A paper by Mozilla Awardee Esther Mwema and Mozilla Senior Advisor Dr. Abeba Birhane highlights the extractive nature of Alphabet’s Equiano and Meta’s 2Africa undersea cables

(ZAMBIA & ETHIOPIA | APRIL 15, 2024) — From monopolizing infrastructure, to appropriating local language, to following the same historical routes of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Meta and Alphabet’s underseas cable projects are using colonialist tactics to exploit Africa on a massive scale according to a new paper by Mozilla Awardee Esther Mwema and Senior Advisor Dr. Abeba Birhane.

The paper, titled “Undersea Cables in Africa: The new frontiers of digital colonialism,” highlights how these projects, while often framed as acts of innovation and altruism, in reality constitute a new form of digital colonialism — one that allows private Western companies to exploit African markets and monopolize African internet infrastructure. Indeed, these projects allow Meta and Alphabet to own the infrastructure that carries up to 95 percent of Africa’s internet traffic.

Unpacking the details of Alphabet’s Equiano and Meta’s 2Africa cables, the paper draws trenchant parallels between these projects and the extractive colonization of Africa over the past centuries. The paper builds on “Afro-Grids,” a Mozilla Creative Media Award project by Mwema that interrogates big tech ownership of internet infrastructure and digital colonialism.

Says Dr. Abeba Birhane: “Internet infrastructure is critical in shaping societies and the future — and in the case of Africa, this infrastructure is built and owned by Western private corporations. The manner in which big tech corporations have controlled and monopolized it, with little transparency or participation from African stakeholders, replicates colonial tactics and has left Africans at the mercy of Western tech giants. These cables constitute a new frontier of digital colonialism.”

Says Esther Mwema: “It’s essential for Africans to interrogate the relationship between big tech and internet infrastructure, and examine the role it plays in the continent’s digital divide. It’s also essential for Africans to control their technological destiny: The African continent, in its diversity and complexities, can exercise a lot of power or control over what happens in digital governance.”

The paper lays out several issues with the undersea cable projects. For example, the Equiano cable’s name is co-opted from the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano — all while following the historical routes of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dr. Birhane also reveals that the projects’ goals were developed with no participation from or consultation with indigenous communities, reproducing long-standing colonial patterns.

The paper provides seven recommendations for how to bring increased connectivity to the African continent in an equitable, participatory fashion. Recommendations include the symbolic, like renaming the Equiano cable, and also the more technical, like making these projects more transparent and granting African states regulatory authority over the cables.

Esther Mwema is an award-winning artist and digital inequalities expert focused on Internet governance, digital rights and digital transformation. She has over a decade of social impact at both the high level and grassroots, such as at the UN and as founder of Digital Grassroots. She is an Open Internet leader who prioritises African feminist and decolonial practices. Mwema is also a Mozilla Creative Media Awardee.

Dr. Abeba Birhane is a cognitive scientist researching human behavior, social systems, and responsible and ethical artificial intelligence (AI). Her interdisciplinary research explores various broad themes in cognitive science, AI, complexity science, and theories of decoloniality. Dr. Birhane is also Mozilla Senior Advisor on AI Accountability.