06/24/2022

Platforms Of Oppression: Conceptualising Digital Colonialism In The Pakistani Context

The internet is always touted to be a great equaliser, and yet deep down we all know that it is a far cry from being a utopia. This hope that the internet should ideally be a non-discriminatory space remains an illusion to this day; power imbalances are deeply embedded in its technical infrastructure. 

As internet users based in the South, we witness oppression on a daily basis in the virtual sphere, in the form of “digital” or “electronic colonialism.” This explains how, over the past few decades, Big Tech corporations based in the United States have accumulated trillions of dollars and gained far-reaching powers to control everything – from business to labour in the form of the gig economy– in this part of the world. Colonial architecture seems to have been replicated on the internet, as the profit and plunder logic is a part and parcel of today’s tech ecosystem.

Ismat Shahjahan, a political worker and the President of Women Democratic Front, comments, “Technology is susceptible to ideology; this was the case with old technology and is now also what is happening in regards to Big Tech.” She adds, “The situation depends from context to context – which power resides where and how a narrative of power imbalances is built. Online spaces are not neutral.” 

According to Renata Avila Pinto, a well-known Guatemalan digital rights lawyer, the internet is rife with tensions of privacy and security, and there is a confrontation between control and freedom, “not only of the individual, but of entire populations and regions, enhanced by technologies and massive collection and analysis of data—from predicting and influencing behaviours, to the automation of public services and the ability to fully control and disrupt those services, even remotely.” 

Silicon Valley As An Imperial Force

Michael Kwet, a Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School, says “If the railways and maritime trade routes were the ‘open veins’ of the Global South back then, today, digital infrastructure takes on the same role: Big Tech corporations use proprietary software, corporate clouds, and centralised internet services to spy on users, process their data, and spit back manufactured services to subjects of their data fiefdoms. They then process the data for consumer and business services.” One can clearly see that Big Tech corporations have expanded their products across the globe, extracting data and profit from all its users while concentrating power and resources in Silicon Valley. 

Electronic Colonialism or Digital Colonialism, sometimes abbreviated eColonialism, is a term coined by sociologist Herbert Schiller in his 1976 text ‘Communication and Cultural Domination.’ In this work, Schiller highlights the rise of a new technological era, one that puts dominant countries above more economically oppressed nations, thereby subjecting them to the whims of world powers. Now, people in the South experience social media platforms as the be-all and end-all of the internet, while their personal data is extracted and then bartered by imperialists.

In 2013, Edward Snowden exposed corporations such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple for sharing information with the National Security Agency (NSA) of America via the PRISM program. As a result, we learned that data stored by Big Tech corporations and transmitted over the internet is consumed by vast government databases for the purpose of mass surveillance and exploitation by nation states across the world. It is no secret that many countries in the South have been unwitting targets of NSA surveillance. 

“Data is the new oil.” Much to mathematician Clive Humby’s delight, his words from 2006 have come to define the modern-day digital era. This idea is elaborated upon in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” Hence, the details of people’s personal lives are now an incredibly valuable commodity that tech giants are continually trying to prize out. 

The surveillance of users has increased exponentially as a result of the move towards centralised services run by these Big Tech corporate giants. Cloud computing needs to be pointed out here; cloud services run by tech corporations exacerbate the lack of accountability on the part of the software running inside our devices, thereby rendering people incapable of controlling their computers. Data colonialism and surveillance capitalism are, therefore, in stark opposition to the utopian digital dream we all wish for.

Data Localisation Measures And Their Impact On Free Speech

The Pakistani government has been a vocal supporter of data localisation, in a bid to meet the challenge to formulate technology policy, a task this state has carried out in the most regressive way possible. Time and time again, the government of Pakistan has tried to introduce laws that contain local presence requirements and localisation of data so that it controls people’s personal data and information regarding their whereabouts. PTI leadership introduced a new law for digital media in 2020, the now abrogated ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020’, under the draconian Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 enacted by the PML-N government, demanding tech corporations to establish their presence in the country. Tech activists have warned that this set of rules “imperils citizens’ right to privacy.” However, instead of encouraging openness and free data movement, the ruling establishment of the country, regardless of which party is at its helm, has been hell-bent on strictly controlling and censoring online activity in the name of national security. 

