CC BY Ka Schmitz based on N. Rahman (2022), Graphic - Lone Thomasky
Author Nayyara Rahman
research perspective

From Digital Cannibalism To A New Food Pyramid

How Can Realistic Accountability Frameworks Change Big Tech’s Relationship with Startups in the Global South?

When Pakistan was named the world’s fourth-largest exporter of freelance technology services in 2019, local stakeholders rejoiced. It was seen as a triumph and a validation of the quality of Pakistan’s technology talent (The News International, 2019). Yet most, if not all, of these exports were only made possible with Big Tech (BT) products – ranging from shared server space, to operating systems, ‹free› email, and more. Many of these exports qualify as ‹low tech› or ‹support skills› in the tech-ecosystem. The very nature of these technology exports, sold as gigs on free-lancing platforms or as structured output from BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) houses translates into high-volume, low-priced skills: Lowest bidders win, and buyers benefit from la-bour-price arbitrage. Countries with weak local currencies will remain attractive technology trade destinations for BT buyers in the Global North. Furthermore, since 2019, the skills in ques-tion have been on the path to at least some automation (Thompson, 2022). But, has enough been done to address the imminent displacement (Holzer, 2022) automation will cause? What is BT’s role in all this? Is it just an intermediary in this seemingly short-term, cannibalistic exchange?

The impact of big tech on the global south

The role of Big Tech in the Global South Startup (GSS)’s tech ecosystems extends beyond intermediary participation. The currency-labour-cost-arbitrage makes GSSs attractive for BT, which can buy support services such as telemarketing, etc. Theoretically, this cooperation provides an attractive bridge for technology transfer, local jobs, and much more. However, there are considerable downsides in the collaboration: Big Tech is a seller, buyer, influencer, and driver. Its current role not only threatens to widen the North-South gap but also to deepen socio-economic fissures. If extrapolated unchecked, fair use of technology may become limited to a small club of moneyed, well-informed users and builders, and something that is paid for and built on data


Big Tech is a seller, buyer,

influencer, and driver.

Its current role not only threatens

to widen the North-South gap

but also to deepen

socio-economic fissures.


and resources of the excluded global majority (Amnesty International, 2021). Club membership will be like a pyramid scheme where, to gain access, each stratum tolerates data exploitation, poorly designed products, and experience. BT’s privacy abuses and concerns about its role in commercial surveillance (Amnesty International, 2021; Ovide, 2021), unapologetic neglect (Stecklow et al., 2023), and a ‹Not In My Backyard› data management approach in the Global North (Ashford, 2013) raise additional questions about how it abets censorship and uses personal data in the Global South (Biddle, 2022; Pham, 2022). More damagingly, non-representative governments collaborate with BT to push self-serving agendas at the expense of citizens (Janjua, 2018). Thereby, BT’s irreverent attitude (Stewart, 2018) towards regulators as purchasable (Lorenz and Harwell, 2022), technologically irrelevant obstacles to innovation is often copied in the Global South. Its insensitivity towards social priorities (Ho and Farthing, 2021), financial misdemeanours in taxation, shareholder wealth, and monopoly-seeking behaviour (Neate, 2021) also set unhealthy precedents for GSSs, where local entrepreneurs also influence public policy to further anti-competitive practices (Tirmizi, 2020), short-termism (Mangi and Zhang, 2023), and financial mismanagement (Nadeem, 2022).

A guide to restructuring relationships

Nevertheless, the role of BT is not entirely negative and the GSSs are not just victims of a hegemonic system. With some basic principles, the relationship between BT and GSS can be restructured in a way that does not increase the North-South divide and contributes to a healthier technology ecosystem of GSSs.

1. start by fixing what’s actually broken: addressing technology exclusion

As of 2021, 2.9 billion people had no internet access, almost 96% of whom were in developing countries (ITU, 2021). Now add non-native digital users, mostly ageing populations (Smith, 2014; Kebede et al., 2022), monolingual and low-literacy populations (A4AI, 2022), and those who live in territories with non-representative governments (Shahbaz et al., 2022). These communities are influenced and used by technology, e.g., in gigs for collecting data for large language models, but do not receive its fair benefits. GSSs have a better understanding of these problems thanks to a territorial and cultural intimacy. Their understanding of the language, design, and experience that resonates with local users, especially in vulnerable groups, is powerful. For instance, nearly 50% of Pakistan’s population cannot read English, limiting its socio-political participation. Here, Pakistan’s Citizen’s Portal offers a rare success story: Within two years it enrolled 4 million citizens, and of the 4.933 million complaints registered on the portal, 4.821 million have actually been resolved (PMDU, nd), mainly by making the portal bilingual and simplifying enrolment. This success shows that GSSs are better placed than BT to mirror socio-economic shifts in evolving product journeys and user experience. And given their local immersion, their approach, even towards problems such as censorship and internet shutdown, is pragmatic (Nadeem, 2020). However, GSS clusters are organised around what will be funded (and by whom) rather than what is needed. When Venture Capital funding runs out, so does the focus on building ‹fairer› products (Geall, 2014). Innovation takes top-down dictation in product development from investors, who are not always focused on how to make a lasting user experience for those who cannot pay or those who need to cross a hardware/technological/digital literacy bridge to become users in the first place. Furthermore, in the Global South, efforts to build awareness on digital civil rights usually focuses on those who already have access to technological resources and who are probably multilingual urban residents (Digital Rights Foundation, 2023).

