to hinder your ability to participate in being together and pursuing your activism. That might be for causes that are unseemly, but it can also be for causes that are social justice that are at the margins as well. It should. And so Facebook and these guys, they also determine what news gets seen, how frequently, on the basis of their algorithms. Those are secret algorithms. So now they’re having enormous impact on what people actually see and think about collectively and individually on a daily basis. So why should they have that kind of control? It’s the privatization of that. And so them coming in here, it winds up becoming a form of governance from without which is by definition a colonial process.

LYNN FRIES: As a contribution to the UN Secretary General’s high level panel on digital cooperation – and I’m going to attach that contribution as a context link to this conversation – you provided details of your findings that the historic process of colonialism is playing out once again in the digital era.

You wrote – a quote here – “Digital colonialism refers to the technological domination of political, economic, and social processes for sovereign state by a foreign power. In times past, European powers directly and indirectly governed the affairs of colonial subjects, exploited their labor, and attempted to indoctrinate their peoples into submission. As part of this process, they designed infrastructure such as railroads, transport networks, sea ports, and seaways in the interest of political, military, and economic domination.”

Taking the case of railroads of colonial empire, talk about the design of critical infrastructure built in the colonial era and the readthrough today into the digital era.

MICHAEL KWET: In that situation, Europeans would show up, they would start taking over the land. And then they would start forcing the local inhabitants to work and exploit their labor through slavery, and so on. And, so, what they would do is build railroads that would go into the interior. And where they’re forcing people into exploited labor, they’re extracting raw materials out. And the railroads were constructed in a way that would hook up their military outposts. Their labor centers. And then it would go back to the coast, the seaports, and then they would take and extract out that raw material, and they would send them back to the mother country. And then they would process the raw materials for manufactured goods, and in some instances, they would send back manufactured – surplus manufactured goods, and that would undermine the local markets and their capacity to produce their own resources. Their own goods that would potentially one day be able to compete with them. So if you look at the digital economy right now, you have a situation in which you have this data colonialism which is aprocess of taking all this data, extracting it out from all over the world, and processing the data, and then spitting back out services to people. And their local economies can’t compete because of the concentration of resources and the fact that these companies have already taken over these markets.

LYNN FRIES: You make the point that Big Tech is reinventing colonialism through centralised control of the Internet. This is partly achieved through data colonialism, collecting data from all over the world, and on top of that, this data extraction is fuelling the development of artificial intelligence and the rise of a surveillance society. And you explain digital architecture, like physical architecture, can be designed either for freedom or for the opposite of freedom. To illustrate this point, explain the concept of a panopticon.

MICHAEL KWET: The concept of a panopticon is you have a unit that may be in a physical space. And it started actually for worker surveillance, where you have somebody who is keeping track of what people in this physical space are doing. You might have them at the centre. And then you have a bunch of people who are doing what they’re doing kind of scattered around. So if you look from a map down, you might see, in a prison system, a control tower in the middle, and then everybody around in their prison cells are positioned so that the person in the tower can see what everybody else is up to. But those people can’t see when that prison guard is looking at them.

LYNN FRIES: At the open of this conversation, you said economic and political concentration in the technology industry is largely today attributed to Big Data. But there’s an underlying structure to it. Insofar as it’s possible in a brief conversation like this, talk about that to give us a glimpse of what this underlying structure is and the struggle to reengineer it so that instead of being built for digital colonialism, it’s built for digital freedom.

MICHAEL KWET: Data colonialism, it’s surveillance based, right? But it’s based on the way the system works, because the system is built for that. If you look at the technology ecosystem, it’s the stuff of technology is basically software, hardware, and Internet connectivity. And goes back to a speech by Columbia law professor Eban Moglin in 2004 called Die Gedanken Sind Frei. And in that speech, he framed the necessary prerequisites for digital freedom in the digital society. That is also, in large part, based on some of the concepts and activism and work by Richard Stallman, who created the free software movement. So those three pillars are free software, free hardware, and free spectrum, or if you want to consider it Internet connectivity. So, free as in freedom. So let’s go through each one of those real quick.

LYNN FRIES: Start with software and the concept that code is law.

MICHAEL KWET: So the notion that code is law is one that was popularized by Lawrence Lessig. Also Joel Reidenberg wrote an essay making the same kind of argument. And the notion is that the things that law does for society, so it can be regulating speech, it could be your freedom of association, can be taken on by a computer based on its code. And computer code, the software, is kind of like a kitchen recipe for what and your computer can do. If it’s free and open source then anybody can use it. Anybody can study the code and see what’s in it and understand how it works. And anybody can modify it, and then anybody can share that. Now when I say anybody there, I don’t mean every person has the real true resources or capability to do that. But theoretically, at least, an individual who has the resources, capabilities, and motivation to do it can as an individual do that. But also that the broader community can do that as well. So it provides individual and collective freedom to control your computer experience.

Now, it is also free as – turns out to be free as in price, often. So when we say free software it’s free and open source. But it’s also – and it’s about your freedom to control your device. But it’s also often free as in price, because there’s so much freedom given to you over the software that you can make a copy and just send it to somebody for free. So usually people don’t pay for it. And that’s important for the global south, because so many people don’t have disposable income and can’t afford things like like Microsoft and other proprietary software. So free and open source software provides that kind of freedom. And it’s important to note there that when Richard Stallman came up with free and open source software licenses it was at a time in which really kind of came before the rise of the cloud. So free and open source software can also be run off of servers. But even if it’s free and open source, now you’re – the core part of your being able to modify it is negated. So it doesn’t help you that you have – you don’t have your freedom anymore to control it.

LYNN FRIES: And also negated by this cloud computing, as you’ve pointed out, is the direct accountability created by free and open source software so that developers of software cannot take advantage of their users by doing things like spying on them or manipulating them to get them to spend more time on their products.

And what about the second form of digital power, hardware?

MICHAEL KWET: Free hardware can refer to really kind of two things. So, one, you have digital locks. So the notion would be that you can have free and open source software, but if your hardware is manufactured in a way that you can’t modify that software, then the free and open source software is once again subverted. The freedom that you get from it. Sometimes this is called TiVo-ization. The company TiVo manufactured devices where they have to check against a signature to see if the operating system that’s loading when you turn it on is the one that they allowed to be loaded, and if it’s not then you can’t load – then it won’t open. It won’t start. So basically, at that point, you can’t put your own software on there, and you’re stuck with what they give you. So we need to not have digital locks.

But also free hardware, and also the thought of it, at least for me, is something in which we have, we maintain control over the computing and the ownership of computing and storage so that it’s not once again centralized in the cloud. So right now our devices, our laptops, our smartphones, et cetera, have processors in them. They have powerful processors. They have storage. And we’re getting larger and larger hard drives. That situation could change, and it could be the case that we get “thin” clients, basically just very watered down devices. And most of the software is just executing off the cloud somewhere else, and also the data is stored on the cloud somewhere else.

So we’re already seeing that with the rise of streaming services. And so let’s take something like YouTube. YouTube didn’t used to show advertisements before you start playing the video. But, increasingly, as people stop downloading and owning digital files of their music, of their videos, they – and YouTube hosts, and Spotify and so on hosts them – then, if we don’t own that anymore, they can start dictating the terms of how we pay for and consume those services. So, for example, they can make it so that you have to watch an advertisement every five minutes. They can make it so you have to watch one every 10 minutes. They can also, if it’s going off the cloud, monitor which video you’re – and they do – which video you’re watching, when you’re watching it, how long you watch it for, and so on, and link it up to other data. So it’s important that we keep hardware decentralized and in possession of the people, and not into third parties, which is predominantly corporations, but could be government, too.

And then free internet connectivity would refer to net neutrality. So that would be that your internet traffic is treated as a common carrier. Your internet service providers treat the flow, the delivery of traffic and the routing of traffic, as if a common carrier. So there’s no paid prioritization. And there’s no throttling of your services. So if they know you’re using a privacy enhancing service, they can grind it to a halt. So the Tor web browser, for example, the ISPs can detect that they’re using Tor to mask from them – from the ISPs and from the government – which websites they’re accessing, and so on. And so if they throttle that traffic and they make it so that the traffic is so slow that it’s almost impossible to use the service.

LYNN FRIES: And as a closing thought, comment on digital freedom.

MICHAEL KWET: So, with free software, free hardware, and free internet connectivity, it. You have – the public will have the freedom to control the core elements of their digital experience for much of what we do in the digital society. And that, in effect, socializes the digital ecosystem. But it socializes in a way that doesn’t allow for exclusive ownership by any parties. So there’s no exclusive ownership by the government. There is no exclusive ownership by corporations. And it basically becomes a publicly owned and controlled global ecosystem.

So the idea is there is that part of the reason we’ve seen, if we update it for today, part of the reason we’ve seen the rise of Big Data and surveillance as a model for the digital society is because we don’t have enough control over the ecosystem. That we’ve seen as a centralization of the actual structure of the digital ecosystem. And with that power has come the ability to design it into a panoptic structure so that they can continue to suck data out of everybody’s day to day use of technology. And so the notion there is if you don’t want to live under surveillance capitalism, that just as you wouldn’t keep a panoptic housing structure design as a panopticon, just as you wouldn’t design your railroads if you don’t want an extractive process that benefits centralized powers, you wouldn’t design those railroads to bypass the local villages. You wouldn’t want to have – you shouldn’t – you can’t design the digital ecosystem this way and expect any different results.

LYNN FRIES: We’re going to break and be back with our guest for part two of this conversation with Michael Kwet on the digital ecosystem. Michael Kwet, thank you.

MICHAEL KWET: Thank you for having me on, Lynn.

LYNN FRIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Michael Kwet is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He is the author of Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South, and hosts the Tech Empire on Yale University’s podcast network. With a focus on education technology and digital colonialism, he received his PhD in Sociology from Rhodes University, South Africa.