Why the Global South should nationalise its data

Big Tech corporations are extracting data from users across the world without paying for it. It is time to change that.

Facebook data
Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India, December 30, 2015 [File: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui]

The recent coup in Bolivia reminds us that poor countries rich in resources continue to be plagued by the legacy of colonialism. Anything that stands in the way of a foreign corporation’s ability to extract cheap resources must be removed.

Today, apart from minerals and fossil fuels, corporations are after another precious resource: Personal data. As with natural resources, data too has become the target of extractive corporate practices.

As sociologist Nick Couldry and I argue in our book, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, there is a new form of colonialism emerging in the world: data colonialism. By this, we mean a new resource-grab whereby human life itself has become a direct input into economic production in the form of extracted data.

We acknowledge that this term is controversial, given the extreme physical violence and structures of racism that historical colonialism employed. However, our point is not to say that data colonialism is the same as historical colonialism, but rather to suggest that it shares the same core function: extraction, exploitation, and dispossession.

Like classical colonialism, data colonialism violently reconfigures human relations to economic production. Things like land, water, and other natural resources were valued by native people in the precolonial era, but not in the same way that colonisers (and later, capitalists) came to value them: as private property. Likewise, we are experiencing a situation in which things that were once primarily outside the economic realm – things like our most intimate social interactions with friends and family, or our medical records – have now been commodified and made part of an economic cycle of data extraction that benefits a few corporations.

So what could countries in the Global South do to avoid the dangers of data colonialism?

One option is to follow proposals from the likes of computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier and US presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who have suggested that individuals should be paid for their data. But this neoliberal attempt to try to solve the problem at the level of the individual can dilute the value of the accumulated resources. After all, is said and done, if we work at the level of the individual (or even at the level of collectives, platforms or unions that collect money on behalf of individuals) payments to users would be rather small.

Instead, it makes much more sense for countries to take advantage of their scale and take the bold step to declare data a national resource, nationalise it, and demand that companies like Facebook and Google pay for using this resource so its exploitation primarily benefits the citizens of that country.

Let’s take Mexico as an example. According to the latest available statistics, in 2018 Facebook had 54.6 million users in that country. Since each of Facebook’s global users generates about $25 of profit per year, this makes about $1.4bn in annual profit for the company from the Mexican market alone. Suppose Mexico nationalised its data and demanded to keep a substantial portion of that. And suppose similar arrangements were enforced on Google, Amazon, TikTok, etc.

With billions of dollars collected from the nationalisation of data, the Mexican government could do a lot in the areas of healthcare, education, or the migration crisis.

Of course, any attempts to nationalise the data produced by the Global South would probably be met with fierce opposition. Mexico nationalised its oil resources in 1938, a move by President Lazaro Cardenas (considered a national hero) that infuriated foreign companies. This prompted an immediate boycott by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other nations that was only suspended because of World War II.

An even more extreme example is that of democratically-elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, who threatened to nationalise the telecommunications industry (owned and operated by the International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation) among other things. Before he could do that, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of his government.

Even Evo Morales, who experimented with investor-friendly forms of nationalisation that benefitted Bolivia’s poor while keeping foreign investors moderately happy, has now been forced out of office by his own military. It did not help that Morales embarked on a controversial move to amend the constitution to allow him to run for president after having served the allowed two terms.

But in any event, neoliberals in Bolivia and the US are celebrating what some see as a development in the fight for the future of mineral resources like lithium and indium, which are crucial to the production of electronic devices.

Even if those governments that decide to nationalise data survive the expected backlash, nationalisation in itself will not resolve the root of the problem – normalising and legitimising the extraction of data already under way.

Nationalisation would allow this to continue, and as such is a limited response to the larger problem. That is why any attempt to nationalise data must have as its long-term goal the disentanglement of the Global South’s economy from this new form of colonialism.

The reclaimed wealth could be used to develop public and private national infrastructures that could provide less invasive and exploitative versions of services than those offered by big tech companies from China and the West. It seems difficult to envision alternatives to the ones provided by these major corporations, but there are already technological models that the Global South could adopt to provide services that respect people’s privacy and do not exploit their human desire to connect. We have the blueprint to create an Internet for the South, and the wealth recuperated through the nationalisation of data can help us build it collectively.

To avoid corruption and mismanagement, civil society should be directly involved in the oversight and decision-making of how to use this wealth, including being able to block certain applications and uses of citizens’ data by foreign companies. It is, after all, their data, and the public should have a direct say on how the wealth generated from it should be used.

If nothing else, nationalising data would help to dismantle the narratives that allow the extraction of data to continue uncontested and unchallenged, under the premise that it is a kind of progress that benefits us all equally.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.