Further Reflection on Decolonizing and Deconstructing Digital Technologies
What’s the North Star?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a fundamental change in the way we live, work, and relate to one another. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by technology advances that are commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolutions, and which are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that create both promise and peril. The speed, breadth, and depth of this revolution is forcing us to rethink how countries should develop, how organizations create value, and even what it means to be human; it is an opportunity to help everyone, including leaders, policy-makers and people from all income groups and nations, to harness technologies in order to create an inclusive, human-centred future.
As lives become increasingly digital, citizens have increasing opportunities to mobilise and have a voice through on and offline platforms: to challenge norms or hold decision makers to account. Emerging market users are connecting with expanding work opportunities in new ways as apps connect taxi drivers to customers or domestic workers to employers.
There are significant risks, however, as access to digital tools is distributed unevenly, and although many can get access to digital services if they want to, the intersectional vulnerabilities people are exposed to in the real world around gender, religion etc. are further exacerbated in the digital world.
Mobile chat applications like WhatsApp and social media platforms like Twitter have created tremendous opportunities for people to cooperate, and for businesses to promote themselves. But they have also atomized societies, and made entire communities vulnerable to political manipulation. A need to manage the resulting impact will likely be an enduring policy challenge for decision-makers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings with it opportunities to challenge and change existing assumptions behind policies, cultures, and values. The technology developments driving this industrial era can be designed in ways that either bolster inclusion of the traditionally underrepresented, or exclude vast swathes of the population and amplify existing problems. While sharing economy services ranging from ride-hailing to home repair have outmanoeuvred regulators by leveraging technology, and transformed many thousands of unemployed or under-employed people into small-scale entrepreneurs, this model has also displaced regulated, relatively well-paid and secure jobs in transportation and other sectors.
An ability to look beneath the surface of attractive statistics like productivity increases, or increased values for investor portfolios, is therefore a key leadership trait. Leaders must try to assess how it is that major technological advances are shaping societies in less-than-obvious ways, creating potential long-term problems with inequality, driving new or increased consumer needs, producing market inefficiencies, and feeding on policy gaps - in order to help uncover the new and disruptive ideas that can positively shape economies, societies, and governments. One way to encourage people to reconsider values that feed inequality, and to foster a wider, systemic impact is to build a more inclusive global economy. In its World Economic Outlook report published in late 2018, the International Monetary Fund cited rising inequality is among the most prominent obstacles for global economic growth. Low-income countries in particular require greater investment in physical infrastructure, and an enabling environment for competition and trade, according to the report. A willingness on the part of both private sector and public sector leaders to engage with actors who have differing views on these issues is critical in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which demands careful, consensus-based responses to best shape governance in a way that takes diverse values into account.
An Internet almost solely consisting of Facebook, WhatsApp and limited global social platforms has constraints to developed countries and there are systemic restrictions on use, resulting in an unlevel playing field for who benefits or who has a voice. Rights in the “platform economy” are at risk as flexibility, good governance and fair pay are not upheld, with recent studies showing wages in work through digital platforms going down as competition increases demand for low paying jobs.
As much as the digital revolution has the potential to alleviate poverty and build equality, digital technology is exacerbating income inequality and forging divisions within societies. What technology is developed and adopted by whom, for what, is likely to shape economic in/equalities and social/political power in decades to come.
Presently there is a moral and ethical vacuum within our digital world that civil society organisations need to draw on their experiences and mission to fill. There needs to be deep reflection and thought on civil society (INGO) roles working in the space of human rights, access and inequality in enabling digital citizens to benefit equitably in the digital age.
To understand where they are best placed, they would need to carry out and base their analysis on the types of poverty in the digital age which require intersectional (including gender) scrutiny to understand different spectrums of inclusion and opportunity. Considering social inclusion, while many actors in this space focus on infrastructure and connectivity, relatively fewer organisations specialise in how digital platforms are used and the way in which agency and confidence affects who is visible in digital spaces, often mirroring the dynamics in society. From an economic perspective, there is a poverty in terms of who can utilise digital workplaces to enhance their incomes, however there is a huge gap in considering how rights are codified in these new opportunities to access fair and dignified work.
