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2021 Debate Insights

Digital Rights on the global North-South divide

Author: Sciences Po student Auriane Mattera summarizes the debate session of the fourth edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Date: 11 November 2021


Digital Rights on the global North-South divide

This session focused on patterns of digitalization along the Global South-North divide, with in mind the determinative question: “Who can access and benefit from digitization?”. Global South algorithmic governance inarguably has to navigate exploitative economic structures and social biases. As Artificial Intelligence proves its potential benefits as well as its potential for misuse, centers of elaboration, governance and practice need to narrow such gaps instead of exacerbating inequality. Recognizing that technological and Artificial Intelligence solutions are not value-free objects but the product of social and political choices is the first step towards digital rights.

Malavika Jayaram, executive director at Digital Asia Hub, pointed out how digital rights have broadened from their initial narrow definition to the realm of global rights. Indeed, far from being created in a vacuum, technical systems are integrated into human experiences and cultural spheres. The proliferation of synergies between governance systems and algorithmic solutions has “massive impacts on the question of who gets to benefit from technologies”.

Alice Munyua, Director of Africa Mradi at the Mozilla Corporation, thus advocates for digital health and interoperable standards to advance innovation. Societies are being increasingly defined by vast troves of data and sophisticated algorithms. The question on whether AI empowers or exploits will “continue to have a huge impact in the direction we head in the coming decade”. It is thus imperious that we acknowledge that beyond their technical surface, “algorithms are opinions embedded in codes”.

Gabriela Ramos, Assistant-Director General for the Social and Human Challenges at UNESCO, underlined how the ethical impact assessment could operationalize ideas, precisely to mitigate these potential gaps. In her own words: “We often think of AI as falling from the sky but it is not, it is man-made, and usually coming from the more advanced countries”. For this reason it is crucial to ensure that opinions embedded into codes do not carry within themselves systemic discriminations.

Nnenna Nwakanma, Chief Web advocate at the World Wide Web Foundation, highlighted how all humans should be born digitally free, in the spirit of the creation of the World Wide Web. Any peace forum or organization should accordingly acknowledge that “the vision of the digital world has two basic principles: for everyone, and for good”.

The ensuing debate spanned a wide range of topics. Alice Munyua pointed out how technological exchanges along the North-South divides resonate along private/public divides and power relations, vehiculating norms and solutions not necessarily inherent to local circumstances or culture. Developing this point, Gabriela Ramos showed how the ultimate goal of framework assessment is to generate the tools needed to identify and address these issues. Benefits of Artificial Intelligence are long standing, and their potential immense and ethical impact frameworks ensures it remains human-centric and inclusive.

In this matter, Malavika Jayaram reminded the panel of the importance of laws to harden norms into reality: technological achievements and inclusion levels do not make a space inclusive, but rather “the rights that people have to the extent that they have agency in the decisions that affect them”. The discussion centered around legislation stressed the need to develop a digital “bill of wrongs” which would make governments responsible for guaranteeing a universal right to digitization.

Nnenna Nwakanma pointed out that in this process accountability is crucial, and policymaking cannot afford to be disconnected from practice, especially between centers of power and practice. First steps towards democratizing institutions and global economic governance, and having more women and youth from the Global South in the development of AI technologies can ensure better practices. As she stated once more, “the time is right for humanity to begin global digital cooperation”.


Contribution by Auriane Mattera

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