“While colonialism in its formal sense might have been dismantled, the colonial state has not…The official apparatus might have been removed, but the political, economic, and cultural links established by colonial domination still remain with some alterations” [1]

The colonial system is one of economic and political domination of a population and the extraction of their resources [2]. Colonialism has taken many forms historically and, while traditional colonialism has ended, colonial forms of domination have survived in modern society [3].

One of these new forms is Digital Colonialism: Digital colonialism refers to the decentralised extraction and control of data of a place/people through different communication networks with or without the explicit consent from the citizens [4]. This new form of colonialism shows great similarities to former colonial structures, mainly that of settler colonialism, and is having a significant impact in the global south (The global south refers to areas outside of Europe and North America that are mostly low-income and culturally/politically marginalised) [5].

This essay will explore digital colonialism, its links/similarities to settler colonialism, its effects, and the ways in which it is impacting the global south through the use of a case study.

Digital colonialism and settler colonialism

In general, postcolonial theories conform to two forms of colonialism:

        1. External colonialism: This refers to the expropriation of indigenous resources to benefit the colonisers.

        2. Internal colonialism: This refers to the management of people, land, animals etc within the local/domestic borders of the imperial nation. This type of colonialism utilises specific methods of control, such as prisons and ghettos, to cement the position of the white elite and to structure the society in the image of the coloniser. This is achieved through segregation, surveillance, divestment, and criminalisation [6].

In contrast, settler colonialism occurs through both internal/external colonialism simultaneously and is constructed through a settler/native binary [7].  It can take the form of colonisers moving in large groups to subjugate indigenous populations and the creation of a racial hierarchy or can entail the taking over of native lands and the decimation and/or ghettoization of the indigenous inhabitants [8].

Settler colonialism does not emphasise imperial expansion involving the departure of the coloniser but, rather, focuses on the permanent occupation of the land, the removal of the indigenous peoples and the creation of a settler sovereignty over their new territory [9].

Settler colonialism makes and remakes the places it invades and are concurrently transformed by them [10]. Settler invasion, therefore, is ‘a structure and not an event’ [11].

Data colonialism

Data colonialism combines the historical colonial methods of extraction with the quantification of computing, working both externally (on a global scale) and internally (on local populations) with the elites of data colonialism, for example Facebook and Amazon, benefiting in both dimensions. Personal data, involving everyday social interactions, is treated as a natural resource, and is extracted and appropriated and subsequently translated into quantifiable data that is analysed and used to generate profit [12].

Data is pervasive in modern society and everyday practices and are produced through swipes and clicks, the providing of personal information and preferences, and through location data amongst other things. This data is then collected and stored by firms. This process of data capture isn’t colonial because it involves foreign powers subjugating and controlling indigenous populations but, rather, because it is characterised by digital subjects being dispossessed and alienated from the data they generate, which is then quantified and sold [13].

Because of the different relationships existing between humans, devices, and data, the exploration of colonialism in relation to the digital environment should be done in dialectal relation with the settler. This is because, during the settling process, the settler interacts with the territory and implements the physical presence of a colonial power in that location.

Correspondingly, digital colonialism entails the transfer of established social relations from one territory to another, changing the territory and its inhabitants (the digital settlers have considerably more power than their traditional counterparts over the new territories) [14].

An example of this is seen in India where India is the largest user of Facebook while only one Facebook data centre is located in Asia (Singapore) and the other fourteen being located in mainly North America and Europe. This has resulted in complaints of data/digital colonialism in India due to the disparity in the locations of the source and storage of the data [15]. Digital technologies are expanding human’s capacity to store, analyse and communicate information and, due to their growing ubiquity, are impacting/affecting more individuals and societies worldwide [16].

The foundation of digital colonialism is the design of the technology ecosystem with the intentions of profit and plunder: “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” [17]. As a result, tech companies have expanded their capabilities around the world and are extracting data and profit from users worldwide, concentrating power and resources into a few countries (mainly the USA and China) [17].

The effects of digital colonialism

For Fanon (1963) [18] colonisation reduces the colonised people to a collection of individuals that can be controlled. Similarly, digital colonialism reduces the colonised subjects into data that can be tracked and extracted for profit [13]. This creates several effects, some of which will be outlined in this section.


Big data refers to massive, complex data sets that are stored, analysed, and visualised for various uses [19]. Throughout the world, behavioural data is collected from individuals and entire populations, is turned into Big data, and is concentrated, analysed, and used for the surveillance of a small portion of the population. This leads to the rapid erosion of state sovereignty and democracy as the technology and artificial intelligence innovation of these monitoring systems are concentrated in a few countries [20].

Developed nations, in contrast to developing ones, have ownership and control of servers, data, intellectual resources, the patents and copyrights of these systems, and the substantial financial capital necessary to research, design and innovate new technologies and models. This results in developing nations, mostly in the global south, becoming easy locations to dominate by large tech companies [20].

For example, Australia engages in the surveillance of indigenous people by monitoring their internet use on public computers in “prescribed areas” and through the monitoring and regulation of welfare spending in Aboriginal communities through the “Basic Card” initiative that restricts the purchase of pre-determined restricted items such as alcohol and cigarettes. These measures, and many more, represent a concerted effort by the Australian government to regulate the behaviours of indigenous populations.