This is an alarming development as we now see Big Tech companies opting for collusive ventures in the interest of global domination, pervading each and every government and state, impacting all resistance movements with an online presence, and controlling the online actions of people through their digital devices and data collection. Never before has a small coterie of corporations had so much sway over the entire world, in a bid to spy on the present and deduce future behaviours of not just individual users, but entire populations. Their domination over the South is cemented by the enactment of data localisation laws, which will not only be unable to provide full protection against Big Tech surveillance, but will also threaten other fundamental rights like freedom of expression and assembly, by intensifying the danger of political subjugation.

This goes to show that social media platforms cause harm to the work of progressive movements, given that they constantly put activists and organisers at risk because of the centralisation of data. SRK*, an organiser of Aurat March, Lahore, remarks, “These companies are always doing khana puri to reach out to ‘civil society actors’ and they keep making hollow promises. The state can ban anything and we don’t really have that kind of say with Big Tech companies. They are completely non-transparent and keep reverting to states.” 

Content moderation on TikTok in Pakistan is a good example, as pointed out by SRK. “Everything is being taken down to meet the criteria of the state, including the content of women and queer people. Social media rules are now actively under abeyance but these companies know that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority bans content willy nilly, so they comply.” SRK insists that Big Tech companies never talk about what actually happens behind closed doors, so nobody should trust them. “The level and precision with which they moderate content is scary. This is clearly done via orders from the state, and is a part of the state’s scaremongering efforts.”

Anti-Oppression Movements In Peril

Tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter are notorious for suspending and/or permanently terminating the accounts of activists from marginalised backgrounds. From Facebook instituting its now-defunct discriminatory real-name policy, to Big Tech corporations actively targeting activists in Vietnam, Kashmir, Canada and Palestine, the list of violations is endless. This pattern of suspensions and account removals has also made its way to Pakistan.

Inayat Abdali, a journalist hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan, tells me that he lost his Facebook account in 2018 due to censorship. His previous Twitter account remains suspended to this day, which happened because he shared his criticism of the Taliban coming into power in Afghanistan.

Progressives in Gilgit-Baltistan rely on social media to gain traction for issues that go unnoticed on mainstream media, in spite of the perpetual issue of broadband connectivity in the region. This is not the first time that social media companies have targeted progressives from ethnic minorities and movements though.

 

In Pakistan, social media seems to have become a safe haven for 5th generation warfare: a ‘war’ of information and perception and, as Ismat points out, the usage of social media as propaganda machinery. There is little room for the amplification of voices that are critical of the state or present a counter-narrative.“There is an inextricable link between state oppression and how Big Tech corporations operate in Pakistan. Content is banned selectively; online spaces seem totally imperialist, capitalistic, and gentrified.” she states. “Why is it that the fake accounts of religious hardliners who actively incite violence thrive on social media platforms, whereas the voices of progressives are suppressed to the point that we can’t even operate our accounts under our real names?” she asks. “Far-right content is rarely, if ever, banned. Taliban media also thrived on these spaces for a very long time.”

Ismat’s own Twitter account has been suspended several times, and her posts on Facebook have often been found to be against the platform’s arbitrary community standards. “I am a well-known political leader, not a troll. The circulation of my posts on both Twitter and Facebook has also become significantly restricted over time. Social media platforms have slowly rendered me invisible in online spaces, as I feel that the algorithms of these platforms have suppressed my posts in some way. Something is up.” Ismat complains of both her Twitter and Facebook accounts being repeatedly hacked and susceptible to suspicious activity. She has also noticed strange activity on the accounts of Women Democratic Front, including the page of its Sindh chapter on Facebook.