2. focus on building market width. depth will follow

The market for creating said bridges is as big as the figures above indicate. Such bridges have been proven to enable fairer economic participation. Many GSSs are already active in widening the market with EdTech and FemTech (Kpilaakaa, 2022). But how to make them scalable? One way is to replace their positioning from grant-dependent ‹CSR/good-tohave initiatives› to time-bound, BT-partnered ‹self-sustaining solutions›. The recipients are, then, reconfigured from passive beneficiaries of charity to active participants and co-creators accountable for ‹trickling down› digital benefits to their communities via advocacy and capacity enhancement (see, e.g., Grameen Foundation). It may also help to team up with BT to further popularise Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) initiatives (e.g., Microsoft/GitHub1).


The Microsoft FOSS Fund provides a direct way for Microsoft engineers to participate in the nomination and selection process to help communities and projects they are passionate about.

Its emergent talent may be a valuable addition to the ‹traditional› tech-space in more ways than one (Thankachan and Moore, 2017; UNCTAD, 2003).

3. de-growth and decentralization as tools for more efficient markets

BT has come under fire for irresponsibly ‹dumping› digital waste and ‹amassing› data. Both problems appear to have a common root: BT sees infinite ownership, production, and control rather than management as the way towards long-term profitability.


BT and GSSs can create

a new tech-ecosystem actor

responsible for redesigning

the entire value.


But let’s explore the opposite route with de-growth: De-growth cuts down on unsustainable value chains. And here, BT and GSSs can create a new tech-ecosystem actor responsible for redesigning the entire value chain in terms of recyclability, reusability, and responsible consumption. For example, in Pakistan, acquiring any government-issued document takes weeks and multiple visits to crowded government offices. One would expect that issuance of COVID-19 immunisation cards would follow suit. But the government collaborated with micro-businesses, authorising them as eSahulat participants. These eSahulat franchises accessed the national database to instantly print certificates on demand (Tanveer, 2022) while also improving accessibility, lowering pressure on public resources, and maintaining data integrity and privacy.

4. circulatory participatory regulation

Generally, the Global South has been slow to join the Responsible Tech movement. Of the 75 countries analysed in the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Policy’s Artificial Intelligence and Democratic Values Index 2022, Tiers 1 and 2 had no countries from South Asia or Africa (CAIDP, 2022). Given the local dearth of representative institutions, sufficient techno-legal talent (Anderson, 2023), and poor regulatory enforcement (Deutsch, 2022), GSSs have little incentive to deploy resources towards protecting digital civil rights. (Ghosh, 2021); it is treated as an afterthought. This treatment may be interpreted as part of a general attitude of mistrust towards legal processes, borne of witnessing acts of impunity by the socio-political elite and the state (Express Tribune, 2022). But what if we changed the role and composition of the regulator? Can formulating, debating, and implementing technology laws become a participatory process? A multi-stakeholder regulator with government, GSS, BT, and civil society actors equitably represented would go a long way towards diluting hegemonic control, paying intellectual property its dues, overcoming exclusionary factors, mitigating displacement (Mickle, 2022), and enforcing mutual accountability. Yet, it is important to pre-emptively prevent stakeholder cartelisation. This collaboration must be built on the following value-checklist: Simplicity, Time-bound Mandates, Outcome Over Solutionism, and Translatability Over Scalability.

To paraphrase Peter Drucker: we cannot predict the future. But we can see what’s visible and not yet seen (Forbes, 1997). For those ready to co-create it, a collaborative, equitable, inclusive tech future is already there.

About the authors

  • Nayyara Rahman is a technology management professional focused on ethics and process efficiency. She was the recipient of the ITU ‹Program Envoy› Award in 2022 and has been active in research, policy design and governance of Technology.


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