How data colonialism is hurting Africa’s progress

Nothing in the world comes for free. Africans pay for these services using their data. Yes, every time an African browses the internet, their data is siphoned. GRAPHIC/COURTESY

Ever wondered why African startups struggle to reach their fifth anniversary? Well, the answer lies deep inside what has crippled Africa’s quest for neo-independence for decades.

The fact that Africa has never innovated anything worth shaking the world makes it the classical ground zero for data colonialism.

How? Chinese and Western powers have entrenched modern technologies into their countries to the point of saturation. That means the only place left for their products is developing economies of which Africa makes the biggest chunk.

Taking advantage of Africa’s never-ending poverty, marginalization from the developed world and a mindset of inferiority, these powers, through their global tech conglomerates, come and partner with African governments with the promise of “using technology to end poverty.”

The so-called Big Tech offers Africans most technology services for free, including training rural citizens on digital skills, offering online courses to university students, funding education programmes, improving internet connectivity in rural zones, issuing gadgets such as smartphones and tablets and grants for higher education.

But nothing in the world comes for free. Africans pay for these services using their data. Yes, every time an African browses the internet, their data is siphoned.

This data is then secretly but swiftly analysed using Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the tech gurus are able to know within seconds what an African wants. In the next minute, adverts of what they actually need start popping up on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Google and even via SMS.

If you get a text message on your phone about something you were searching on Google, then it means Google is sharing your search history with your mobile network operator, without your consent.

You will be shocked that these MNOs, though Africa by establishment, are part of the online dragnet that sells private user data to online marketing companies without your consent.

Not even the fixed home internet user is safe in Africa. Wi-Fi router companies in the continent say they don’t track the websites you visit, but all of them collect and share user data for marketing without your consent.

So the reality is, every month you pay to get your home WiFi provider harvest your data for sale. And you get nothing in return.

So you can see how Big Tech hides under the curtain of supporting small businesses and startups in Africa. Instead they are after their data and once they get it they sell them expensive solutions so they never make profit and end up folding the business.

They even sell them predictive analytics software in the name of business intelligence and growing profitability.

Big Tech will never shy away from projecting a modern, progressive image to Africa. But Google, Meta, Huawei and Uber are pursuing an agenda that could hand them dangerous levels of control over Africans’ lives and profoundly harm economic development in the global south.

For instance, Google siphons user data from Google Search, Maps, Ads, Android location services, and Gmail to get one of the richest collections of accurate information on the planet.

Meta does the same via Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and even Oculus as it spreads the gospel of ‘metaverse’ to its 3 billion users.

Kenya and South Africa have data laws, but such laws only exist to threaten to punish Big Tech companies if they breach data privacy regulations.

Big Tech is only scared of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), because it believes it was created by developed economies who understand the adversity of stealing private data for profitability purposes. Whenever it breaches, it parts with millions of dollars.

If you breach in Africa, only a few specialists will know you flouted a data regulation, because our definition of data privacy is different. And even the penalty is only a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Then there is the other topic of political democracy where Western powers will land in an African country going through an electioneering period to preach to them about democracy.

Behind the scenes, their home tech companies are harvesting private data for political use as it happened during the Cambridge Analytica scandal in Kenya’s 2013 and 2017 General Elections and for sure other unreported major breaches in the continent.

Data mining companies even worked with local firms but they didn’t know why they were contracted to deploy AI to collect social media political data until the scandal happened. And that data is used to tilt a presidential election in favour of the candidate they want,

Therefore, the more sinister side of the connectivity provided by big tech is that as foreign technology infrastructure becomes more consolidated, the data collected from new users feeds directly back to American or Chinese companies. This is the true motivation for big tech’s presence in Africa.

The accuracy of targeted ads and other products depends on the quantity and diversity of the data behind it.

Africa thus represents a vast, untapped market for data collection. This data is incorporated into big tech’s services, creating a more individualized experience for African consumers.

In comparison to other markets, Africa is highly vulnerable to data colonialism, most nations lack adequate data protections to prevent the theft of information. This data, once extracted, is kept in foreign databases where African innovators and start-ups cannot access it.

For how long will the West and China control Africa’s data as if it belongs to them? What to do?

The concept of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (Afcfta) need not be only about creating a continental e-commerce network. It must focus on the impact that digital technologies is expected to have on continental economic growth and individual country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It should also aim at creating concrete laws that govern data in the entire continent. Regulations that come with serious ramifications for culprits breaching them. A stricter law than the GDPR and put mechanisms, check and balances about these companies’ AI code algorithm transparency.

Otherwise, Africans will end up being ruled by computer codes developed by these companies rather than elected officials.

Africans governments will need to upgrade the capacity of diplomats representing their interests in the international multilateral tech forums and bilateral trade discussions, not forgetting the role of the civil society Organizations.

All 54 states must unite against this vice, otherwise Africa will keep languishing at the bottom of the global pecking order in the internet economy.

That is the only way out for Africa. The only path to end digital colonialism.

Mustafa Sheik is the executive director of the Somali Network Information Centre Twitter: @mysheekh

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