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Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism: Implications for Africa tech policy (2)

Free rein

With advocacy and activism by probably Zuboff and others, and certainly in light of recent privacy scandals and increased realisation of the huge power big tech increasingly wields, however, it would not be farfetched to reckon surveillance platforms are already planning ahead to ensure they would continue to have free rein. That is, even as America and the West in general, though increasingly tightening the noose around the activities of big tech, still remain largely accommodative.

Still, it does not require a stroke of genius to know that there would likely be increasingly less room for surveillance capitalism to continue in its current form in the West, as awareness about their privacy breaches and likely even more egregious violations become writ large. So if you are an African, and armed with Zuboff’s robust exposition on the unarguably unscrupulous practices of surveillance platforms, you would be excused if you wondered that the increasing interest in Africa by big tech chief executives might not be unconnected to a search by them for virgin or more relaxed regulatory jurisdictions. If that is indeed the case, what should African governments do?

I think a balance would need to be struck. Because judging from Zuboff’s assertions alone, it would probably take a great deal of effort, even by the most advanced regulatory jurisdictions, to rein in the surveillance practices of big tech. But are the potential gains in jobs, technology transfer and so on, significant enough for Africans to make the trade-off? It is probably too late for that kind of sanctimony. Many Africans and almost all others have already signed out their privacy rights for the social benefits – if you choose to see it as such – of social media and the broader internet.

If Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others offer us Africans free internet, should we then reason that because we worry about our privacy, we should decline the offer? Surely not. But an awareness or knowledge of the trade-off would certainly put African governments in a better position to leverage surveillance platforms for better deals for sure. How so? Knowing that Google, Facebook and other surveillance platforms are not offering free internet to all Africans via satellite and other means out of the goodness of their hearts, African governments could with greater confidence make more robust demands, like greater investments, insistence on technology transfer, etc., that would make the trade-off not entirely seem like a rip-off.

Pay us for our data

Zuboff scoffs at the commoditisation refrain of how the “users [of surveillance platforms] receive no fee for the raw materials they provide.” Her thesis is that what the platforms take away from individuals is far more valuable and priceless to be reduced to a fee. But is this something we should care about as Africans? We lost out on industrial capitalism; not that we really had much of a choice in the matter back then. Now, in the current internet age, however, we do have relatively more say.

So, should we allow sanctimony about privacy and human rights by Zuboff and others stop us from extracting as much gains as possible from information capitalism? The question has a striking resemblance to how Africa is now expected to be conscious of climate change, the negative aftermath of industrial capitalism, the gains of which Africa largely missed out on.

To be clear, Zuboff’s arguments resonate with me a great deal as much as that about climate change. But for us Africans, the choice is not so simple. Because unlike westerners, who are in relative comfort and are probably motivated by a desire to maintain the ease they currently enjoy for much longer, we Africans are still struggling to come out of the doldrums.

In any case, since there are probably not much African governments can do to make surveillance platforms change their ways, we could as well ask that they pay us for the raw material – our data in this case – we provide. And considering the ever-increasing noise on the merits and demerits of a universal basic income, isn’t there a chance to do so for the poorest of the world from the humongous revenues of surveillance capitalists? I think there is an opportunity here for Africa’s poor. African governments should seize it.

Rafiq Raji


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