Undersea cables in Africa: The new frontiers of digital colonialism

Authors

  • Esther Mwema
  • Abeba Birhane

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v29i4.13637

Abstract

The Internet has become the backbone of the social fabric. The United Nations Human Rights Council declared access to the Internet a fundamental human right over a decade ago. Yet, Africa remains the region with the widest Digital Divide where most of the population is either sparsely connected or has no access to the Internet. This has in turn created a race amongst Western big tech corporations scrambling to “bridge the Digital Divide”. Although the Internet is often portrayed as something that resides in the “cloud”, it heavily depends on physical infrastructure, including undersea cables. In this paper, we examine how current undersea cable projects and Internet infrastructure, owned, controlled, and managed by private Western big tech corporation, often using the “bridging the Digital Divide” rhetoric, not only replicates colonial logic but also follows the same infrastructural path laid during the trans-Atlantic slave trade era. Despite its significant impact on the continent’s digital infrastructure, we find publicly available information is scarce and undersea cable projects are carried out with no oversight and little transparency. We review historical evolution of the Internet, and detail and track the development of undersea cables in Africa, and illustrate its tight connection with colonial legacies. We provide an in-depth analysis of two current major undersea cable undertakings across the continent: Google’s Equiano and Meta’s 2Africa. Using Google and Meta’s undersea cables as case studies, we illustrate how these projects follow colonial logic, create a new cost model that keep African nations under perpetual debt, and serve as infrastructure for mass data harvesting while bringing little benefit to the Global South. We conclude with actionable recommendations for and demands from big tech corporations, regulatory bodies, and governments across the African continent.

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Published

2024-04-14

How to Cite

Mwema, E., & Birhane, A. (2024). Undersea cables in Africa: The new frontiers of digital colonialism. First Monday, 29(4). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v29i4.13637