[Preliminary Thoughts] Platform Governance's neo-colonialism ?
or there is a systemic asymmetry of power and a loss of ability for self-determination in the countries of the Global South vis-à-vis tech platforms
This is a short article that comes as a fast-follow from (1) my previous research currently in press for Nuevas Voces de Política Exterior and (2) the Platform Governance Research Network Conference (@PlatGov on Twitter) discussions on diversity.
Dependence theories and neo-colonialism: where economics meets knowledge
Teoría de la dependencia (dependency theory), in the mid 1960s, represented a critical effort to understand the limitations of economic development initiated during a historical period where the world's economy was dominated by the hegemony of large economic groups. In this scenario, Latin American scholars came up with an alternative understanding of the economic inequalities seen across regions in the world. In short, they indicated that there were economic “centres” that dominate the economy and that in order to continue to be on top they required the countries in the “periphery” (e.g. the global south) to be subject to a power dynamic that forced them into being kept underdeveloped (see works by Raul Prebisch, Anibal Quijano, Theotonio Dos Santos and more). The idea that some countries are “dependent” on others for their economic development or position within the economic network gives the theory its name.
These novel ways to understand economic realities, that drew theoretically from dialectic methods and from a marxist understanding of the world, have been contested and criticized for different reasons (see Solorza and Cetre 2011: 135-137 for some of them). However, I'm not here to assess the merits of the theory in terms of its explanatory power or its economic fit. Rather, I believe that the phenomenon of dependency once studied by these Latin American scholars is happening in Tech Platform behavior and governance. Moreover, I believe this situation displays characteristics that could be seen as a form of neo-colonialism.
I show arguments in two sections: (1) asymmetries in the production of Platform Governance knowledge and access; (2) the behavior of Tech Platforms syphons power away from the periphery and their acts might be characterized as neo-colonial given the power dynamics that they exhibit.
Production of Platform Governance knowledge
Taking from the points above, according to Catherine Walsh “knowledge functions like the economy: it is organized through centres of power and subordinate regions – the centres of economic capital are also the centres of intellectual capital. Therefore, and still, intellectual production in Latin America has little weight in the world.” (Walsh 2005: 43)
As per our discussions at the Platform Governance Network Conference, researchers and organizers are very much aware of the need for increased thought and geographical diversity. However, I want to put forward a (little) more robust framework of the two-fold hegemonic nature of the current situation: (a) on the one hand, there is an obvious concentration of knowledge centers and funding (yes, people from the Global South also tend to be underrepresented in PhD programs); (b) and on the other the issues that matter to global governance (e.g. Trump's de-platform, new laws – GDPR, etc.) that affect platforms in a substantial way tend to happen in the power centres (e.g. USA, EU).
These two factors leave researchers and practitioners from the Global South pretty much offside. First, because we are at an economic disadvantage (one researcher mentioned that most of his colleagues had issues accessing paid academic papers legally). Second, because we are at an epistemic disadvantage where (1) we are not experts in the context where decisions are being made and (2) inclusion of “peripheral” views into policy development or governance discussions is insufficient at best.
This issue, however, is only compounded by epistemic domination: as per Polo (2016), for example, eurocentrism imposes a distorting sense that forces the dominated to see themselves with the eyes of the dominator, blocking and covering all possible autonomous historical and cultural perspectives. (Pag. 14) This effect is clear when we look at the discussions happening in several countries of Latin America that tend to look up to the European model for data privacy or to the US for freedom of expression. Because of these power dynamics a sui generis solution seems further away from reality than a bad copy of foreign legislation.
Why the problem of Platform behavior might be characterized as neo-colonial
More fundamentally, I have argued in a previous article (currently in press), that there's an issue with the ability for countries in the 'periphery' to fully self-determine vis-à-vis platform behavior/governance. In short, countries of the Global South are subject to powers outside of their direct control, for example: (1) global Community Standards that regulate speech; (2) the regulatory landscape in the platform's country of origin or their relevant jurisdictions.
On the one hand, for example Terms of Service like Social Media's global Community Standards tend to not be consider local definitions of freedom of speech. In this regard, they might apply more astringent or more lax rules to speech, placing the burden of proof and persecution on the users – who in peripheral countries don't have the same access to robust justice systems (like the EU) and are, therefore, left to their own devices.