The modern-day feminist movement in Pakistan has been on the receiving end of misinformation and targeted attacks, the unprecedented backlash against the Aurat Marches being a prime example. Social media platforms have been weaponised by the detractors of the country’s feminist movement to fuel controversy and hatred against the organisers of the marches. As Ismat points out, “There is no doubt that social media has brought about a sexual and gender revolution in the past few years, but it has also created a lot of chaos and destruction.” Because of the proliferation of counter trends, propaganda, and online trolling, resistance struggles have been liquidated in the most hostile manner possible. “As organisers of the Aurat Azadi March, we have had to deal with a glut of disinformation, as well as fake inflammatory videos, made against us last year. We spent a good part of 2020 dealing with the false blasphemy charges against some of our comrades, which stemmed from the online disinformation campaign. There was a coordinated media attack against us.” 

Ismat asserts that social media attacks diverge from offline attacks by the state machinery, as organisers constantly have to be on the defensive in online spaces. “Problems include dealing with infiltration and surveillance in our groups, private screenshots being leaked, the blatant disregard for confidentiality, secrecy, and people’s lives – we have to keep guarding our resistance struggles because of the threats we experience on social media.” Ismat feels that social media creates a hegemony and, therefore, can sometimes lead to more harm than benefit. “Yes, our numbers have increased, and more people show up to our protests, but there is also a lot of mudslinging we deal with, and we have to keep countering attacks. I often receive threats like ‘we will shoot you in the face’ on Twitter. The abuse against organisers is rampant.”

SRK comments that what is happening on social media to feminists is deplorable. The role of social media in completely discrediting the Aurat Marches through online misinformation has been evident from day one. “This trend of completely mischaracterizing the nature of the march has received a lot of traction online. However, the way Big Tech companies are categorising what constitutes harm is extremely western-centric. Their frameworks are skewed, and their reporting systems are inaccessible, complicated and narrow.” 

Pushback Against Big Tech In Pakistan

Last year, Aurat March Lahore wrote a statement that eviscerated Twitter and other Big Tech corporations for their troublesome content moderation policies. 

“Even when a blasphemy hashtag would be in the top Twitter trends, the company would not take it down. We, the people being victimised, would be expected to spend hours of labour watching YouTube videos, and sift through blatant lies spread across hundreds of videos. We sent an elaborate spreadsheet, and yet the company would still not take that [content] down. These companies beat around the bush, only to dismiss serious complaints of harm.” SRK angrily declares that the policies of Big Tech companies are so horrible and traumatising, and their methods so callous, that they would dismiss the labour of feminists completely and call these grievances too general. 

While addressing the Big Tech companies directly, they say, “We share detailed reports and spreadsheets with you, and then you have the audacity to ask us for timestamps? You, as one of the biggest corporations in the world – not a startup, mind you, but a massive company – don’t have enough resources on you? Really? How about you compensate us for our time then?” 

SRK elaborates, “Why is Twitter giving us excuses about content moderation at scale being a problem? Then don’t run your company at scale. Don’t collect our data at scale. But of course they won’t do this, so now we have to preempt these issues. We have given up on the hope that these companies would come up with strategies that can minimise harm for people. This is a structural issue.” Content moderation on social media platforms seems to be a lost cause. 

SRK claims that companies individualise cases of harassment, abuse and violence, and only escalate or deal with them in isolation. “Larger patterns of us being attacked on multiple fronts – by the state, ruling parties, right-wing hardliners – are deliberately ignored. Their public policy representatives are also not able to sense this.” These processes seem to be irreparable, as it is evident that Big Tech companies continuously show zero regard for the lives of non-violent dissenters in online spaces. 

Creating a Digital Commons 

Programs that are not ‘free’ are reminiscent of unjust power. Thus, the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement becomes all the more relevant. Free Software licences are written to upend the authoritarian power of proprietary software. They secure a user’s freedom to use, study, modify, and/or share the software. They keep software free and open for everyone to enable accountability. 

For example, Microsoft configured its Windows operating system to spy on its users. Had the Windows OS not been under the proprietary control of Microsoft, hacktivists could have gotten the software free of its spying services and instead released an altered, spying-free version of Windows for the sake of public good. 

We need online resources that are collaboratively developed and managed: a digital commons, such as Wikipedia, where non-exclusive information and knowledge resources are collectively created and owned by a community, and also freely available for others as it is free from corporate control and the drive for profit. 

