This post was originally published March 29, 2022 on the Data Values Digest.
Google’s billion dollar undersea cable landed on Africa’s Western coast this month on its way from Lisbon to Cape Town in a massive project to expand internet access across the continent. The cable will double internet speeds and decrease prices by around 14 percent in Togo in coming years, according to a study commissioned by Google. Those estimates are eye-catching enough that it’s easy to forget that increased access won’t necessarily bridge the global digital divide or ensure digital economies become more just or inclusive.
Most media coverage of Google’s undersea cable Equiano, which was announced in 2019, has focused on expanding digital access to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and enrich people’s lives. But, as prior private-sector led initiatives to increase connectivity have demonstrated, digital access does not necessarily translate into equitable or meaningful engagement with technology—and increasing connectivity raises questions about user privacy and safety.
Making tech accessible is not a panacea for addressing inequalities. Simply increasing connectivity doesn’t ensure people can access it, as the persistent digital divides in wealthy countries show. The Alliance for Affordable Internet is deepening our understanding of these issues by advancing the idea of “meaningful connectivity,” defined as “whether someone can regularly access the internet on an appropriate device with sufficient data and a fast connection.” Togo’s minister for digital economy and digital transformation Cina Lawson has pointed out that the new cable doesn’t automatically mean everyone in Togo will suddenly have access to the web: “It’s like bringing a pipe to the beach,” she told QuartzAfrica last week, “but ensuring households have internet requires additional investments.”
Expanding meaningful connectivity also raises questions around data use, personal privacy, and data protection. (Togo has adopted a series of data-focused protections in recent years though an examination of regulatory environments isn’t our point here.) As more people gain access to online apps and websites, more of their personal data is captured and used by companies and sometimes accessed by governments. This is data that can be used (whether intentionally or not) to harm, manipulate, surveil, and profit from people’s information.
Al Kags reminded us of this last week in an interview he recorded for the Data Values Project. Al pointed to the simple act of writing your name and ID number down on paper, which is required when entering administrative buildings in Kenya. That’s information that people give up almost automatically, Al says, often without realizing they’re giving data holders the power to track their movements and affiliations.
The benefits of digital services are often extolled for giving people facing marginalization (such as rural farmers, women, and others) more power and autonomy in the economy. This is certainly true. But if people’s data is being harvested by banks, mobile operators, and possibly governments without their knowledge or informed consent, they may be at risk of further marginalization or manipulation. “Technology reflects the values of the societies in which it’s deployed and can’t fix problems that a society is unwilling to fix within itself,” explains Nanjala Nybola, who has persuasively argued that the digitalization of politics does not necessarily translate into a more democratic system by showing the perverse effects of digitization in Kenya on elections, the media, and banking sectors.
That’s why concerns with digital access must also take into account, not only whether people at the margins of society can access digital tools and the web, but also people’s power to engage with the design, creation, and management of data ecosystems. Extending access to the tech without safeguarding the data and digital rights of the people who use it risks reproducing and deepening inequalities. Making internet and mobile technology accessible and affordable is not enough on its own to produce more just or democratic societies.
In the same way that the Alliance for Affordable Internet is seeking to redefine meaningful connectivity, we should also look to expand our understanding of digital inclusion. In addition to affordable broadband and devices that meet users’ needs, the US-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital inclusion as access to digital literacy training, quality technical support, and content “designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.” This is a much more expansive definition than what’s typically seen in the development sector.
The answer also lies in developing local solutions with communities so they have access to digital technology, understand the trade-offs involved, and can use the tech and data it generates to benefit their communities. Innocent Maholi of OpenMap Development Tanzania, describes a healthy environment for innovation as characterized by three critical features: “local people, local devices, and open knowledge.”
Expanding our understanding of digital inclusivity and looking to local communities for solutions are a good start. At the regulatory level, laws, rules and enforcement mechanisms can help safeguard digital rights and protect people from predatory actors who wish to use technology to surveil, manipulate, or oppress. But these often take years to develop.
Considerations of inclusion, equity, and meaningful connectivity must be at the heart of efforts to expand digital connectivity. The International Telecommunications Union’s Partner2Connect Digital Coalition has built this into its approach. We need to ensure that these considerations remain a priority rather than focusing on the topline goal of connectivity at the expense of protecting people. Countries like Togo that have the most to gain from large investments in connectivity have an opportunity to bake in digital literacy, local engagement, and thoughtful regulatory frameworks from the beginning, and can be among the first to avoid reproducing analog inequalities in digital spaces. Initiatives like the Data Values Project are part of a broader recognition that building digitally connected, prosperous, and equitable societies requires designing systems with meaningful connectivity, inclusion, and safeguards in place from the start.