Kwet, 2019

Kwet, M. (2019). Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South. Race & Class, 0306396818823172.


This article proposes a conceptual framework of how the United States is reinventing colonialism in the Global South through the domination of digital technology. Using South Africa as a case study, it argues that US multinationals exercise imperial control at the architecture level of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware and network connectivity, which then gives rise to related forms of domination. The monopoly power of multinational corporations is used for resource extraction through rent and surveillance – economic domination. By controlling the digital ecosystem, Big Tech corporations control computer-mediated experiences, giving them direct power over political, economic and cultural domains of life – imperial control. The centrepiece of surveillance capitalism, Big Data, violates the sanctity of privacy and concentrates economic power in the hands of US corporations – a system of global surveillance capitalism. As a feature of surveillance capitalism, Global North intelligence agencies partner with their own corporations to conduct mass and targeted surveillance in the Global South – which intensifies imperial state surveillance. US elites have persuaded people that society must proceed according to its ruling class conceptions of the digital world, setting the foundation for tech hegemony. The author argues for a different ecosystem that decentralises technology by placing control directly into the hands of the people to counter the rapidly advancing frontier of digital empire.


Big Data, Big Tech, digital colonialism, digital ecosystem, global surveillance capitalism, South Africa, tech hegemony, US multinationals


  • March 2015, president of SA announced model to fast-track digital tech to all 26000 public schools
  • organized by World Bank, Deloitte, and gov't, corporations, unions, schools, and NGOs
  • poor, black students will get access to digital tech for first time, so no longer reliant on cheap mobile phones
  • project will embed US technology in SA classrooms, including surveillance technology

An insidious new phenomenon, digital colonialism, casts a shadow on the Global South.3 This structural form of domination is exercised through the centralised ownership and control of the three core pillars of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware, and network connectivity, which vests the United States with immense political, economic, and social power. As such, GAFAM (Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft) and other corporate giants, as well as state intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), are the new imperialists in the international community. Assimilation into the tech products, models, and ideologies of foreign powers – led by the United States – constitutes a twenty-first century form of colonisation.

  • SA still struggling to overcome colonial past w/ rising inequality
    • 55% of population lives on less than $5/day
    • 63% of black SA is below the poverty line c.f. 1% of white SA

This article attempts to answer the questions entirely absent from public discourse; such as, ‘are cloud centres built by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google good for the country?’ or ‘which technologies best promote privacy rights, transparency, collaboration, and local development?’.

Economic domination – corporate colonisation and monopoly power

  • Dutch East India Company (1602) became first global corporation and initiated European conquest in SA with establishment of Cape Colony
  • over 2 centuries, whites seized land
  • discovery of gold and diamonds led British and Afrikaners to further subject Africans to exploitation
  • now, GAFAM (Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) are colonizing digitally
  • Uber began in Johannesburg in 2013 leading to 'taxi wars', including murders and threats against Uber
    • Uber takes a 25% cut leading to outflow of revenue from local economy to foreign companies
    • Uber operates at a loss b/c of VC financing and can undercut local economies
  • Google and Fb have been called the biggest threat to SA news media
    • Google takes 70% of online local advertising, and Fb 12%; major SA co's take 8%
  • Foreign corps undermine local development, dominate the market and extract revenue from Global South, primarily through structural domination of digital architecture

Imperial control through architectural design

  • colonial conquest set up to only benefit colonizers
    • railroads went from the interior directly to ports for export with no disbursement of goods to local economy
    • raw materials extracted by exploited labour and shipped back to the empire
  • digital colonialism is the same with US GAFAM planting infrastructure in the South that benefits their own bottom line

    The control of code is foundational to digital domination.

...US dominance of code – and other forms of digital architecture – usurps other countries’ sovereignty.

