“Bridging the digital divide” is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today, the United Nations Secretary-General told the General Assembly Tuesday. The SG listed the promise and perils of digital tech among six urgent issues facing a world that has “never been more threatened or more divided.”
Global leaders have confronted daunting challenges at UNGA 76 this week including climate change, vaccine access, and economic recovery plus rising rates of conflict, food insecurity, and poverty—so it was notable that digital tech made the cut. Still, though the SG’s message was appropriately threatening, it largely brushed over the complicated trade-offs and contradictions of data-driven development. Our aim in the Data Values Project is to not shy away from these issues, and so this week we’re taking a look at some of the tensions surfaced by the SG’s address:
How can we achieve universal connectivity while also protecting people from harm? Half of the world lacks access to the internet, and we know connecting people to digital technologies is essential. At the same time, increasing connectivity exposes people to exploitation by companies and surveillance by oppressive governments. Yet there are ways to strengthen protections through laws and regulations and by investing in civil society organizations, watchdog entities, independent media organizations, and other safeguards. (For more on this, see this recorded webinar on Dissecting Digital Power Inequities.) One challenge within the Data Values Project is how to mainstream people-focused concerns.
Secondly, how does focusing on threats like misinformation, cyber attacks, and digital war technology distract us from the everyday ways data exacerbates long-standing inequality and disenfranchisement? In his address, the SG emphasized the danger of misinformation and condemned the commodification of personal data. There’s a more insidious problem with data collection and use that perpetuate structural inequities that keep people poor, marginalized, and oppressed. Though not as news-grabbing, these are just as important as addressing immediate threats. This is a complex problem, but this series of knowledge products from the Inclusive Data Charter is a good place to start learning about approaches to equitable data practices.
Finally, how do data-based solutions provide new pathways for development and, at the same time, perpetuate the digital divide? At the Global Partnership, we advocate for digital and tech-based solutions along with our partners in data for development. Yet many of these solutions are developed and funded primarily by enterprises based in rich countries. What’s worse, development agencies’ use of data often adds to existing power imbalances. Yet experts, innovators, and tech solutions (obviously) also exist outside of the Global North. Advocates and researchers in the Global South are doing ground-breaking work to change this imbalance. For example, check out this Center for Study of Economies of Africa webinar with the World Trade Organization chief discussing routes to equitable data use in Africa.
We agree with the SG that, “to restore trust and inspire hope, we need to place human rights at the center of our efforts to ensure a safe, equitable, and open digital future for all.” But this is easier said than done, and there are no easy answers. What did you think of the Secretary-General’s speech? Drop a comment below or email us at DataValues@data4sdgs.org. Join the conversation on Twitter using #DataValues.