UN Special Rapporteur Warns of Racial Discrimination Exacerbated by Technology

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 15th July 2020

The Digital Freedom Fund welcomes the publication of the report “Racial discrimination and emerging digital technologies: a human rights analysis” by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume.  

The report goes beyond analysing specific instances of racial discrimination on digital platforms to assess how emerging digital technologies perpetuate racial discrimination on a structural level. Examining the racially discriminatory consequences of algorithmic decision-making throughout public and private life, the report sheds light on how existing inequalities, biases, and assumptions in the design and use of digital technologies threaten the human rights of marginalised and racialised groups. The report also outlines a structural and intersectional human rights law approach to regulating digital technologies, emphasising that an effective response to racial discrimination must include efforts to break down power structures within the sectors that make decisions about the design and use of these technologies, including private technology companies, research institutions, and public regulatory bodies. 

The report goes beyond analysing specific instances of racial discrimination on digital platforms to assess how emerging digital technologies perpetuate racial discrimination on a structural level.

A cohort of digital rights NGOs, including DFF, have released a statement highlighting a number of salient points in the Special Rapporteur’s report. The statement – which is open to additional signatories – expands on the human rights framework set out in the report, drawing attention to several specific commitments which state and corporate actors must uphold to prevent and remedy the discriminatory impacts of emerging digital technologies. 

The NGOs assert that certain technologies should be banned outright. Incremental regulation, they argue, is not appropriate for technologies such as facial recognition and predictive analytics that are demonstrably likely to cause racially discriminatory harm. The statement also emphasises the importance of keeping access to technology at the forefront of dialogues about racial discrimination in the design of digital technologies. The digital divide between the global South and the global North will perpetuate and deepen existing global inequalities as societies increasingly rely on digital platforms to distribute public goods, medical care, and education. The digital divide is not limited to less-resourced countries, either. In the US, for example, lack of basic internet access falls disproportionately on Black, Latino, and American Indian communities. 

The NGOs also elaborate on the Special Rapporteur’s account of how the values and practices of the technology field must change in order to ensure that digital tools do not replicate racially discriminatory structures. The statement echoes the report’s challenge against Silicon Valley “technochauvinism,” or the idea that technology is the best solution to social problems, and expands on the importance of including people who have experienced the impact of racially discriminatory technology in the design process and compensating them for their contributions. In discussing racial equality data, the NGOs took a step beyond exploring ways to dismantle structural racism in the technology industry to examine how even efforts to combat digital discrimination have the potential to perpetuate racial hierarchies. 

While the Special Rapporteur advocates for data collection to help address racial inequities, the NGOs highlight the risk this could pose for already marginalised populations. The NGOs would nonetheless welcome, and gladly participate in, an effort to develop standards for non-extractive data collection and governance, including measures to ensure that data collection, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination do not reinforce existing racial and other hierarchies as well as address the power dynamics between data collectors and those whose data is collected.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report outlines critical warnings about the racially discriminatory potential of technology, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the coronavirus

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report outlines critical warnings about the racially discriminatory potential of technology, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the coronavirus as governments around the world launch digital interventions in the name of the public good. DFF hopes that the report will receive broad support from civil society and that it will prompt much-needed further conversations on the issues addressed.

These conversations should include reflections on the makeup of the digital rights field itself, which, in DFF’s view, is currently too embedded in the power structures that enable the practices addressed by the Special Rapporteur to adequately fight them. We at DFF, together with EDRi, have initiated a decolonising process which aims to examine and tackle this issue. To learn more and find out how to get involved, visit the DFF website.

Photo by Bryan Colosky on Unsplash