Colonising the Internet: A History of Encoded Inequalities

1970s computer sits on desk
"Zenith Z-19 Terminal" by ajmexico is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Historicising the Internet is crucial to understanding how systemic race, gender, and class inequalities, faced by minorities, have been encoded into its design as it developed from a global computer network, in the 1970s, to the modern digital platform era. The initial optimistic visions of the New Communalists regarding a liberating Internet has been increasingly exposed as ignorant (Lusoli & Turner, 2021) since the privileges and freedoms of white, affluent males merely translated from society to the Internet, reinforcing this power imbalance at the expense of minorities (Noble, 2018).

Structural inequality: How has it shaped the Internet?

Structural inequality occurs when minorities are disadvantaged, typically for the benefit of historically dominant societal groups, embedding power imbalances and prejudicial biases in institutions such as government and the economy (Noble, 2018). These institutions, perceived as truth sources, normalise racial, gender and class hierarchies stemming from the colonial myth of white, upper-class male supremacy (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). 

Monument of a man on a horse with the words dismantle white supremacy in white text
“Maryland Solidarity Brigade Projection – Dismantle White Supremacy on General Lee Statue in Richmond VA (Photos curtesy of Richmond DSA)” by Backbone Campaign is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite the New Communalists’ cyberutopian hopes of the computer as a technology of freedom (Kelty, 2014), the Internet’s development has been greatly shaped by structural inequalities as the issue was, and remains, to whom this freedom is offered, and at whose expense?

As Lusoli & Turner (2021) reveal, the Internet’s creators and initial users were largely white, middle to upper-class American men in academic communities from which women, people of colour and the lower classes were often excluded. This cultural homogeneity meant that the views of this group have been encoded into the Internet’s design as minorities lacked the privilege of access and voice.

As Internet culture developed from the early techno-meritocratic scientific cultures, through to the virtual communitarians and the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley (Castells, 2002), the unifying thread has been a highly problematic ‘bro-culture’ (Lusoli & Turner, 2021) which encodes gender, racial and class inequalities of capitalist hierarchies into the design and business model of the Internet, essentially colonising this ‘terra nullius’ with the same unequally distributed freedoms of society (Kelty, 2014).

Silicon Valley ‘Bro-Culture’ by Business Insider. Source: YouTube –

But the Internet isn’t entirely evil…

Indeed, the Internet’s sharing capabilities, tied to open-source movements (Castells, 2002) can help reduce structural inequalities through the decentralisation and mass dissemination of information in this networked information economy (Benkler, 2006). Freedom of speech (Kelty, 2014) and lower barriers to online participation also enables counterspeech to destabilise hate speech (Napoli, 2018).

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center (2020), from 2018-2020, the percentage of users who changed their views on social issues due to social media increased from 15% to 23%.

Online activism across the past decade has significantly facilitated this shift, with 52% crediting the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement. BLM gained momentum following mass online circulation of George Floyd’s murder by police. In garnering widespread support, BLM has raised awareness of systemic racism through social media, encouraging legal action against the perpetrators of police brutality.

BLM Instagram Post reading 8 Years Strong
Black Lives Matter movement commemorates eight years of activism. Source: Instagram –

…it’s the actors behind the screen…

With even World Wide Web inventor, Tim Berners-Lee (2020), calling for structural changes to the Internet, these instances of social progress are the exception, not the rule, ultimately masking the harassment, misinformation and profit-driven oppression rife across Internet platforms.

and the architectures they design

Welcome to the Internet by Bo Burnham. Source: YouTube – 

Behind the screen, profit-driven platform business models dominate the modern Internet (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020), whereby search engines and social media platforms, namely Google and Facebook, collect and aggregate user data to psychographically profile them, selling targeted advertising spots with unprecedented accuracy (Flew, 2019).  

As Noble (2018) reveals, the algorithms that drive content dissemination and prioritisation spread racial and gender biases encoded in and amplified by their artificial intelligence, primarily aiming to satisfy white males who supposedly possess the greatest purchasing power. This reinforces structural inequalities as the perceived neutrality of algorithms problematically conflates bias with fact, granting sexism and racism undue credibility. This is a product of Silicon Valley’s ‘bro-culture’ where a lack of diversity representation, particularly in leadership roles, means design reinforces societal patterns of advantage and disadvantage (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). 

Google Search autocomplete reveals sexism
Replicating Noble’s (2018) study of Google autocomplete and PageRank in 2021, search enquiries continue to promote discrimination, with female subservience espoused in this instance. Source: Olivia Di Costanzo

Filter bubbles: When tailored content becomes a trap

Users have become increasingly “less rational and more dogmatic” (Flew, 2019, p.95), trapped in ‘filter bubbles’ which reinforce their beliefs (Napoli, 2018) to maintain their commoditised attention (Pesce, 2017). Engagement metrics also cause them to associate positive engagement with truth, increasing vulnerability to misinformation through low-credibility content circulated by like-minded individuals (Mihai et al., 2020). 