  • Digital power linked through 3 pillars of digital ecosystem:
    • software
      • rules embedded by developers determine the technological freedoms of users
      • domination exercised through licenses and hardware ownership
      • MS users must pay for the right to use the software, can't read the code, can't change the code, can't share a copy
    • hardware
      • software run on 3rd party servers, (Fb software runs on Fb servers) ... users dispossessed of their ability to control SW
      • centralised ownership of HW,
      • 'cloud' computing means HW providers will only provide low-power, low-memory devices, meaning that computation will be centralised and controlled by corps
      • HW designed to prevent changing SW
      • Apple and macOS and iOS
    • network connectivity
      • net neutrality protects users from corps paying for a fast-lane
      • ISPs can detect and throttle Tor traffic

Intellectual property and empire

  • copyright industry threatened by mass sharing of paywalled pubs (sci-hub)
  • DRM can control access to media, but only if software is proprietary
  • controlling HW (cloud servers) also allows corps to control who can see what
    • Netflix controls HW and streams to devices, giving them total control
  • controlling the network allows ISPs and gov't to spy on users and throttle or eliminate Tor or VPN traffic

Western technology has been engineered to block free sharing, which impoverishes poor people’s ability to obtain knowledge and culture, and reduces communication between rich and poor.

While the US (and other countries) built up its knowledge economies without respecting foreign copyrights, today it seeks to ‘kick away the ladder’ and impose extensive copyright restrictions on the rest of the world.

Big Tech Internet service provision

  • Facebook's Free Basics service is zero-rated by ISPs
  • Fb controls what users (poor users) can see
  • hope is that free basics will lead to paying customers
  • Fb, through has over 100 million users in 60 countries, all streamed into Fb platform

Global surveillance capitalism

Big Data is the central component of surveillance capitalism. Corporations and states are collecting, storing and processing enormous centralised databases of information about the world’s netizens. This enables them to infer traits about people (such as their sexuality, religion, political affiliations and behavioural tendencies) that individuals do not disclose themselves. The data is then used to manipulate individuals, groups and organisations for the interests of corporate profits and state power.

  • data collection is enabled by centralisation of computing power to 3rd party servers

Imperial state surveillance

The deployment of Big Tech products in the Global South extends the eyes and ears of foreign intelligence. The US stranglehold over tech infrastructure, combined with a vast pool of resources, provides it with leverage over other countries.

Tech hegemony – ideological domination

Indeed, doctrines of domination – be it through religious missions, racial ordering, appeals to nationalism or ‘civilising’ duties – pervaded colonial society. Under apartheid, Africans received dumbed down ‘Bantu education’ designed to instil deference to Europeans in preparation for a life of menial labour and servitude. As Walter Rodney put it, ‘Colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment.’

Poor students and families are dependent upon the state to provide a more equal digital experience by subsidising access to productivity devices (such as laptops, desktops or tablets) and high-speed broadband. The importance of technology choices for schools cannot be overstated: the specific technologies deployed will forge path dependencies by shaping the habits, preferences and knowledge base of the first tech generation from childhood. Education offers the ultimate breeding ground for Big Tech imperialism; product placement in schools can be used to capture emerging markets and tighten the stranglehold of Big Tech products, brands, models and ideology in the Global South

The Free Software Movement

Software is a central component of freedom in the twenty-first century. Because software largely determines what your computer can do, it shapes your level of digital freedom.

Four freedoms

  • run the pgm as you wish
  • study the code and change it
  • redistribute verbatim copies
  • redistribute modified copies

Columbia law professor Eben Moglen developed a framework that provides a more complete account of the digital ecosystem. According to Moglen, the three core pillars of the digital ecosystem must be arranged to prevent authoritarian forms of digital technology. Software must be Free Software so that the public has the capacity to control its devices; hardware must be Free Hardware without digital locks and widely distributed in the hands of the people;59 and the Internet must be neutral and provide bandwidth for all people on equal terms.

Internet decentralisation

  • FreedomBox

Resisting ideological domination

Schools can become places to equip the Global South with technologies that facilitate education, sharing, individual and collective control and ownership, direct democracy, local sovereignty, real privacy, and the capacity for local business and innovation in an attempt to drive foreign imperialists out of their countries and forge a new digital society.

Discussions around tech should be holistic and address structural inequality, identity, culture, and politics.