Technology Colonialism

Technology companies today are increasingly colonial in their actions. This can be seen in the veneer of sovereignty they seek to cultivate, how they work across borders, their use of dominant culture as a weapon, and the clear belief that “superior” technology is a suitable excuse for lawlessness, exploitation and even violence.

by Anjuan Simmons on September 18th, 2015

The Colonial Period spanned from the 16th Century to the period after World War II. It is often romanticized as a period of exploration and adventure when merchant ships laden with the spoils of exotic lands returned to European ports. However, the reality of colonialism was the exploitation, enslavement, and genocide of indigenous people, and the industrialization of global human trafficking.

The abuse and degradation that indigenous people suffered under colonialism and imperialism resulted in devastating consequences that persist to the present day. The real damage done is too great to simply be used as an analogy, but the pattern, ideology, mentality and operating practices of colonialism persist today across the globe… and in our industries.

Colonialism is now seen by many as a discredited form of rule, but technology companies today are increasingly colonial in their actions. This can be seen in the veneer of sovereignty they seek to cultivate, how they work across borders, their use of dominant culture as a weapon, and the clear belief that “superior” technology is a suitable excuse for lawlessness, exploitation and even violence.


Aerial view of Silicon Valley.

Photo CC-BY Patrick Nouhailler, filtered.

Technology companies are increasingly being treated like sovereign nations. A nation with sovereignty has a right to conduct its internal affairs without interference from other nations. A nation’s sovereignty is recognized when the borders, people, and central government of that nation are recognized by other nations, and one of the traits of a sovereign nation is the ability to have diplomatic relations with other sovereign nations.

We see tech companies and conglomerates as increasingly resembling sovereign nations in the diplomacy extended to them by actual sovereign nations. For example, last October Mark Zuckerberg gave an almost ambassadorial 30-minute interview entirely in Mandarin when he visited a university in Beijing. In December, Lei Wu, the top internet minister in China, met with Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos at their corporate offices. Wu’s trip was a recognition of the desire of technology companies to tap into the huge Chinese user base. Even the head of state for the country in which many tech giants are headquartered has sought audiences with their leaders. In February of this year, President Obama spoke at Stanford University about the importance of technology companies helping the US government fight cyber-attacks. However, despite being invited, Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, and Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, perhaps feeling their own imperial bona fides, decided to skip the president’s speech. Given their questionable interest in the privacy of their users, it’s ironic that these tech CEOs allegedly snubbed Obama over the federal government’s invasion of the privacy of its citizens.

When technology companies are feted by foreign ministers and also refuse an invitation from the leader of their own country of origin, they exhibit the characteristics of a group that wants to be treated as a peer to heads of state. Technology companies understand the power they wield in the global economy. In fact, Apple recently posted the most profitable quarter of any company in world history. While other sectors of the world economy like the energy industry also wield vast economic power, the technology industry is singular in the manner in which it can covertly collude between companies. Oil and gas companies have strict anti-trust laws that go back to the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911. Even today, regulators can detect when energy companies engage in price fixing, monopolization of assets, intimidation or other anticompetitive practices. This detection is often done by analyzing the accounting information that publicly traded companies are required to report.

While technology companies are required to report the same accounting information, they have the ability to do something unique. Technology companies, though legally organized as separate corporations, have the potential to covertly operate as a single sovereign entity because the technology products and services they create are increasingly dependent and interoperable with each other. Furthermore, the rise of cloud computing has decreased the importance of the branded platforms created by technology manufacturers. Google’s Gmail app works on its own line of Android tablets and phones, or the iPad and iPhone. Last November, Microsoft made the iOS and Android versions of its mobile Office suite free. There is a clear desire by many technology companies to create products that consumers can use regardless of the type of platform they have chosen.