Bubbles illuminated by red light
“Thought Bubbles” by Michael Taggart Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As such, algorithmic and confirmation bias problematise the democratic function of free speech online (Kelty, 2014) as the marketplace of ideas is increasingly fragmented and shaped by platform companies (Pesce, 2017), corrupted by neoliberal economic priorities (Popiel, 2018, p.580). 

To function efficiently, algorithms also oversimplify identity, endowing data points, like gender and race, excessive value which promotes stereotyping that ultimately increases structural inequalities (Gerrard & Thornham, 2020). In fact, exposure to sexist stereotypes on Twitter has been shown to deteriorate perceptions of female job candidates, fuelling workplace discrimination (Fox et al., 2015).

Flexible labour and the sharing economy myth

The flexibility of labour, a legacy of the virtual communitarian’s misplaced idealism regarding Internet freedoms (Kelty, 2014), can be attributed to their disconnection from the working class, pushing these individuals to the bottom of capitalist social hierarchies, and to the edge in terms of safety and wellbeing (Lusoli & Turner, 2021). Today, multi-sided markets on platforms (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020) promote precarity disguised as flexible labour (Roberts, 2019) as sharing cultures promoted in the open-source software movement (Castells, 2002) are colonised to economically advantage tech companies at the expense of disenfranchised workers (Nicholas, 2016).

In these exploitative labour arrangements, predominantly non-white, female and economically disadvantaged people, are engaged in precarious work which disproportionately exposes them to harm, thereby reinforcing structural inequalities. In this way, platforms such as Facebook routinely exploit minorities in a manner akin to the slavery practices of colonial history, for instance, through content moderation, whereby contract workers are regularly exposed to horrific and traumatising content with little psychological support or adequate remuneration (Gillespie, 2017). 

“We see Facebook almost as a kind of new British East India Company, sending its tentacles out.” (Lusoli & Turner, 2021, p.241).

Toy car labelled Amazon Flex is pushed off the edge by a lamborghini
Platform companies push marginalised gig-workers even further to the edge. Amazon Flex drivers are pushed to the edge © 2021 by Olivia Di Costanzo is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

Similarly, the sharing economy, through platforms like Uber and Amazon Flex see these socially and economically marginalised individuals engaging in gig-work that endangers their safety and wellbeing, highlighting the sharing economy as a convenient facade for exploitation (Roberts, 2019). In a recent exposé, ABC News (McGrath, Smiley & Chalmers, 2021) reveals the fear and uncertainty Amazon Flex drivers experience regarding their terms of employment and pay with the delivery platform.

Food delivery drivers, contracted by platforms like Uber Eats, also face high risks of injury and death, with little insurance or renumeration (Begley, 2021), particularly evidenced during the COVID-19 lockdown in Sydney, Australia, where they lacked the workers’ rights held by other frontline workers, forcing them to work unprotected, health and policy-wise (Razik, 2021). 

Sharing economy myths also mask exploitation of minorities’ intellectual property, manifesting on TikTok, where white influencers, such as Addison Rae, attain fame from the choreography of Black creators, often not crediting them.

Addison Rae Jimmy Eight TikTok Dances by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Source: YouTube –

Black influencer, Ziggy Tyler, has also exposed how TikTok’s content moderation algorithm prevents creators from identifying as ‘Black’, ultimately reinforcing structural inequalities that prevent non-white individuals from gaining economic advantage. 

Twitter Post by Ziggi Tyler. Source: Twitter –

Drawing the line

Taking into account the cycle of court hearings and ‘apology tours’ over the past decade, it is clear that platform companies use their significant lobbying and market power to avoid punishment by the government and legal system (Popiel, 2018), despite an onslaught of whistleblowers exposing their manipulative and exploitative activities. This raises the issue of whether structural inequalities will truly be addressed whilst they remain profitable, “subsum[ing] the public interests under corporate priorities” (p.566).

facebook testify zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for the platform’s downfalls, but where is the change? “facebook testify zuckerberg” by stockcatalog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As the Internet continues to transform, this also raises concerns about the implications of algorithmic bias, labour precarity and inadequate regulation in future technologies like augmented reality whereby the ‘real’ and virtual world are increasingly enmeshed (Pesce, 2017). Will blockchain technology be the salve required, or will hierarchical inequalities find their way into the new technologies? Given the track record, the latter is more likely, even if to a lesser extent.

Hence, platforms cannot continue evading their social responsibility (Flew, 2019) as their editorial decisions (Gillespie, 2017) and corrupt business models (Mansell & Steinmueller, 2020) ultimately increase structural racial, gender and class inequalities for profit (Noble, 2018). However, regulation alone is not sufficient, because unless the underlying ‘bro-culture’ of Silicon Valley (Lusoli & Turner, 2021) is addressed, structural inequality will continue to be subconsciously and deliberately encoded into the Internet, and thus society, regardless of progressions in technology or law.

Creative Commons License

Colonising the Internet: A History of Encoded Inequalities by Olivia Di Costanzo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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About Olivia Di Costanzo 2 Articles
Hi, I'm Olivia! I'm a Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney. When I'm not reading, you'll likely find me looking for new books.