This example illustrates the continuation of settler colonial principles and practices, such as the extraction and dispossession of resources from indigenous populations for the benefit of a few [21]. Big data enables the perpetuation of biases and prejudices against certain individuals and groups and results in a double data colonialism/coloniality whereby data practices are targeted at people of colour leading to further discrimination. Their data is dispossessed and commodified and, in terms of marginalised populations, is further colonised and used against them [22].

The Digital Subaltern

The idea of the ‘subaltern’ has been studied by many academics and describes a figure that is characterised by externality (existing in the periphery) [23] and occupies a “relational position in a conceptualisation of power, a space without identity” [24]. Subalternity refers to a proletariat that have their voices excluded from the ruling class [25] and constitutes a position without identity, whereby social mobility denies the agency of these individuals [26].

With the rapid development and innovation of technology certain groups are excluded from the production of data and the use of technology [27]. This results in the creation of the ‘Digital Subaltern’, a group without consciousness about their exclusion. Due to their lack of social capital, the digital subaltern are unable to engage in discourse about their exclusion and are relegated to occupying the digital ‘periphery’.

The digital subaltern is very different to its previous iteration but, like their traditional counterpart, have no place in which to engage in discourse. They have no space where it is even possible to engage in dialogue as they lack access to the internet and, thus, have no ability to perceive what they are excluded from. This creates an isolated, digital underclass that is invisible online, unable to share the online space and is lacking the necessary knowledge/social capital to engage with the digital environment surrounding them [28].

Accumulation by dispossession

Accumulation by dispossession refers to the process whereby capitalist expansion is achieved through the privatization of social/public spaces and services for the profit of a few [29]. The term is an adaptation of Marx’s primitive accumulation which includes the commodification/privatisation of land, transformation of general property rights into private property rights, and the colonial/neo-colonial and imperial confiscation of assets among other things [30]. Primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession occur in a variety of ways and has been a continuously important phenomenon especially within the Global South [31].

The users of data aim to not only store and retrieve large amounts of data, but also to analyse and gain knowledge from them in order to expand and enhance decision making in the pursuit of profit. Big data, once produced, can be extracted and utilised to gain profit [27]. This process is intrinsically unbalanced in terms of power relations between users and data collectors (corporations) and results in accumulation by dispossession as the capitalist structure colonises previously noncommodified data.

Capitalism transforms data from a set of observations into a set of algorithmically linked data sets which quantify individuals and privatise the data into the hands of the creators of the technology. This leads to the alienation of the data from those that created it, and the transformation of this data into packages that can be bought and sold in the pursuit of profit [27].

Case studies

Digital colonialism is occurring throughout the world, but it has significant implications for the global south which has about 60% of its residents below the poverty line [32]. This section will explore Africa as a case study to illustrate examples of digital colonialism.

Early colonialism in Africa consisted of the exploitation of labour, extraction of natural resources and valuable raw materials, and the building of essential infrastructure for the importation and exporting of the dispossessed goods, such as railroads. Colonialism on the continent today, however, is digital and manifests in the form of communication infrastructures, such as social media platforms, that have the explicit goal of extracting, storing and analysing data to generate profit [4], which results in accumulation by dispossession [27].

Today, Africa’s digital environment/market is dominated by others, such as US tech giants, which are controlling the digital ecosystem and movement of data throughout the continent [33].

This new colonialism on the continent also leads to disproportionate surveillance of the local population. Within South Africa, for example, there is a proposed scheme to introduce laptops and various other technologies into public schools across the country that would give the poor black majority population access to these technologies. This program, however, would result in the introduction of US technological products into the classroom, enabling big data surveillance throughout the education system nationwide [34]. By integrating Big data technology into their society and everyday practices, South Africa will be giving the United States an enormous amount of power over their economy and would result in the generation of technological dependencies leading to the continuous extraction of resources [20].

Additionally, in Sub-Saharan Africa, digital technology is being used in the education systems to exploit the local populations and transform their identities to conform to the interests of the mainstream, perpetuating colonial ideals throughout the continent [35]. This results in the extraction of data and the transfer of westernised education to the masses and the resultant commodifying of both education and learners leading to new forms of digital (neo) colonialism [36]. This further illustrates the accumulation by dispossession generated by digital colonialism.


This essay explored digital colonialism, how it is linked to settler colonialism and outlined some of its effects in the global south looking specifically at Africa as a case study. The extraction, manipulation, and exploitation of data in the global south puts the freedom of people at risk and creates asymmetries of power between the producers and the extractors of data. Digital colonialism is a relatively new colonial system that is affecting the world, specifically the Global South, and will continue to evolve and expand with continued technological innovation. As technology continues to advance, the monopolising of data by a small number of multinational corporations in the Global North will also continue to increase and become more prevalent. There will, however, be resistance to this phenomenon as countries find new and innovative ways to battle this system. New methods to push back against this newly emergent colonial system will be developed, just as former colonial models were fought against and contested.

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