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New knowledge paradigms for Tech and I: Toward a more ethical digital society

Web Foundation · June 19, 2019

This piece was originally written by Ingrid Brudvig, Web Foundation Gender Policy Manager, for CyFy Africa 2019 — a conference on Technology, Innovation and Society hosted by the Observer Research Foundation. Follow @IngridBrudvig on Twitter.

The lightning speed of technological change is driving diverse and profound social transformations. While access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) creates many positive affordances, half of the world still does not have internet access. Access is uneven around the world, with just 25% of the population in Africa using the internet. Digital inequality is compounded by a persistent online gender gap – where just 18% of women across Africa use the internet compared to almost 25% of men, a gap that has shown to be widening.

Measuring the proportion of internet users globally is done in disparate ways, and even those who have some degree of access may not have meaningful access that would allow them to claim economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights – a great promise of what internet technologies should offer. Certainly, the digital ‘haves’ enjoy many new avenues for expression, association, self-representation, and economic advancement, as well as the opportunity to amplify their voice and personal autonomy. However, the internet is also increasingly a space surreptitiously used by the powerful and influential to define and restrict citizens. The context in which access has played out has driven social polarisation and authoritarianism.

On the one hand, the internet is a social tool that enables new forms of digital citizenship, information exchange and public participation. On the other hand, it has made possible manipulations of citizenship – for example, with government actors and data mining company Cambridge Analytica leveraging social media’s ad-based models to influence elections, including across Africa. As Narayanan et al observe, “Given the central role that social media play in public life, these platforms have become a target for propaganda campaigns and information operations.” This is particularly stark on the African continent, where internet access and use is predominantly through social media platforms and mobile devices, optimised for intensive clicks and data collection to fuel a digital economy where we are the product (as much as access to these platforms is ‘free’.)

The internet is far from being a neutral territory, despite the many benefits to be gained for individuals. States, corporations and online trolls make use of the same technologies and informational tools to identify and track citizens, monitor dissent and police the mobility, power and expression of people. This is evident from the frequency of internet shutdowns across Africa (46 between 2016-2018, according to the #KeepItOn campaign); as well as the imposition of social media taxes in countries like Uganda. Exorbitant costs of internet access mean that, indeed, the internet “is not free from the logic of domination and appropriation typical of neoliberalism, where the tendency is to prioritise profitability, often to the detriment of democracy and service to humanity”. According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the internet is unaffordable in over 60% of countries worldwide, with 1GB of mobile data costing more than 2% of average income for two billion people.

Under what framework can new research address these dichotomies, and strengthen the role of public policy towards ensuring the internet is a human right and public good?

Digital solutions are often presented by industry under the guise of digital empowerment in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, as McChesney has asserted, “political economy should be the organising principle for evaluating the digital revolution.” This begs us to address the “elephant in the room”, that is, the political economy of digital society, and “how capitalism dominates social life.” In our research at the World Wide Web Foundation we have found that the failure of public policy to address the interplay of political economies, socio-cultural and even economic realities is a key driver of digital divides, and dramatic slow growth of internet access.

Should we be concerned?

Yes we should! The political economy of the internet should be a concern now more than ever, as the openness and decentralisation on which the Web was founded comes under threat by various factors including:

  • The centralisation of online activity on several social media platforms;
  • Bulk collection, ownership and sale of personal and large troughs of digital data;
  • Abilities of governments to enact mass-surveillance initiatives; and
  • Online content regulation by the state, online platforms and internet service providers.

Personal data is harvested through digital platforms and sold by the very corporations that claim to be connecting the world as a force of democracy and empowering the poor. The design of algorithms and use of personal data by technology companies are devoid of transparency and accountability, despite the fact that people, as users, are the product, monetised as data.

Technology companies have created, as Sherry Turkle coins, our “second self” through our data. Through society’s hyper-use of digital mediums, we are on the path to “being” digital, as a “normative rationality” – providing the basis of what it means to be a full citizen, and determining the “rationality” of modern social life. As Schou and Hjelholt argue, “Being digital is constructed as the proper mode of citizen-subjectivity.” Ruppert, Isin and Bigo argue the important point that, “Data has a performative power that is resignifying political life. That is, data politics is concerned with not only political struggles around data collection and its deployments, but how data is generative of new forms of power relations and politics and different and interconnected scales.”

Serious ethical concerns are apparent around several issues – principally, that the use of personal data as currency in online ‘mediascapes’ is driven by the manipulation of consent in opaque terms of service agreements. As we increasingly rely on digital platforms and their algorithms – as economic and social lifelines, as intermediaries of membership in the global community, as “digital citizenship” tools, and simply to make life more convenient – the opacity of ‘rules of engagement’ makes it unclear where we stand in relation to technology. Are we signing away our autonomy to these new technologies, or vice versa? Is this the future we want?

What are the key questions we should be asking to better understand and capture the dichotomies inherent and wrought by digital technologies?

New research and knowledge paradigms are needed to explore the political economy of digital technologies in Africa and to answer questions such as:

  • What are different contexts of empowerment on and through the internet, noting that empowerment is always a work in progress?
  • In which ways are experiences of mobility circumscribed and limited by new forms of social control and manipulation through social media? By this I mean not only corporate and government control, but potentially also parochial networks and cultural guardians, as we see in the polarisation of societies all around the world today.
  • How might digital identity– reified by inflexible identities offline – influence political subjectivity and digital citizenship for marginalised groups? What are the ethical implications of the digital political economy?  
  • Are African realities being considered in the design and deployment of digital technologies, where internet access is dominated by tools and services from Western contexts?
  • What’s the role of public policy spaces on the continent to address these complexities?

How should we now REACT?

We should focus on five key themes to guide questions about the digital political economy and society, and to strengthen public policy in addressing all these issues: Rights, Education, Access, Content and policy Targets – easily remembered as REACT. Having an “ear-to-the-ground” through targeted participatory research while engaging in public consultation with diverse groups, including civil society, is vital to charter a course of policy action for a future of the Web that is based on digital equality for everyone.

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