This “platformless” approach to product development even extends to our homes and health. Eric Schmidt recently stated that “the internet will disappear,” meaning that it will become a seamless experience that makes the line between reality, technology and technology companies impossible to distinguish. Schmidt used the example of a person walking into a room and having that room configure itself based on that person’s individual preferences. Such a user would not know or care if the music service was provided by Apple, the temperature controlled by Google, or if social media information about the other people in the room was provided by Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. They would simply enjoy the presentation of the information and the system’s ability to meet their preferences.

While such a tailored experience may be desirable, it masks the centralization of extremely private information. An internet that has disappeared means that the companies who leverage it are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. The software that manages the experience becomes homogenous in nature and centralized in operation. This “Invisible Empire”, despite being made up of distinguishable public companies, becomes a tech collective operating as a sovereign entity that seeks to provide a unified user experience. Such an entity would be considerably difficult for our current antitrust laws to detect and regulate.

The propensity for technology companies to act on shared interest and goals can be seen in recent legal battles. Just last May several technology companies including Google, Adobe, Intel, and Apple settled a lawsuit alleging that the companies colluded to control hiring practices. This lawsuit was a civil case that emerged from a federal case in 2010 that was settled out of court. Evidence was presented that this conspiracy to control talent even reached the CEOs of technology giants in the form of emails between Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt. These emails showed that attempts to hire an employee away from another company in the collective would be a career-ending move by the person responsible. By colluding to remove employment options for their talent, these technology companies could limit the salaries demanded by their employees.

If technology companies, despite being separate public companies, are willing to essentially operate with one collective HR department, how hard is it to believe that they could centralize other business functions? After all, companies use centralization inside their corporate walls to remove inefficiencies and gain economies of scale. A centralized software development capability that reached across corporate walls would also provide business value. Technology companies already use a common culture that is homogenized across the technology community. A software engineer who does manage to move from a job at Google to one at Facebook will probably find herself in the same open working spaces, development tools, and after-work activities she experienced at her previous company.

The capability that technology companies have to operate as a single sovereign entity makes them a formidable colonial power. This grants them wide latitude in manipulating domestic and foreign heads of state. Combined with the ability to collude in ways that are nearly undetectable, the sovereign power of technology companies can cause disruption on a global scale unachievable by other industries.

A Global Footprint

Old globe.

Photo CC-BY Minnesota Historical Society, filtered.

Technology companies have customers in countries around the world. Facebook has over a billion active monthly users, and since it, like Google, is essentially an advertising company, gaining more users around the world is critical to the satisfaction of its investors. Spurred on by aggressive ideas like “software eats the world”, it’s clear that imperialistic global expansion is seen by technology companies as a world-wide war.

The fierceness of how technology companies desire to strengthen their international presence can be seen in how they come into conflict with sovereign nations. An example of this can be found in Google’s contentious relationship with China. After friction over search censorship in 2009 and 2010, Google moved its operations out of mainland China and then relocated to Hong Kong. Since then, China has blocked and unblocked Google services with the latest block of Google and Gmail occurring in December 2014.

Some may argue that the global success of American-based technology companies is beneficial since it results in international profits flowing to companies based in the United States. If companies like Google and Facebook are successful in deriving immense revenue streams through their operations around the world, then that means more wealth for the Silicon Valley communities in which they are based. In turn, these profits can be used to create more innovative products and services that benefit everyone. However, the centralization of economic power in Silicon Valley is also accompanied by the centralization of private user data from around the globe. Few things are more personal than what people communicate using email, post on social media sites, or put into search engines.

If Silicon Valley is allowed to become the central repository of information about people around the world, then there is a danger of setting up a form of imperialism based on personal data. Just as the royal powers of old reached far into the lives of distant colonized people, technology companies gain immense control with every terabyte of personal data they store and analyze. As services like Apple Pay seek to own global customer retail transactions, technology companies will gain even more insight into the lives of people around the world. While the need for such data will be rationalized as necessary for a better user experience like targeted advertisements, technology companies will doubtless find the resale value of personal data to be irresistible. Some insurance companies are already combing through social media accounts to price policies for customers. Recognizing the power of so much personal information collected in one place and possibly sold without consent explains why efforts are being made to improve privacy laws.

