An ethical and social justice agenda for digital inclusion

SERIES OTT Annual Review 2019: think tanks and technology 14 items

[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]

The internet has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from the way we communicate with each other to the way we learn, work and participate in social and political life. Digital inclusion is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it is a human right.

In the UK, this issue gained prominence in recent elections thanks to the Labour Party’s pledge to provide access to broadband, free at the point of use, for everyone. Although quickly disparaged as a ‘bad policy’, the proposal was underpinned by the recognition that in increasingly digital societies, the exercising of our social, political and economic rights is more than ever linked to our ability to ‘be connected’.

In the UK, one in ten households still lack access to the internet. In a country where many services are offered on a digital-only basis, this means social and economic exclusion for a small but significant proportion of the population, usually the most vulnerable and marginalised. In the developing world, the situation is far worse. According to the latest statistics, only 45% of the population in developing countries has internet access, usually those living in urban areas and relatively well-off, whilst the poor continues to be digitally invisible.

Undoubtedly, lack of access to information and communications technologies (ICT) reproduces and amplifies existing inequalities, within and between countries, foreclosing opportunities for inclusive societies. Thus, bridging the digital divide should rightly be a priority for governments globally.

Yet, governments often predicate solutions based on quick technical fixes aimed at ‘connecting the unconnected’ – improving infrastructure, making the internet safer and more affordable, or teaching digital skills to those left behind. Framing the problem in binary terms as access vs non-access conceals the many ways in which digital technologies reflect, reproduce and exacerbate existing inequities beyond issues of access.

More nuanced understandings of digital inclusion are necessary to evaluate not just the outcomes for the ‘unconnected’ but also for those who have crossed the digital fault line. K4D’s emerging issues report ‘Leave No One Behind in a Digital World’ and the Appropriating Technology blog ‘Digital Technology Excludes’ are both good introductions to a more nuanced understanding of digital exclusion.

If digital inclusion is simply understood as more people using digital devices and connecting to the internet for daily activities, policies to increase connectivity may in fact impact negatively on those (or other) vulnerable groups that were supposed to benefit.

Here, we add to the discussion by highlighting some of the environmental and social impacts of digital inclusion that may need greater policy attention.

Despite promises of digital access as an enabler of sustainable development, the internet is much less ethereal, more material and dirtier, than the ‘cloud’ metaphor suggests. And the environmental implications of the digital revolution are not fairly distributed.

Indeed, vulnerable populations suffer the consequences of increased digital demand. For example, demand for low-cost electronics encourages mining of minerals in areas were labour is cheap, perpetuating local conflicts in already politically instable areas, like the Republic of Congo.

Following the lifecycle of digital products, data processing and storing is enabled by data centres that use large quantities of energy, as well as land and natural resources (such as water). These centres are often located in peripheries, often disrupting local balances.

At the end of the digital cycle, ICT disposal happens in recycling centres often located in low- and middle-income countries with lower environmental controls. Recovery of valuable materials in ICT hardware (for example, copper or gold) is done through practices like incineration that result in aggravated environmental pollution. Waste disposal of toxic materials also has undocumented effects on local communities in the areas where recycling facilities are located.

And so, throughout the infrastructure lifecycle that enables digital connectivity, we witness issues of social and environmental injustice that affect the most vulnerable groups.

The images of sleek data centres with eco-architectures, under a blanket of Nordic snow, or shining plans of immersing them under water to reduce the need for environmentally and financially expensive cooling systems (and a cynic would think, hiding their physical presence from the eyes and conscience of the concerned environmentalist) are very much in contrast with the dusty pictures of tungsten and tantalum mines or waste disposal facilities in low- and middle-income countries.

This reduces costs for digital offer and demand, and in doing so increases connectivity. But this is not a zero-sum game: some (in richer countries) will benefit more than others (in poorer countries) who will suffer the costs of exploitative labour, military conflict and exposure to toxic substances, among others.

Yes, more people will have access to broadband, perhaps free at the point of use, but at what other cost? What aspects of inclusivity are we favouring and which ones are we sacrificing (whom and where)?  How should we balance the needs of the most vulnerable in a more sustainable way? And why are some groups more included than others in geo-political decisions regarding the localisation of the digital infrastructure and the distribution of its benefits and costs?

Despite promises of inclusivity, the digital revolution creates new inequalities and can perpetuate existing ones. It is at this intersection between data justice and environmental justice (where populations that currently suffer more from ICT environmental implications are also those less likely to benefit from the ‘digital gold’) that more work needs to be done at the policy and regulatory levels.

Policy and regulatory promises of data for sustainability need to be weighed against the evidence of data against sustainability. Technical solutions to mitigate these issues are surely welcome, but they need to be accompanied by a governance approach that acknowledges and actively addresses the underlying structural injustices, rather than exacerbating them with superficial promises of inclusivity.

New thinking and better governance are also needed to manage the effects of the digitisation of nearly every aspect of personal and public life. The vast increase in social media use means almost endless opportunities for social participation, community strengthening, cross-cultural dialogue and collective learning and action.

Countries (including in the global South) are fast moving the provision of services to online platforms and there is evidence that this fosters social and financial inclusion. For example, the M-Pesa platform has lowered transaction costs, enabling millions of unbanked Kenyans entry to the formal financial system. Digitisation of public services and government communications (e-government) is another example, where digital technologies promote not just efficiency gains and cost savings, but increased citizen involvement and government accountability.

However, overoptimistic emphasis of these benefits can legitimise digitally enabled solutions and overlook their intricate normative dimensions.

The digitisation of personal, social, economic and political relations implies profound – and not always well understood – changes to the basic structure of our societies. For example, social networks can, and often do, foster inward-looking online echo-chambers that run counter to the pluralistic foundations of the internet. They can also exclude minorities who do not speak the mainstream languages in which most online content is written. M-Pesa and other next-gen mobile financial services providing digital credits (instant micro-loans based on credit scores created by assessing borrowers’ digital footprints) can create debt traps or exclude financially sound borrowers with patterns of online activity that do not conform to algorithms’ assumptions. And digitisation of public services can shift accountability from government to tech companies. Digital civic participation may amplify the already loud voices of the digitally savvy (often middle class, educated and generally well-off groups) and hinder genuine democratic decision making. It is unclear to what extent online platforms foster meaningful social and political deliberation.

These issues suggest that an agenda for digital inclusion must certainly, but not exclusively, contain technological solutions to bring those most in need into the digital mainstream. The ‘tech-focused,’ number-boosting dimension of digital inclusion is important, especially as increased reliance on digital signatures for public policy decisions – from public health interventions, to urban planning and aid and relief efforts – can render invisible the needs of the ‘digitally unseen’.  But as more people cross the technology divide, a human-focused lens must bring forward the fundamental question of what equity and justice should look like in our 21st century digital world.

The claim that digital inclusion is a human right assumes an alignment between being connected and living a good life, elevating technology as the all-mighty solution. In reality, digital technologies are deeply socially embedded tools that reflect the societal values that shape our natural, economic, social, cultural and political environments in many different ways – and certainly not always for the better. The question of digital inclusion cannot, therefore, be reduced to an issue of connectivity alone. It must intertwine with the messy process of collectively defining what constitutes the good life and what kind of societies we want. It must weigh the moral significance of the social and environmental trade-offs and then align local and global policies for digital development