To become an ethical, trusted digital NGO, firstly organisations need to start with themselves. They can only have a legitimate voice if they can ensure they are upholding rights in the digital interactions they have, upholding privacy by design and ensuring they do not contribute to harm. This has dependencies on Information Services and data protection investments for solid foundations. There must also be consideration in influencing roles in the fast paced policy and regulatory landscape, which has the power to empower as well as oppress.
Digital transformation is pushing organisations to re-evaluate their models, and new, technology innovation-driven market entrants are transforming the strategic landscape. Dramatic levels of disruption in industries and sectors in recent years highlight susceptibility. How CSOs and INGOs respond to digital disruption is an existential question; successful digital transformations are rare. In 2018, more than $1.2 trillion was projected to be spent by companies on digital transformation efforts, according to Our Shared Digital Future, a report published by the World Economic Forum in 2018, and only 1% of these efforts will actually achieve their goals. In addition, as much as 70% of new value created over a ten-year period is likely to be based on data-driven, digitally-enabled networks and platforms. With most digital assets in the hands of the private sector, it is the behaviour of the global institutional community including INGOs that will shape the new digital social contract that is poised to emerge.
According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey conducted in 28 countries, public trust in the technology sector declined slightly compared with the prior year. In a supplementary report published by Edelman, the public relations firm noted that trust in technology among the “informed public” actually fell sharply in regions including the US, Hong Kong, and France; according to the supplementary report, a fear of fake news being used as a weapon was on the minds of seven in 10 respondents, and trust in newer, emerging technologies such as blockchain and self-driving cars commanded less public confidence than more established technologies. In addition to privacy and security concerns, there are broader ethical questions about the ways that organizations have used digital technology in a way that threatens to erode trust in institutions. There are also concerns about the effects of new digital technologies on the environment, related to power-hungry data centres, electronic waste, and the significant amounts of energy needed to power blockchain. Establishing new norms of ethical behaviour regarding digital technology, and attaining higher levels of customer trust, will be critical for a successful digital transformation.
Therefore CSOs and INGOs need to prioritise for collaboration with allies, activists, partners and supporters on:
- Developing shared strategies and roadmaps
- Empowering boards and employees
- Building networks of informed, responsible leaders
They need to think about rights and inclusivity in an increasingly digitally connected world - to consider how open and connected societies or movements benefit equitably considering technology is not neutral.
Work based on the 17 pillars of a feminist internet would be crucial, as this would work towards empowering more people – in all diversities – to fully enjoy rights and dismantle patriarchy. This integrates different realities, contexts and specificities – including age, disabilities, sexualities, gender identities and expressions, socioeconomic locations, political and religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and racial markers.
The following key principles would be critical in building towards this:
Currently there are 17 Principles in total, organised in 5 key clusters: Access, Movements, Economy, Expression and Embodiement. Together they aim to provide a framework for women’s movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology.
Cluster One Access:
1. Access to the internet
The belief that a feminist internet starts with enabling more women and queer persons to enjoy universal, acceptable, affordable, unconditional, open, meaningful and equal access to the internet.
2. Access to information
Support and protection of unrestricted access to information relevant to women and queer persons, particularly information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, pleasure, safe abortion, access to justice, and LGBTIQ issues. This includes diversity in languages, abilities, interests and contexts.
3. Usage of technology
Women and queer persons have the right to code, design, adapt and critically and sustainably use ICTs and reclaim technology as a platform for creativity and expression, as well as to challenge the cultures of sexism and discrimination in all spaces.