In an article written for The Transnational Institute, Kwet illustrates that code was once freely and widely shared by programmers, but over time, software became increasingly privatised and subject to copyrights. In America, the Congress began strengthening software copyrights in the 1980s. Moreover, as the Free Software movement made its way to the South, it prompted a backlash on part of tech companies such as Microsoft. Microsoft intervened in Peru when its government attempted to shift away from its proprietary software. It also tried to derail African governments from using the GNU/Linux FOSS operating system in government ministries and schools.

FOSS licences are an alternative to this kind of privatisation, but FOSS alone is clearly not enough to protect public interest. In recent years, surveillance capitalism has enabled the centralisation of internet services, which remains outside of user control, to the point of no return. Platforms such as Facebook function as “information intermediaries” and act as middlemen between end users. Even when it comes to movement building work, SRK notes that the free square argument advanced by tech billionaires such as Elon Musk hardly holds true. They say, “All of us make so much of an effort to create content for our marches: we have pulled all the stops despite being volunteer-run formations that depend on donations. Even NGOs don’t do this level of work. However, the algorithms of these platforms are structured in such a way that hate is privileged over the progressive and feminist content we create. This is incredibly demoralising. They even have a monopoly over our creative material.”

Fahad Desmukh, a web developer and former journalist, proposes a socialist internet “in which the internet is a tool for common good rather than a vehicle for profit” – where our personal data is not treated as “currency to be traded with advertisers, and where services exist for the common good.” He thinks FOSS represents an ecosystem of software developer communities that have vociferously shunned the hegemony of surveillance capitalism. 

Fahad says that free software underlies the bulk of our information technology infrastructure, but there is little public awareness of what it is and its liberatory potential. “Instead, profit-making corporations are gradually coming up with ways to exploit or colonise free software for their own benefit. Very dystopian.”

So how can progressive movements in Pakistan benefit from FOSS? According to Fahad, the first obvious way is that movements – especially ones in the South – actually consider using free rather than proprietary software. “Free software doesn’t cost any money to buy and doesn’t become vulnerable if you don’t pay a licence fee to keep receiving security updates. The fact the source code of free software is open means that it can be audited by experts, unlike proprietary software where you have no choice but to trust the publisher that it will only do what they say it will.” Fahad elaborates that if people in progressive movements acquire these skills, they can improve and customise existing software to make it fit their particular environment, resistance and needs.

More importantly, Fahad thinks that organisers of progressive movements should study and learn from the development model of organising and producing in relatively decentralised and democratic structures. “The free software movement has developed both methods and the tools to facilitate decentralised production. While they are far from perfect, and methods used for software development can’t be blindly translated to other forms of production or community organising, I think there is much that we can learn and apply from the several organisational experiments that have happened in the free software movement.” 

We need an internet that allows us to be able to speak for ourselves and retain our personal and collective dignity; hence, a digital commons could very well be the epicentre of our hope. 

Conclusion

Injustice, marginalisation and discrimination are hard coded into all the social media platforms we use. We are all growing up in a digitally colonised world where we are being forced to passively learn and adapt to technologies and platforms we cannot improve or build upon, let alone survive in. Meanwhile, we all remain in the firm grip of capitalist Big Tech corporations that extract, sell and exploit our data for profit, while simultaneously putting many of us in harm’s way. 

The FOSS movement is a reminder of the fact that the technological groundwork has already been laid for an internet that does not hinge on stealing data or exploiting its users. It is now up to us, and our own moral and political willpower, to adopt those tools and services. It is crucial that we think critically about our usage of technology and how we can call the digital status quo into question. 

The digital autonomy and sovereignty of progressive movements is key for not only the enshrinement of human dignity but also for communities that depend on the internet as an alternative form of media dissemination. The dismantling of digital colonialism is key for broader anti-oppression struggles advocating for justice, equity, and an end to capitalism and authoritarianism. 

Zoya Rehman is a Special Projects Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a feminist researcher and organiser based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has been working on gender and legal issues from a multidisciplinary approach through her practice and research. Zoya is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship Award, and holds MA in Gender Studies and Law at SOAS, University of London.

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