Tech Giants Trying to Use WTO to Colonize Emerging Economies

Yves here. Notice that Costa Rica is served up as an example in this article. Way back in 1997, American Express had designated Costa Rica as one of the countries it identified as sufficiently high income so as to be a target for a local currency card offered via a franchise agreement with a domestic institution (often but not always a bank). 20 years later, the Switzerland of Central America still has limited Internet connectivity, yet is precisely the sort of place that tech titans like Google would like to dominate.

The initiative described in this article reminds me of how the World Bank pushed hard for emerging economies to develop capital markets, for the greater good of America’s investment bankers.

By Burcu Kilic, an expert on legal, economic and political issues. Originally published at openDemocracy

Today, the big tech race is for data extractivism from those yet to be ‘connected’ in the world – tech companies will use all their power to achieve a global regime in which small nations cannot regulate either data extraction or localisation.

n a few weeks’ time, trade ministers from 164 countries will gather in Buenos Aires for the 11th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC11). US President Donald Trump in November issued fresh accusations of unfair treatment towards the US by WTO members, making it virtually impossible for trade ministers to leave the table with any agreement in substantial areas.

To avoid a ‘failure ministerial,” some countries see the solution as pushing governments to open a mandate to start conversations that might lead to a negotiation on binding rules for e-commerce and a declaration of the gathering as the “digital ministerial”. Argentina’s MC11 chair, Susana Malcorra, is actively pushing for member states to embrace e-commerce at the WTO, claiming that it is necessary to “bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots”.

It is not very clear what kind of gaps Malcorra is trying to bridge. It surely isn’t the “connectivity gap” or “digital divide” that is growing between developed and developing countries, seriously impeding digital learning and knowledge in developing countries. In fact, half of humanity is not even connected to the internet, let alone positioned to develop competitive markets or bargain at a multilateral level. Negotiating binding e-commerce rules at the WTO would only widen that gap.

Dangerously, the “South Vision” of digital trade in the global trade arena is being shaped by a recent alliance of governments and well-known tech-sector lobbyists, in a group called ‘Friends of E-Commerce for Development’ (FED), including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, and, most recently, China. FED claims that e-commerce is a tool to drive growth, narrow the digital divide, and generate digital solutions for developing and least developed countries.

However, none of the countries in the group (apart from China) is leading or even remotely ready to be in a position to negotiate and push for binding rules on digital trade that will be favorable to them, as their economies are still far away from the technology revolution. For instance, it is perplexing that one of the most fervent defenders of FED’s position is Costa Rica. The country’s economy is based on the export of bananas, coffee, tropical fruits, and low-tech medical instruments, and almost half of its population is offline. Most of the countries in FED are far from being powerful enough to shift negotiations in favor of small players.

U.S.-based tech giants and Chinese Alibaba – so-called GAFA-A – dominate, by far, the future of the digital playing field, including issues such as identification and digital payments, connectivity, and the next generation of logistics solutions. In fact, there is a no-holds-barred ongoing race among these tech giants to consolidate their market share in developing economies, from the race to grow the advertising market to the race to increase online payments.

An e-commerce agenda that claims unprecedented development for the Global South is a Trojan horse move. Beginning negotiations on such topics at this stage – before governments are prepared to understand what is at stake – could lead to devastating results, accelerating liberalization and the consolidation of the power of tech giants to the detriment of local industries, consumers, and citizens. Aware of the increased disparities between North and South, and the data dominance of a tiny group of GAFA-A companies, a group of African nations issued a statement opposing the digital ambitions of the host for MC11. But the political landscape is more complex, with China, the EU, and Russia now supporting the idea of a “digital” mandate.

Repeating the Same Mistakes?

The relationships of most countries with tech companies are as imbalanced as their relationships with Big Pharma, and there are many parallels to note. Not so long ago, the countries of the Global South faced Big Pharma power in pharmaceutical markets in a similar way. Some developing countries had the same enthusiasm when they negotiated intellectual property rules for the protection of innovation and research and development costs. In reality, those countries were nothing more than users and consumers of that innovation, not the owners or creators. The lessons of negotiating trade issues that lie at the core of public interest issues – in that case, access to medicines – were costly. Human lives and fundamental rights of those who use online services should not be forgotten when addressing the increasingly worrying and unequal relationships with tech power.

The threat before our eyes is similarly complex and equally harmful to the way our societies will be shaped in the coming years. In the past, the Big Pharma race was for patent exclusivity, to eliminate local generic production and keep drug prices high. Today, the Big Tech race is for data extractivism from those who have yet to be connected in the world, and tech companies will use all the power they hold to achieve a global regime in which small nations cannot regulate either data extraction or data localization.

Big Tech is one of the most concentrated and resourceful industries of all time. The bargaining power of developing countries is minimal. Developing countries will basically be granting the right to cultivate small parcels of a land controlled by data lords—under their rules, their mandate, and their will—with practically no public oversight. The stakes are high. At the core of it is the race to conquer the markets of digital payments and the battle to become the platform where data flows, splitting the territory as old empires did in the past. As the Economist claimed on May 6, 2017: “Conflicts over control of oil have scarred the world for decades. No one yet worries that wars will be fought over data. But the data economy has the same potential for confrontation.”

