Dennis Nguyen & Rhied Al-Othmani
The dominance that data-driven technology companies hold over large parts of the global digital economy and across digital societies has been a key topic in critical data studies for over a decade (van Dijck & Poell, 2013; Moore & Tambini, 2018; van Dijck et al., 2018). In the Western hemisphere, a handful of companies subsumed under the umbrella term ‘Big Tech’ are considered the driving forces behind the digital transformation, most notably Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. Their reach is vast within and across societies: vertically, they occupy a growing number of different routines in their users’ lives that expand considerably beyond their original areas of operation. Horizontally, while anchored in the USA, they operate on a global scale. They are among the most powerful companies worldwide that carry considerable economic and political weight. Few non-Western companies can contest this growing dominance, with the notable exception of Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Huawei, Weibo, or Tencent. These also have clear ambitions to increase their influence across the globe (Cave et al., 2019).
The expansion of Big Tech, both in its Western and Eastern variants, has been described as a new form of data colonialism (Couldy & Meijas, 2019; Thatcher et al., 2016): the subjugation, subjectification, and eventual domination (and creation) of users and global markets. What is new about this technology-driven form of colonialism is that it appears to negatively affect both affluent and developing countries. However, people in the global South are still more vulnerable to Big Tech’s invasion of ever more dimensions of social, economic, cultural, and political life (Mandianou, 2020; Kwet, 2016). The exact impact of exploitative data- and business practices depends on the context in which Big Tech attempts to establish its dominating position. What the world is experiencing is a new form of economic domination by companies that are under constant pressure to scale and that strive to cement their hegemonic control over the societal domains that they consider lucrative to enter. The rise of Big Tech is a complex, multidimensional process that concerns technological innovation, aggressive business policies, and control over the inevitable material components of digital products and services (e.g., data servers, hardware factories, raw materials). Tech companies challenge each other in fierce competition in all these areas but also enter occasional alliances. Just like colonial powers of the past, they expand their domains into dominions with shifting borders to their influence. The question is how exactly they attain their wealth and power through their global strategies. At the end of the day, it boils down to concrete acquisitions, building supply chains, and the calculated invasion of diverse sectors that allow tech companies to thrive.
Research Interest and Methods
There is a rich body of literature on theorising the dynamics behind the platformisation processes that shape so much of the global digital stack (Bratton, 2015). Especially research from the emerging field of critical data studies explores how datafication and mediatisation as tools of domination have harmful effects on users in diverse contexts (cf. van Dijk et al., 2021; Smyrnaios, 2018; Zuboff, 2019). However, fewer of these studies take an empirical approach that deploys computational methods for describing these transformations (Flensburg & Lomborg, 2021) on a global scale.
This is the research gap that the present study tries to narrow: it aims to trace back the development of tech companies from single domain operators (e.g., online retail, information services) to data-driven dominions that establish and control vast digital media ecologies. To this end, computational methods are used to collect relevant data from different web sources and to visualise the evolution of Big Tech’s expansion over the past 20 years. The main research questions are 1) How did Big Tech companies grow over time in scope and diversity? and 2) Can we reconstruct the exact moments at which they expanded their vertical and horizontal colonisation of users and economically valuable spaces? The overall goal of the study is to reconstruct the history of multidimensional Big Tech colonialism through empirical analysis. First, it maps out mergers and acquisitions to illustrate how tech companies expanded into diverse societal sectors and industries (e.g., education, health, entertainment, commerce). Second, it charts when and how Big Tech companies entered new foreign markets (but also when they abandoned them). Third, it retraces the establishment of data centres/server farms, internet cables, and other material infrastructures that Big Tech companies rely on. Fourth, it takes stock of Big Tech’s humanitarian and development projects worldwide.
The study has two goals: 1) to write a history of Big Tech colonialism with the help of empirical methods. This history told with data visualizations illustrates how the division of the world between tech companies is the outcome of complex and border-transgressing processes of domination. 2) By taking this holistic view on tech/data colonialism, the paper shows that the colonising project of Big Tech advances at multiple fronts. This calls for equally multifaceted forms of resistance that ideally unites different societal stakeholders who have an interest in contesting Big Tech’s global encroachment (i.e., citizens, regulators, NGOs, small businesses). In this way, the paper combines computational methods with critical data studies for formulating critique on contemporary Big Tech colonialism from a diverse empirical basis.
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Photo: Andrew Stutesman @drewmark