On the other, legislative analysis by Platforms tends to be designed in such a way that ensures minimum compliance with local regulations as pointed out by Zuboff (2019). However, and as compliant they might be to be able to operate locally, countries in the periphery are subject to definitions of data privacy or even “terrorist organizations” by countries like the USA or states like California. These definitions permeate the global behavior of platforms, leaving little to no space for countries in the periphery to protest if they don't agree. A similar situation arose with the creation of the Oversight Board – an institution that might contribute to the continuous syphoning of power away from democratically elected institutions and regulations.
A third issue is the potential “ethnification” (Wallerstein and Balibar 1999) of labor in Content Moderation issues. For example, engineering teams at platforms are among the highest educated, less diverse groups. For example within Facebook Black and Hispanic people represent <5% in technical roles and females compose 24% of the overall in the same roles according to FB's diversity report for 2020. The truth is that the most diverse teams occupy spaces in the Trust & Safety / Operations organizations. Positions from where they are supposed to help technical teams (who are very much agnostic) wrestle with cultural context and language expertise. Research presented at the Platform Governance Network Conference shows that these teams often lose the political battle for resources and have trouble prioritizing their proposed changes when competing priorities arise. Sadly, this means that we might already live in a world where people in the industry have tacitly started treating those teams as the “insert ethnicity here” with the domination dynamics that such characterization brings. Diversity in content moderation is definitely brought faster to certain spaces – because of the nature of those teams – that are “lower in the power hierarchy” (including outsourcing) which perpetuates the sense of peripheral work and domination.
Given this scenario, I have been starting to think that we should argue that given the nature of Platforms and their issues, we might witnessing a version of “colonialidad del poder” (“coloniality” of power). (Sousa Santos: 2010, Walsh 2005). Most of all, I think that looking at Platform Governance issues from the perspective of systemic power dynamics might render interesting points of view that will challenge current systems to disrupt some of these potentially perverse power dynamics.
These are some of my unfinished, unpolished, unedited thoughts on a topic that could probably fit a book. I'm placing them out there to invite other folks to continue to contribute to this space. I hope that if we're a big enough group we can make a difference by pushing alternative views on Platform Governance. My future work will continue to touch and explore in further depth the framework presented and several of the themes outlined.
Looking at these issues from a larger, more structural position might render interesting results for countries of the Global South. Some practical ideas that might arise, I think, relate to countries banding together to push for common positions vis-à-vis governance issues. Creating new legislative blocks, etc. Definitely, further research is required on these topics to achieve the right recommendations.
Ideally, I don't want to look or make the Global South countries come at this problem from a position of being dominated or weak. There's definitely space for us to do loads in regards to balancing platforms' global reach and power with countries' self-determination (all the while avoiding the balkanization of the internet!). This is not an easy equilibrium to achieve but I believe that we are attending to some interesting developments like the Australian law requiring platforms to conform to a different type of market, which might prove to be a small step in that direction.
On a final note, I believe that the Platform Governance Network will help bring a diverse set of people together, opening spaces and resources to them. However, it should have strict diversity goals to make sure that we are leveling the playing-field correctly. Also, scholars from countries in the “centre” might find it useful to continue to incorporate some of these “peripheral visions” into their research (maybe, in some ways, I'm also borrowing from the the “Two Level Game Logic” framework outlined by Putnam in 1988).
See you in the next adventure,
Facebook (2020) “Diversity Report”
Putnam, Robert D. (1988) “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games”. International Organization. 42 (3): 427–460. doi:10.1017/S0020818300027697. ISSN 1531-5088
Polo, Jorge (2016) “Teoría de la dependencia y colonialidad del poder. Dos ángulos de una misma dominación” Revista San Gregorio, No.11, Vol.1 , Jan-Jun, (6-17), ISSN 1390-7247
Solorza, M.; Cetré, M.; (2011) “Teoría de la dependencia”, Revista Republicana, No. 10, Enero – Junio de 2011, pp. 127-139
Sousa Santos, B. (2010). “Descolonizar el saber, reinventar el poder”. Montevideo: Trilce.
Wallerstein, I.; Balibar, E. (1991) “Raza, nación y clase” Madrid: IEPALA
Walsh, Catherine (2005) “Interculturalidad, conocimientos y decolonialidad”, Signo y Pensamiento, vol. XXIV, núm. 46, enero-junio, pp. 39-50 Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia
Zuboff, Shoshana (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books. 2019.