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If Digital Freedom is a Myth, How Can We Ethically Provide Access to Cutting-Edge Technology?

By Matt Haikin on February 18, 2015


Ethics is an ever-present theme in Development and one which is sometimes overlooked in ICT4D/Technology for Development – a field in which people can sometimes get carried away with the supposed transformational potential of technology. So it is refreshing to arrive at a Technology Salon explicitly setting out to discuss these complex ethical issues.

Lead discussants for the day are Professor Tim Unwin of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation and UNESCO Chair of ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London and Chris Locke, founder of Caribou Digital. Other discussants (Chatham House rules of course) hail from small and large NGOs, mobile operators, academics, broadcasters and a smattering of people from various technology and data focused organisations – an interesting and eclectic mix for this type of debate.

The morning is introduced around four themes, although a lot of the interesting and animated discussion veers pretty broadly away from these, but the below is an attempt to corral the comments back into some semblance of order. Interested in joining the next event? Sign up now!

When does national sovereignty trump digital freedom?

Intriguingly, this theme was mostly turned into a discussion about the concept of digital freedom:

“Digital freedom is a myth. Corporations give things to consumers in exchange for their data, which they then make money from”

Interesting comparisons emerge between this exchange and the Locke/Hobbes ‘social contract’, by which citizens have given up some freedoms in exchange for increased rights and protections. What contract exists between citizens and corporates, what have we exchanged our freedoms for in a world where ISPs known more about their users than most governments do?! And how will this play out in a world where the role and power of the nation-state is in decline?

What about trust though? In some countries people trust their governments and would rather they held data on them than private companies did. In other countries, citizens trust corporations to hold this data more than they do their own governments. With these kind of differences, where is the global debate on digital rights happening?

Responsibility when collecting, using and distributing data

Aside from the normal and well-known issues around data (privacy vs. transparency etc.) a point was brought up about the fact that for some people, a digital/mobile identity is the first official identity they have ever had. This raises concerns around people’s ability to understand the value of their own identity and data, their relationship to it, and the ability of others to use and control and profit from it. Is helping people to understand this a potential role for NGO programs?

More worryingly was the prospect of why many identity programs have failed to scale – what happens to people who previously had no official identity when governments or other vested interests don’t want them to become official, or they themselves are scared to do so..?

As the world increasingly goes ‘digital first’, we are already seeing exclusion of people without the skills or money to access the web. How much worse is this for people who are denied a digital identity to begin with?

Line between supporting civil discourse and seeking regime change

Starting with a discussion of the ‘Cuban Twitter’ scandal, by way of some lengthy debates about what regime change is, and whether it is desirable – or even possible, some consensus appeared to emerge about the fact that media is an amplifier not a disruptor. It amplifies existing voices and discourses, which can result in a variety of outcomes (comparisons are made between the build up to the Arab Spring with the recent Facebook beheadings). Is it possible for the Development sector to channel funding to ensure counter narratives are also being heard?

More interestingly it seems is the idea that we have “lost our innocence” about the use and power of social media. In the post-Snowden world it is beginning to look like “the tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy theorists were right about everything”… The biggest difference between new and old media is simply that we can monitor the hell out of it. But who is doing this, and who should be…

(And while not mentioned, it raises the age-old question of who watches the watchmen… Or these days the less catchy ‘Who monitors and evaluates the data collectors “. Hmm, that needs work!”)

Should humanitarian and development organisations be doing any of this anyway?

Some fascinating ethical debates emerged throughout the day on this theme…

  • How do development and ICT4D programs ensure they are driven by the needs of the poorest and most marginalised, and not just by the needs of business, donors or overseas governments.
  • Is there a way to balance the financial capital (usually external) with the social capital (usually local) when building programs.
  • Is Open Data always good, or does it sometimes just get opened up to business and the rich who have the skills to do something with it?
  • What should an open-data NGO do if it is in, for example, a multi-stakeholder partnership with a private sector company who wants to keep the data private for 18 months, is it better to just stop the program or keep going on their terms?
  • What about NGO data – it’s not just the private sector, charities collect vast amounts of data about their ‘beneficiaries’, and apparently are exempt from the data collection rules that apply to businesses!

This debate comes to a head with musings over whether ICT4D really even exists or whether we now have D4ICT – Development programs to support the ICT industry… Is the reason why most pilots don’t scale up, because they are not intended to, but are meant to use public monies to open up markets for technology firms in developing countries. Food for thought indeed!

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion for me, was outside of the key themes but focused on what is the real purpose of ICT4D programs?

We know ICTs can and often do increase inequality (by amplifying existing power and wealth disparity). But the dominant narrative of our time insists that ICTs fuel economic growth and through this will benefit the poor and give them increased access to markets. The discussion becomes a false polarity of “help the poor through technology” or “exclude the poor from technology”. And if by helping the poor, it also appears to help the rich, the middle-classes, big business and multi-nationals, then so be it.

But are there other options that are not up for discussion? Are there more disruptive things that technology could help achieve, or is it just used to give people “a bit” so they also have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

I particularly like the suggestion of asking the question “who benefits most”… Is a program or technology is helping the poorest, great. But if while helping the poorest it is helping the rich and the multi-nationals even more… Is that truly development? Is that ethical? Is that the “Only way”.

Now I really wanted to end this blog there, it’s a powerful statement…

Unfortunately that doesn’t leave room to include Tim’s fantastic comment of “In the future we will all be chipped . . . the only question is who will be chipped first – the rich or the workers” – which I think is a great way of summing up the potential power issues with regards to emerging technologies.

I also thought it’s important in such a polarised to debate to offer at least one positive rallying point. And we had one, yay! ‘Universal Access’. There seems to be no case against this – everyone should have access to information. End of. So why isn’t it happening, what are the vested interests stopping it happen. There is an interesting ethical debate to take place there, and perhaps a rallying cry for the ICT4D sector to get behind?

And interestingly – now could be just the time to do it – the issue of digital ethics is very much in the public eye at the moment, with Labour discussing the need, and an extremely good article in this week’s Observer Tech Monthly (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/08/tech-companies-social-networks-ethics-body-rebuild-trust-users).

It’s a complex area, which needs private and public, tech and non-tech, domestic and international to come together. Maybe it’s an idea whose time has come. Who will start the call to arms to make it happen?

Links mentioned in the session

Matt Haikin is an ICT4D Manager and Consultant with over 20 years experience in web development and Information Systems

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Matt Haikin Matt Haikin is a Digital Transformation consultant, practitioner and published researcher specialising in participatory approaches to technology. He has worked at all levels and led teams for INGOs, multi-laterals, civil society and community organisations in the UK and the global South.
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