If countries from the Global South want to prepare for data wars, they should start thinking about how to reduce the control of Big Tech over—how we communicate, shop, and learn the news—, again, over our societies. The solution lies not in making rules for data liberalization, but in devising ways to use the law to reduce Big Tech’s power and protect consumers and citizens.  Finding the balance would take some time and we are going to take that time to find the right balance, we are not ready to lock the future yet.

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  1. Thuto

    One suspects big money will be thrown at this by the leading tech giants. To paraphrase from a comment I made recently regarding a similar topic : “with markets in the developed world pretty much sewn up by the tripartite tech overlords (google, fb and amazon), the next 3 billion users for their products/services are going to come from developing world”. With this dynamic in mind, and the “constant growth” mantra humming incessantly in the background, it’s easy to see how high stakes a game this is for the tech giants and how no resources will be spared to stymie any efforts at establishing a regulatory oversight framework that will protect the digital rights of citizens in the global south.

    Multilateral fora like the WTO are de facto enablers for the marauding frontal attacks of transnational corporations, and it’s disheartening to see that some developing nations have already nailed the digital futures of their citizens to the mast of the tech giants by joining this alliance. What’s more, this signing away of their liberty will be sold to the citizenry as the best way to usher them into the brightest of all digital futures.

    1. Mark P.

      One suspects big money will be thrown at this by the leading tech giants.

      Vast sums of money are already being thrown at bringing Africa online, for better or worse. Thus, the R&D aimed at providing wireless Internet via giant drones/balloons/satellites by Google, Facebook, etc.

      You’re African. Possibly South African by your user name, which may explain why you’re a little behind the curve, because the action is already happening, but more to the north — and particularly in East Africa.

      The big corporations — and the tech giants are competing with the banking/credit card giants — have noted how mobile technology leapt over the dearth of last century’s telephony tech, land lines, and in turn enabled the highest adoption rates of cellphone banking in the world. (Particularly in East Africa, as I say.) The payoffs for big corporations are massive — de facto cashless societies where the corporations control the payment systems –and the politicians are mostly cheap.

      In Nigeria, the government has launched a Mastercard-branded national ID card that’s also a payment card, in one swoop handing Mastercard more than 170 million potential customers, and their personal and biometric data.

      In Kenya, the sums transferred by mobile money operator M-Pesa are more than 25 percent of that country’s GDP.

      You can see that bringing Africa online is technically a big, decade-long project. But also that the potential payoffs are vast. Though I also suspect China may come out ahead — they’re investing far more in Africa and in some areas their technology — drones, for instance — is already superior to what the Europeans and the American companies have.

      1. Thuto

        Thank you Mark P.

        Hoisted from a comment I made here recently: “Here in South Africa and through its Free Basics programme, facebook is jumping into bed with unsuspecting ISPs (I say unsuspecting because fb will soon be muscling in on their territory and becoming an ISP itself by provisioning bandwidth directly from its floating satellites) and circumventing net neutrality…”

        I’m also keenly aware of the developments in Kenya re: safaricom and Mpesa and how that has led to traditional banking via bank accounts being largely leapfrogged for those moving from being unbanked to active economic citizens requiring money transfer facilities. Given the huge succes of Mpesa, I wouldn’t be surprised if a multinational tech behemoth (chinese or american) were to make a play for acquiring safaricom and positioning it as a triple-play ISP, money transfer/banking services and digital content provider (harvesting data about users habits on an unprecedented scale across multiple areas of their lives), first in Kenya then expanded throughout east, central and west africa. I must add that your statement about Nigeria puts Mark Zuckerberg’s visit there a few months back into context somewhat, perhaps a reconnaissance mission of sorts.

        Out of idle curiosity, how could you accurately deduce my country of origin from my name?

        1. Mark P.

          Out of idle curiosity, how could you accurately deduce my country of origin from my name?

          Though I’ve lived in California for decades, my mother was South African and I maintain a UK passport, having grown up in London.

    2. Mark P.

      As you also write: “with markets in the developed world pretty much sewn up by the tripartite tech overlords (google, fb and amazon), the next 3 billion users for their products/services are going to come from developing world.”

      Absolutely true. This cannot be stressed enough. The tech giants know this and the race is on.

  2. Cloudydays

    First time commenter. I wanted to throw some fuel into the fire. I have a friend that is very involved with the rocket industry. Does anyone remember the SpaceX rocket that exploded last year? Apparently, the rocket was carrying a $300-500 million dollar Facebook satellite that was meant to provide internet/Facebook service to the continent of Africa. My friend is an expert in the rocket industry. According to them, it is believed there was foul play involved with the explosion of the rocket. Elon Musk quickly eluded to this intially after the explosion and then he quickly changed the narrative. Colonialism has never disappeared but has only changed forms.

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