Cluster Two Movements and Public Participation
The belief that the internet is a space where social norms are negotiated, performed and imposed, often in an extension of other spaces shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity. Our struggle for a feminist internet is one that forms part of a continuum of our resistance in other spaces, public, private and in-between.
5. Movement building
The internet is a transformative political space. It facilitates new forms of citizenship that enable individuals to claim, construct and express selves, genders and sexualities. This includes connecting across territories, demanding accountability and transparency, and creating opportunities for sustained feminist movement building.
6. Decision making in internet governance
We believe in challenging the patriarchal spaces and processes that control internet governance, as well as putting more feminists and queers at the decision-making tables. We want to democratise policy making affecting the internet as well as diffuse ownership of and power in global and local networks.
Cluster Three Economy
7. Alternative economies
Commitment to interrogating the capitalist logic that drives technology towards further privatisation, profit and corporate control. Working to create alternative forms of economic power that are grounded in principles of cooperation, solidarity, commons, environmental sustainability, and openness.
8. Free and open source
Commitment to creating and experimenting with technology, including digital safety and security, and using free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), tools, and platforms. Promoting, disseminating, and sharing knowledge about the use of FLOSS is central to our praxis.
Cluster Four Expression
9. Amplifying feminist discourse
Claiming the power of the internet to amplify women’s narratives and lived realities. There is a need to resist the state, the religious right and other extremist forces who monopolise discourses of morality, while silencing feminist voices and persecuting women’s human rights defenders.
10. Freedom of expression
Defending the right to sexual expression as a freedom of expression issue of no less importance than political or religious expression. A strong objection to the efforts of state and non-state actors to control, surveil, regulate and restrict feminist and queer expression on the internet through technology, legislation or violence. Recognising this as part of the larger political project of moral policing, censorship, and hierarchisation of citizenship and rights.
11. Pornography and “harmful content”
Recognising that the issue of pornography online has to do with agency, consent, power and labour. Rejecting simple causal linkages made between consumption of pornographic content and violence against women. Rejecting the use of the umbrella term “harmful content” to label expression on female and transgender sexuality. Supporting reclaiming and creating alternative erotic content that resists the mainstream patriarchal gaze and locates women and queer persons’ desires at the centre.
Cluster Five Agency
Calling on the need to build an ethics and politics of consent into the culture, design, policies and terms of service of internet platforms. Women’s agency lies in their ability to make informed decisions on what aspects of their public or private lives to share online.
13. Privacy and data
Supporting the right to privacy and to full control over personal data and information online at all levels. Rejecting practices by states and private companies to use data for profit and to manipulate behaviour online. Surveillance is the historical tool of patriarchy, used to control and restrict women’s bodies, speech and activism. Paying equal attention to surveillance practices by individuals, the private sector, the state and non-state actors.
The right to exercise and retain control over our personal history and memory on the internet. This includes being able to access all our personal data and information online, and to be able to exercise control over this data, including knowing who has access to it and under what conditions, and the ability to delete it forever.
Defending the right to be anonymous and reject all claims to restrict anonymity online. Anonymity enables our freedom of expression online, particularly when it comes to breaking taboos of sexuality and heteronormativity, experimenting with gender identity, and enabling safety for women and queer persons affected by discrimination.
16. Children and youth
Calling for the inclusion of the voices and experiences of young people in the decisions made about safety and security online and promote their safety, privacy, and access to information. Recognising children’s right to healthy emotional and sexual development, which includes the right to privacy and access to positive information about sex, gender and sexuality at critical times in their lives.
17. Online violence
Calling on all internet stakeholders, including internet users, policy makers and the private sector, to address the issue of online harassment and technology-related violence. The attacks, threats, intimidation and policing experienced by women and queers are real, harmful and alarming, and are part of the broader issue of gender-based violence. It is required organisational collective responsibility to address and end this.
These feminist principles would need to underpine work in ensuring safety, security, access and inclusion for groups-especially marginalised groups that these organisations seek to work with and engage.