Someone recently said ‘when it comes to data we are like cavemen discovering fire – ooh it is warm, ooh it cooks things… oh no, I’m on fire!’ Many in the room laughed. The image was kind of funny. The implication — our lack of progress developing the digital firefighters, fire codes, and building inspectors necessary to avoid immolation — is not.
Data and algorithms oriented toward profit or politics can have devastating consequences ranging from biased sentencing and political manipulation to undermining truth itself. We lack shared ethical frameworks and institutions to help navigate, negotiate and balance between the good and bad of technological progress. Building them will be a complex challenge and it is a challenge for civil society. It is up to us to provide the forum for a debate on digital rights. Business won’t, and the government can’t.
Thankfully it is a challenge that, as we discussed on a recent WINGS webinar, does not require a deep knowledge of code or algorithms. It requires a sense of what is Just and Right, and the courage to stand up for it. For years, we in civil society have been doing just that — educating and advocating for laws to address discrimination, cure disease, preserve culture, etc. We have stood up for marginalized communities and advocated for the establishment of Rights, both human and civil. We did so out of our sense of justice. We knew what dignity demanded and invested years of hard work, learning, and negotiation into the establishment of the ethical frameworks, laws and institutions needed to govern and enforce Rights.
I believe we know how to work toward and advocate for digital rights. Complementing your sense of Rights with a little knowledge about technology trends and the intersection of tech and civil society so you can join the discussion couldn’t hurt. Organizations like Internet Society, Access Now, Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab and the Electronic Freedom Foundation are each leaders in aspects of this discussion. Follow them to learn what is happening, the trends and opportunities, what makes you angry and what feels, instinctively, like a violation of Rights. As you do so, get involved with the software development associations and international chambers of commerce in your country. Most of them have policy working groups you can engage with to learn what is going on where you are and have quite a bit of influence on how regulations are implemented in your country.
Second, watch regulations others are implementing. Europe’s GDPR for instance is having ripple effects around the globe, as are rules like the ‘right to be forgotten’ which is also having a ripple effect around the globe. Noting trends, seeing how others are thinking about the topic and watching regulations like GDPR gives you a lot to work with. That said, how others approach digital rights discussions may or may not make sense for you and your country. On one hand, the internet respects no borders so you should consider modeling what others build. On the other hand, history, culture and all the other factors that make us a diverse and interesting species may lead you to different, better conclusions for you and your community.
Finally, make friends with programmers. They are super cool, can be wonderful teachers, guides and partners. Many of them both can and want to be a part of the solution.
Building an awareness and understanding of technology in relation to Rights and how it can help or harm the creation of a more civil society is a lot to add to busy daily lives. But no one is going to do it for us. With our economies, communications, communities, politics and culture increasingly digitized, I believe we have a responsibility to contribute our human rights and social justice orientation to the discussion — to ask questions and get informed. We have to think about what we need from technology to best serve and support our communities — to ensure technological progress takes humanity’s most vulnerable into account and puts people before profits.
I am looking forward to your thoughts, comments and feedback on this topic. Others have issued similar calls to action in the past but nothing seems to have stuck. This might not be the right place or time either but it is a conversation worth having. If each of us begins building and arguing our own justice-driven approach to digital rights a global movement may yet emerge. For the time being, however, putting technology in context and advocating for your communities is up to you.
This article was written by Chris Worman- Vice President, Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup.