An Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, Germany.  (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • Intellectual property laws ensured that developed world maintained its technological head start over the rest of the world. Data protection laws may be used to similar effect.

Technology has always been a powerful tool of colonisation. During its occupation of the Indian subcontinent, the British knew that Indian textile craftsmen could produce fabric of quality so superlative that it was simply impossible for the mills in Manchester to replicate them. In order to secure a commercial advantage, the British destroyed centuries-old handloom tradition, reducing the world’s leading producer of fine fabric to a mere supplier of raw materials.

You can also read this article in Hindi- वास्तविकता में उपनिवेशवाद 2.0- डाटा संरक्षण कानून

But this was not the only weapon that the colonial elite used. At the same time that the British destroyed technologies that challenged their dominance, they rolled out rules and regulations throughout their domain that ensured their continued control over technologies they had introduced into the territories. Foremost among these were intellectual property laws.

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The notion that products of the mind can be tradable commodities is a uniquely European concept that was unknown to the world before the early 1700s. Despite that, thanks to the breadth of the British Empire, this idea spread to every nook and cranny of the modern world in just two centuries.

The primary objective of the colonial administration was to safeguard its commercial interests. Widespread diffusion of technologies like the printing press was a threat to their dominion. To address this concern they used various statutory devices to extend their control. Early copyright laws stated that literary works would not receive statutory protection unless they were first published in the United Kingdom and copies delivered to public libraries within a month of publication.

It was impossible for publishers in the far-flung outposts of the British Empire to comply with this stipulation, and so authors in the colonies ended up with no rights over their works. This was why book markets, during colonial times, were exclusively controlled by European publishers — so much so that long after Independence, those companies continued to dominate book production in developing countries.

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Thanks to this colonial approach to copyright, the world today follows a singularly Western model of intellectual property protection in which ‘original works’ have to be owned by an ‘author’ to reward creativity and incentivise innovation. This is why, other forms of collaborative creation that indigenous cultures have followed for centuries, have fallen by the wayside — often resulting in the extinguishment of art forms and cultural traditions that are incapable of fulfilling these individual-centric requirements.

As much as colonisation is viewed in terms of the annexation of territory through military control, it is the legal frameworks that it forced onto the rest of the world that have had a far more lasting impact.

Today, colonisation seems far removed from the reality of our global polity. If anything, nation states seem to be pulling further apart from each other than ever before. Our leaders seem hell-bent on driving a nationalist agenda that, rather than building concord across continents, is ensuring greater separation. Yet, despite all this discord and division, we are undergoing a new and more insidious form of colonisation than we have ever witnessed before.

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Once again, technology is playing a central role.

The Internet is not limited by national boundaries. As a result, when technology companies offer to provide goods and services to their customers, they can do so around the globe without having to establish local operations in all the countries that they serve. Today, the largest tech corporations have more customers outside of their home jurisdiction than within.

Their service offerings are so ubiquitous that they touch every aspect of our lives — so much so that for many of us, it has become impossible to function without them. Tech companies exert control over a greater percentage of the global population than any single national government can ever hope to. Their strategic decisions and operational policies affect people across geographical boundaries in ways that no international consensus between nations can hope to replicate. This is how modern colonisation looks like.

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We’ve already begun to feel the impact of this technological annexation. Nation-states have realised that they have little control over the platforms on which their citizens interact. Law enforcement agencies are unable, try as they might, to access messages transmitted over popular messaging apps, and local governments are finding themselves incapable of curtailing the dissemination of hate speech over social media networks.

The very infrastructure on which the modern world functions seems to be under the control of a few corporations who are answerable only, if at all, to the governments of the countries in which they are incorporated.

However, unlike in the past when the colonies had no option but to comply with their colonial masters, nations of today have begun to resist. Many, including India, have started to enact laws that require corporations to set up operations in-country and establish local data centres, within which they are obliged to store the data that they collect from local residents. Tech companies, out of respect for local legal requirements have, for the most part, offered to co-operate with these requests.

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That said, as we have learned before, the real impact of colonisation is visible in the laws that we pass. With the growth of data technologies there has been an increase in data regulation. Over the past two decades, countries around the world have enacted various data protection laws that require entities that deal with data to only do so with the consent of the person from whom it is being collected.

Most corporations have interpreted this in the broadest possible sense securing consent for such a wide range of activities that whatever purpose they may later choose to use the data for, is covered by the consent they collected at the start. Thanks to this approach, many of the technologies we now take for granted have been able to develop to their current state.

Take for instance, image recognition. In order for algorithms to identify what an image represents, they have to be trained on a large number of annotated images so that they can discover the patterns they can use to identify the features in a given image.

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Annotated datasets are hard to find and, had it not been for the social media platforms on which we consented to store vast amounts of personal images duly tagged with names, we might never have been able to accumulate the training datasets that these algorithms needed. This is true of many other technologies we now take for granted, including natural language processing, voice recognition and semantic search.

That said, it cannot be disputed that a laissez faire attitude to consent has led to a number of harmful consequences. Organisations like Cambridge Analytica have exploited the personal data collected for indeterminate purposes to build accurate behavioural profiles about users for political targeting.

In response to this, Europe has developed a new and far more stringent data protection law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that came into force earlier this year. GDPR requires corporations that collect and deal with data to follow a more prescriptive and rigorous approach to the traditional notice and consent framework strictly limiting the purposes to which data once collected can be put. It imposes steep penalties that, if enforced aggressively, will ensure that companies who fail to comply will suffer significant liability.

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As a regulation, GDPR has been designed to spread virally. Organisations that do business with the European Union have to ensure that their operations comply with the requirements of the new European law. It helps if their country in which they are incorporated has enacted adequate privacy laws. Countries around the world are, as a consequence, finding themselves compelled to enact laws similar in form and substance to the GDPR.

For organisations that have, over the past two decades, benefitted from the relatively loose regulations around personal data, it will hardly matter if they are now required to take a more strict approach to the collection of personal data. Most of them already have the customer base they need from which they can continue to collect personal data to feed their hungry machine learning algorithms.

New data business, on the other hand, will struggle to get access to the training datasets they need to develop their artificial intelligence algorithms. This is the true nature of modern colonisation.

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It is not the technological annexation of global customer databases by corporate giants that we need to worry about. That can be easily dealt with using regulations that compel them to comply with the domestic requirements. What is far more dangerous are regulations such as the GDPR that force the developing world to comply with higher standards of data protection at the early stages of the development of their data industry than the developed world had to follow while they were building out theirs.

Just as intellectual property laws ensured that the developed world maintained its technological head start over the rest of the world, I fear that data protection laws will be used to similar effect.

It is not too late to take appropriate evasive action.

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