Design plan for a sea stead featuring houses, walkways, and pools.

Photo CC-BY Andras Gyorfi, filtered.

However, privacy laws are only enforceable within defined nation-state borders. While these efforts are hard to detect, there are hints that some technology companies may seek to exist outside of national borders entirely. For example, over the past few years a set of Google Barges began to appear on the western and eastern coasts of the United States. These were seafaring vessels that were made of welded-together shipping containers. While some described them as Google’s version of “floating Apple Stores”, no one could determine their true purpose. The local government officials that had a legal right to question Google about the barges before granting them the appropriate permits signed non-disclosure agreements. Toward the middle of last year, the barges were dismantled and sold as scrap.

Google has a history of beta testing experiments, and the Google Barges could have been an early attempt at sea-steading. Sea-steading is the attempt to create non-governmental entities outside of recognized borders and gain freedom from legal control. If technology companies could create sea-steads, then they could set up operations outside of legal restraints. Imagine a collection of barges anchored in international waters housing the servers of several technology companies. These floating data centers could be cooled by the ocean and connected to the internet by an undersea cable. Serving users around the world requires global placement of data centers, so a network of connected sea-steads could be constructed outside of national borders but geographically close to major metro areas. This would create an imperial nautical empire that could reach billions of users yet be unregulated by the nations in which those users reside.

Cultural Domination

Prism reflecting intersecting points of light.

Photo CC-BY Kelvinsong, filtered.

European colonizers justified oppression of indigenous people around the world with the belief that white men were superior to every other race, that they had a divine right to convert native people to their belief system and adhere to the social hierarchy of patriarchal rule.

This behavior is echoed in the elitist attitudes embedded in the technology industry and the white men who lead it. These white men found most of the companies in the sector and build entire business models on the personal data of marginalized people. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are predominantly used by women and minorities whose data and usage patterns are sold for profit. Yet, these groups are often blocked from working at technology companies or encounter abuse if they do manage to gain employment.

This idea of white male superiority is not limited to the upper ranks of technology companies. Technology culture cultivates the idea of “10x engineers,” legendary hackers who can accomplish feats of software engineering far beyond anything an average programmer could. Of course, the 10x engineers are rarely envisioned as women or people of color.

European colonialism was spurred by an interest in trade with foreign nations. This involved the exchange of materials and products between the colonial powers and foreign nations. However, there was one product that was always part of the transaction: the concept of white male superiority. Colonial powers always saw themselves as superiors over the native people whose culture was rarely recognized or respected. The colonizers saw economic value in these foreign relations, but it was always viewed as a transaction based on inequality. Technology companies continue this same philosophy in how they present their own products. These products are almost always designed by white men for a global audience with little understanding of the diverse interests of end users.

The imperialist and colonialist mindset has also resulted in abuse of immigration laws that regulate the filling of technology jobs. Multinational technology companies use L-1 visas to transfer foreign workers to positions in the United States. Unlike H1-B visas, there is no limit on the number of L-1 visas that can be issued, nor do companies have to pay market wages. Technology companies can use L-1 visas to import cheap technology talent into the United States, setting the stage for global worker exploitation.

Above the Law

Statue of Justice.

Photo CC-BY Lonpicman, filtered.

Although technology companies are scrutinized by government regulators and the media for compliance with the law, they largely operate unregulated. Unlike Oil and Gas companies, technology companies don’t have their emissions monitored. They don’t need permits to drill. Since the details of how technology products and services work is not understood by the general population, technology companies can exploit this ignorance to their advantage.

Government entities are further stymied in their ability to monitor and regulate technology companies because of their reliance on technology. A large portion of city, state, and federal government agencies run Microsoft Windows. This includes military systems and classified information. It is unclear how much pressure these government bodies can impose on companies like Microsoft when they are so dependent on the company’s products.

