Law in the Internet Society

Hacking the Parasite: Why Rebuilding the Net Needs to Start in the Developing World

-- By CharlesRice - DRAFT 2


Radical social evolution through non-hierarchical free exchange of information was the goal of many of the net’s pioneers. A few decades later, the “internet” primarily functions as a behavior collection (surveillance) system deployed by states and corporations. With 4.66 billion people (59% of global population) the Parasite with the Mind of God already touches most people on earth. Unchecked, it will become a tool to perfect autocracy, reinforce harmful economic structures, and degrade thought in the entire human population.

A peculiar feature of the pernicious political economy emerging around the net is that it designed, refined, and reinforced by free and privileged OECD countries. With the growing ability to monetize the collection of user data, Western democracies exported their model in search of new users. The developing world—home to most of the 3.2 billion people without internet access today— will be the final battlefield for influencing this transformation. This presents both challenges and opportunities.

In some regards, developing countries are uniquely vulnerable to the parasitic net. China no longer fits neatly within the developing country label, but “The Great Firewall” is arguably the world’s ultimate digital tool of repression. This outcome offers stark warning on the risks posed by the expansion of the net in developing markets. Fortunately, the goal is not to defeat the Parasite in all 135 countries the World Bank classifies as “developing”—more battles will be lost— but to win over their center of mass.

Conditions: Growing Populations and Economies Driving Technical Demand

The global center of mass in terms of population, economic activity, and (to some degree) technical innovation is shifting away from western OECD countries and towards the developing world. Developing countries accounted for 40 percent of global GDP in 2000; by 2010 the share was nearly 50 percent and it is projected to reach nearly 60 percent by 2030. Similarly, developing countries have contributed 90 percent of the global population growth over the last 30 years (total increase of 2.5 billion people). While much of this has been driven by China and India, in particular, Africa figures to be the largest center of economic and population growth in coming decades.

One result of this explosive growth is that developing countries have a huge appetite for internet technologies. Emerging economies are seeking both technical solutions to practical problems and broader integration into the global innovation/technology economy. At the collective level, the UN recognized the need for an internet empowered “data revolution” to achieve its 2030 development agenda. At the individual level, developing countries are seeking to leverage net-driven “leapfrog technologies” to transform their approaches to a diverse range of challenges including infrastructure and disaster management, agriculture, public health, and access to finance. As of 2016, nearly half of all lower and middle-income countries released national science, technology, and innovation (STI) strategies.

It’s important to acknowledge that “developing countries” are deeply heterogeneous along economic, geographic, and political vectors. Their diversity is an asset because it enables experimentation. As they seek to meet their needs, developing countries have demonstrated a willingness to pursue arrangements of politics, law, and technology that don’t conform to previous models. This kind of thinking is desperately needed; the previous model of the net is the Parasite. There's also at least one good reason to hope this change will be positive-- polling shows high levels of popular support for internet freedom in developing countries, especially among young people.

Defensive and Offensive Imperatives

The first imperative for targeting developing countries as a starting point for a broader shift in the metabolism of the net and society is defensive. As a general proposition, developing countries are put under unique stress when managing extractive resources. User data collection clearly falls within the extractive resource label.

This vulnerability is exacerbated when the developing country is negotiating against sophisticated counterparts. Global technology companies are often able to impose terms—and resulting political economic structures—that are deeply harmful to their host countries. The ultimate risk is that absent efforts to control the evolution of the net in the areas where it had been most recently introduced (and has the largest margin to grow) it will become a tool of suppression and control.

The second imperative for targeting developing countries is offensive. They represent the largest opportunity in terms of scale and suffer from the least path dependency in terms of the current metabolic equilibrium between the net and society. While it is true that there are tech-hubs in the developing world— India, Kenya, and Brazil to name a few— the basic reality is that internet penetration is far deep in advanced economies (80 percent of the population) than in developing countries (30% of the population). Relatively speaking, developing countries offer untilled ground for the expansion of the net.

At best, the ongoing process of internet penetration in developing countries could serve as test lab for introducing and validating new approaches to combatting the Parasite. If any of these ideas take hold, the massive (and ongoing) economic and population growth in developing countries can help catalyze broader systemic transformation.


The expansion of the net into the developing world has led to the creation of systems designed to empower authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. Conversely, it has also spurred experimentation with technologies and political economic structures (including non-hierarchical ones) that offer a path away from the parasite with the mind of god. Resisting the first trend and amplifying the second is a big step in the right direction.

Modes of transmitting knowledge are the fundamental mechanisms of power. At its worst, the net is the ultimate tool for expanding the architecture of power—the means by which the few control the many. To combat this, we need to start where the many live and the few have yet to establish their structures of control.

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r6 - 24 Dec 2020 - 02:19:36 - CharlesRice
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