UN warns that emerging digital technologies ‘not neutral’ and increase racial inequalities

A photo of a someone creating a new programme, possibly one of the new technologies that the UN warns about.

The UN has warned that new digital technologies are aggravating racial discrimination. During the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council it heard that despite what most think, “Technology is not neutral or objective”. Instead, it is shaped by the already existing inequalities in society today. And it “typically makes these inequalities worse”. 

In recent months Facebook has been criticised for its lack of response to racism and hate speech on their platforms. 

“Misplaced faith”

The report was authored by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume. She argued that technology “reflects the values and interests of those who influence its design and use”. The result of this can be seen in facial recognition technology. For example, she pointed out that a 2019 review found that the technology is

10 to 100 times more likely to inaccurately identify a photograph of a black or East Asian face, compared with a white one.

Achiume told the council that there is a “misplaced faith” in the supposed neutrality of technology. And this itself “has been shown to contribute to discriminatory outcomes”. 

There is also the problem of an excessive belief in the idea that technology can tackle the problems in society. She referred to this as a form of “‘Techno-chauvinism’”. Belief in this also has similar outcomes to the idea of technology as being inherently neutral.  Achiume argued that it can instead

complicate interrogating and changing the values and interests that shape technology and technological outcomes. 

Considering this, the rapporteur recommended that governments “take swift and effective action” to prevent and counter any potentially racist  or discriminatory uses of emerging technologies. In some cases this might mean an “outright ban” on such technologies.

Technology giants and rights

The rapporteur also drew attention to the role of the tech giants. She pointed out that they “wield monumental influence in the design and use of emerging digital technologies”. Part of the problem is the fact that the majority of the major technology companies are located in Silicon Valley in the US. As a consequence, 

the specific cultural, economic and political values of Silicon Valley fundamentally shape how many of the emerging digital technologies operate globally, including in contexts very far removed from this small region of North America.

Achiume also highlighted the fact that large corporations act as a go-between for governments and citizens. Because of this, they have “the capacity to significantly transform the situation of human rights”. And given that most of the dominant technology companies in the world today were formed and are based in the West, the result can be “egregious effects in other contexts, such as those in the global South.”

It’s recommended that technology companies are bound by “human rights ethical frameworks” which themselves are linked to legally binding international treaties.

In recent weeks Facebook has been criticised for its lack of appropriate action against hate speech on the platform. But as a result of an advertising boycott of the website by large corporations, it appears to have taken some steps towards tackling the problem.

Featured image via Pixabay – Free-Photos


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