Pakistani fights technology monopoly by rich countries

The recent purchase and crisis of Twitter under the management of entrepreneur Elon Musk has brought back an important debate: the dangers of leaving control of technology in the hands of a few.

A monopoly is not always subject to the whims of an impulsive billionaire — it could be a country, a group of shareholders or renowned scientists. But the question is only one: are innovations being developed to increase the quality of life for humanity… or to create an even greater gulf between people or nations?

Mozilla, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a democratic and fair internet, addressed in its annual edition of the Internet Health Report how this scenario is increasingly complex. New tools are capable of generating increasingly exorbitant amounts of data, which feed back to artificial intelligence, giving a power almost incalculable to the groups that control them.

The perspective of the document is that, as it is organized today, the technology industry is helping to define an artificial intelligence in the service of oppression.

For the Pakistani Shmyla Khan, director of research and policy at the Digital Rights Foundation, the digital monopoly of superpowers worldwide are a new form of extractivism. Before, the rich countries took away our brazilwood, gold, coffee. Now it’s the personal data of millions of users.

“The applications and devices we use were built in other places, in other contexts, by people who did not imagine us as end users. If the technology was not created to meet our needs, it can be used against us”, defends Shmyla.

in conversation with Tilt, the lawyer and activist in law, technology and gender argues that, for technology to be closer to what it promises, it is necessary not only to listen to different voices, but to democratize investments in AI. Efficient international regulations are also needed, which guarantee the rights of all, especially the most vulnerable.

Check out the conversation.

TILT: You’ve said that technology doesn’t solve all problems. When can technology be beneficial and when can it be harmful?
khan: Technology is often seen as a lifeline to many societal problems, despite technology itself being shaped and created by society, which tends to reproduce many of these problems. Most of my reviews focus on fundamental myths about technology and the unrealistic expectations we place on it.

Technology can be useful in many ways, there’s no denying that. But we gloss over its harmful effects, when we should be emphasizing those harms a little more.

TILT: Can technology increase social distances between the richest and poorest? In what situations does this happen?
Shmyla: The promise that technology can be the “great social leveler” is overblown. In many countries in the southern hemisphere, we observe that technologies make pre-existing class divisions and inequalities more exposed. Access to them is strongly determined by social class, gender and place of residence – in the city or in the rural area.

In many ways, technology can exacerbate the class divide. For example, internet access can provide access to jobs and education that can become the foundation for economic mobility. However, if these technologies are concentrated in the upper class, which already has access to these opportunities, it will further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

TILT: You’ve already addressed that technologies are not always beneficial to minorities. Because? How is it possible to change this reality?
Shmyla: I think minorities and marginalized groups are often left out of the development of technologies and their experiences are marginalized in implementing them. We’ve seen that technologies have a disproportionate impact on minority groups, such as facial recognition technologies, which actively discriminate against people of color.

TILT: How is violence against minorities facilitated by technology?
Shmyla: Technology-enabled violence is a huge problem everywhere. You see so many cases of non-consensual use of personal imagery, or what some call “revenge porn”, that come up and are mostly targeted at women. Online harassment, trolling and misinformation are also taking on gender dynamics.

We still see many examples of hate speech campaigns exacerbating religious, ethnic and racial tensions in countries around the world.

TILT: What would be technologies that are safe and accessible to everyone?
Shmyla: Safe and accessible technologies for me would be those that take into account the experiences and impact of technologies in marginalized communities. And that they take steps to build safeguards for those communities.

TILT: Professionals who work in the development of technologies always say that they came to solve problems and improve “the user experience”. Do you believe that?
Shmyla: Developers, programmers, and other industry professionals may very well be working for social good. However, their optimism for solving problems can often be misplaced, especially if there isn’t enough diversity in the medium. Technologies often reflect the social character of the people who make them.

TILT: Social media, especially Instagram and Tik Tok, can be very harmful to the mental health of minorities. How do you rate these networks?
Shmyla: I think there is legitimacy for the discussion about the links between social media and mental health. But we must also recognize that these issues existed before social media and the solutions are not just in social media.

The discussion around Instagram was particularly interesting, as valid concerns were raised about links between the platform and girls’ deteriorating mental health. Instagram needs to do more to address these issues, providing users with resources to curb harassment directed at them and being transparent about the algorithm that determines what is amplified on the platform.

However, issues such as body image predate social media and cannot be addressed by social media alone.

TILT: You’ve already mentioned that poorer countries are especially affected by superpower technologies in the area of ​​security. Why does it happen?
Shmyla: This is how global capital flows have played out throughout history. Countries that are less economically developed often lack the capital or technical capacity to develop newer technologies, while the money and resources to develop that technology are always concentrated in the Global North.

TILT: Do you think that big techs offer the same technological solutions for all countries?
Shmyla: Not. Big tech is primarily concerned with countries that have the economic and political power to substantially impact them. We’ve seen this with the huge disparity in terms of resource allocation between the Global North and the Global South for content moderation by Meta.

TILT: Despite being a good initiative, the General Data Protection Law still does not have the expected impact. In Brazil, it still has little applicability and in the world it is also in its infancy. Some countries like Pakistan even have an LGPD. What is the importance of this type of law in promoting accessible technology that guarantees everyone’s rights?
Shmyla: They serve to provide some protections to individuals and/or citizens who experience a huge power imbalance between them and data collectors such as government and private companies. These laws can be tools in the hands of individuals and civil society to ensure that this power imbalance is addressed in some way through transparency and accountability requirements for violations and damages.

TILT: How did your interest and activism in law and technology come about?
Shmyla: As a millennial, many of my formative years and experiences were mediated by emerging platforms and technologies. When I finished my master’s, I started working at the Digital Rights Foundation. It was around the time when the Cyber ​​Crime Prevention Act in Pakistan was being passed and concerns were being raised about internet freedoms in the country.

I became very interested in what these laws and policies meant for my own online expression and those around me. Since then, we have focused on issues of free expression online, digital privacy, gender, equitable access to ICTs and digital governance through research, advocacy, training workshops, awareness campaigns and services. Through our flagship program, Cyber.

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