Technology companies understand the ignorance of the general public about how they work and how dependent agents of the law are on their products. This understanding often results in actions that violate laws simply because they stand in the way of a desired result. For example, Google Books was an attempt to scan millions of books into digital format. Google wanted to add this information to their search data set despite objections from authors whose copyright protections would be violated. After almost a decade of legal battle, Google prevailed in the courts who agreed with their fair use claims.

Google Books was a public move to violate copyright law, but what happens when technology companies violate laws in a covert manner? In February of this year, it was revealed that Lenovo violated the security and privacy of their customers by pre-installing an adware program called Superfish on their laptops. This program allowed remote access to the customers’ machines, potentially exposing them to identify theft and the loss of personal information. While Lenovo acted quickly to provide tools to remove Superfish, it had been in the wild since September 2014. So, for months customers were exposed to potential harm simply because Lenovo wanted the ad revenue.

Some technology companies flaunt their willingness to operate in violation of local laws. Transportation service company Uber has launched its service in cities even when it operates in violation of city ordinances. The company’s non-compliance with city ordinances ranges from Uber drivers not having the required driving permits in Orlando to refusing a request by California state regulators to provide information about their drivers. Uber’s skirting of the law extends globally to its battle with the European Commission about its operations in France.

Even when technology companies operate within the law, they can inflict damage at the local level. The tremendous wealth created by Silicon Valley technology companies has resulted in gentrification forcing out long time city residents. Over the past decade, developers and designers who flooded into the high-paying jobs offered by the Valley’s technology industry have caused evictions under the Ellis Act to skyrocket. Other areas of the country, seeing the harm that the arrival of technology companies can do to residents, view proposals for local tech campuses with fear and uncertainty.

The Need for Investigative Technology Journalism

Technology companies will continue to increase the impact of their colonial power on the world because it aligns with their competencies and culture. Technology companies are strongly positioned to gain more users of their products and services as they seek to enter global markets and skirt both national and local laws. Consumers have been willing to trade large measures of their privacy and security for the conveniences offered by technology. Immensely personal information is poured into Google search and posted on social networks despite the danger of having that information centralized and sold for profit. End user information is the lifeblood of most technology companies and many of them seek to wring every last drop from the world’s population.

The culture of the technology sector is one that fosters elitism and an appetite for world domination. Despite needing customers to survive, technology companies, especially large ones, often foster a culture of disdain for these same customers. Cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable have been particularly sloppy in letting this disdain come to public light. This February, a customer complained that Time Warner Cable changed her first name to “Cunt” in their system. Last summer, it was revealed Facebook performed massive experiments on the moods of its users by manipulating its news feed. These examples show a three level pyramid of how tech companies view the world: elites at the top who do what they will, minions in the middle who do their bidding, and the masses at the bottom who are mined for profits and data. This pyramid harkens back to the colonial view of the world: crown, conquerors, and captives.

Most of the abuse of the technology industry is discovered by technology professionals. The collusion over hiring by technology companies came to light after a class action lawsuit was filed by disgruntled technology workers. The Superfish virus that Lenovo pre-installed on users’ machines came to light after hackers posted screenshots of the fake web certificate. However, these revelations are reactive in nature, random in occurrence, and often take place after the damage has already been done. Consumers need proactive protection that monitors the actions of technology companies and prevents them from abusing their power, or blunts the results of their actions. The press is best positioned to play this role. However, the press has utterly failed in holding the colonial and imperialistic aspirations of technology companies in check.

Standard Oil was perhaps the canonical representation of a megacorporation in the United States. It exercised true monopolistic power through anti-competitive practices like price fixing and intimidation of competitors. One of the primary contributors to the downfall of Standard Oil was the work of investigative journalist Ida Tarbell. Factual examination of Standard Oil lead to the breakup of the company and even tarnished the reputation of John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest people of his time.

Technology journalism needs 21st century versions of Ida Tarbell. These are journalists who understand the complexities of technology, have the ability to translate that complexity into terms the general public can understand, and are not afraid to confront wealth and power. This type of investigative journalism is the best hope for protecting the world from the colonial technology collective.

This piece was originally published in Model View Culture 2015 Quarterly #1.