Beyond carbon; IP Go!; Part II: Human rights + tech

Beyond carbon; IP Go!; Part II: Human rights + tech
Photo by Dion Beetson / Unsplash

Beyond carbon: This summer I attended a retreat at a convent in Montenegro with the critical infrastructures lab to talk about standards, emerging tech and environmental sustainability. Most discussion in the tech industry focuses on the important and nearly insurmountable problem of energy consumption and emissions, there are many impacts that the internet has on the environment that go beyond carbon.

Next week I will be giving a lightening talk and introducing a new internet-draft to the inaugural meeting of the Internet Architecture Board's E-Impact program, which grew out of an IAB workshop last year on the environmental impacts of the internet. My aim is to thoroughly document all impacts, including water, rare minerals and space.

IPGO is a new puzzle game from APNIC (the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Registry) and you can download it on mobile platforms. Your character is Nara, who is on a journey to restore the internet. She reconnects with other survivors, by fixing broken routers and restoring dormant networks.


Part II: Five more ways the internet has made human rights worse (the first five) :

  1. Shrinking civic space

The internet has eroded offline civic space, introducing several challenges and negative impacts on the right to protest. Amnesty International reports, “Protesters across the globe are facing a potent mix of pushbacks, with a growing number of laws and other measures to restrict the right to protest; the misuse of force, the expansion of unlawful mass and targeted surveillance; internet shutdowns and online censorship; and abuse and stigmatization.” 

Civic action is more easily censored and deplatformed as most “online space” is private, not public. Governments and law enforcement agencies often monitor online platforms and social media, often in full cooperation with companies, to track the activities of activists and protest organizers. This surveillance can have a chilling effect on individuals' willingness to participate in protests, as they fear retaliation or prosecution. Some actually face it. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a digital rights activist, has been in prison since Egypt’s revolution in 2013. Facial recognition, drones, IMSI catchers and other tools infringe on protesters' privacy and limit their ability to demonstrate anonymously.

  1. Overconsumption and materialism

Overconsumption is closely linked to socioeconomic disparities. In a world where a significant portion of the population struggles to access basic necessities like clean water, food, and healthcare, the overconsumption of resources by more affluent individuals and countries can be seen as a violation of the right to an adequate standard of living. Overconsumption not only exacerbates global inequalities but also diverts resources away from addressing pressing human rights issues. The internet has transformed the way we shop and consume goods and services. E-commerce platforms, online advertising, and targeted marketing have made it easier than ever for consumers to make purchases frictionlessly and in the moment: on impulse. Corporates are better able to nudge consumers to buy bigger, more and more often. This culture of consumerism, driven by the convenience of online shopping and constant exposure to advertisements, has led to overconsumption and the excessive production of goods. Overconsumption hurts individuals’ economic stability, but excessive production is also a drag on the larger economy and leads to inflation and waste. 

  1. Environmental decline

Increased consumption and production of networked devices and hardware places  enormous stress on the environment, contributing to issues like deforestation, pollution, harmful emissions, waste and climate change. The rapid turnover of electronic devices, driven by technological advancements and planned obsolescence, has led to a surge in electronic waste. This e-waste often ends up in developing countries, where the handling of e-waste, which often contains hazardous materials, can lead to health problems and labor rights abuses for those involved in its inadequate recycling and disposal practices. This, as well as mining for the rare minerals used in electronic devices can harm local communities and ecosystems. Energy and water consumption used to power and cool data centers depletes natural resources, entrenches society’s reliance on fossil fuels, and emits carbon dioxide on a scale that has led to the entire planet’s warming. Where climate change’s impact on marginalized communities and underdeveloped countries is greater, there is an amplification factor: the harms related to livelihoods and finance, socio-political conditions, food security, health, water supply, habitat and migration are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. 

While the UN Seabed Authority stewards and protects the ocean floor for the world’s common heritage, the bottom of the sea is just much too valuable a source of precious metals for corporates to leave alone. And while negotiations to open the seabed for mining have given priority to developing countries, the largest multinationals have partnered with small island nations in their project bids. What they’re after: rare metals and minerals that go into our electronics, especially batteries.

  1. Cultural hegemony and homogenization

The dimensions of difference impact and shape our contemporary social landscapes. It is largely accepted that various forms of diversity in representation, such as race, gender, and ethnicity, intersect and shape culture and politics. Power structures and social hierarchies depend upon representation and marginalized groups depend upon visibility to negotiate their identities within the broader societal framework. Homogenization happens when small, localized cultures become less practiced and less visible than large, global cultures– this has been hastened by both globalisation and the internet. 

The interactive “State of the Internet’s Languages” report by Whose Knowledge? maps the way languages are underrepresented in online communities. It is only when one pays attention to the quality of information sharing online that one might see that a queer, visually impaired woman in Bangladesh would have a difficult time accessing online communities or content that helps her explore her sexual interests. Perhaps counterintuitively, genuine subculture does not thrive online as it can offline.

10.Labour and the right to work

Digitalisation is the latest efficiency and austerity effort, first imagined and begun in the 1890s with the filing cabinet as a way to mold information for optimisation. In the decades between vertical efficiency and artificial intelligence, commerce has developed two beliefs simultaneously: that sufficient information produces knowledge and that surpassing human capability is the same as improving upon human capability. Unlike mechanization that replaced manual labor, digitalization has accelerated the peeling away of knowledge workers. Digital platforms have restructured employee-employer relationships to be more flexible for markets but more precarious for workers. A more decentralized workforce will struggle to build solidarity and unionize. Employers adeptly skirt regulations and collective bargaining with a global labor market.

Automation within labor management is incredibly bleak. Hiring algorithms reject candidates who have attended all-women’s colleges. Worker surveillance and monitoring are embedded by employers in the digital tools that their employees must use to do their jobs, violating the right to privacy. Low wage and marginalized workers are more likely to consider on-the-job technology adversarial rather than facilitative.

In conclusion, the erosion of privacy, civic space, cultural fabrics, accountable institutions, the environment and economic equality are problems that each deserve their own course correction. That we are facing them together, along with others not elaborated here, and simultaneously, requires an enormous amount of attention and effort. Constant negativity feels repetitive, demoralizes activists and causes collective anxiety.

To make matters even worse, we are often presented with thought leadership that over simplifies problems and presents magical solutions. That these are often well received is indicative that magical thinking is a collective avoidance tactic. Einstein reminds us that you can’t solve tech with more tech, and when tech feels like the only thing we as a species have gotten right lately we tend to overlook the human rights issues as merely sub-optimal.

Instead what is needed is a managerial approach that balances progress with human rights protections. It also requires restraint. To achieve this balanced approach, we must first cultivate acceptance of our complex and evolving challenges. From there, only a fully apprised vigilance from governments, corporations, and civil society can take into careful consideration radical actions upon a proliferation of efforts directed at every level.

So in an effort to confront the ways in which the internet has had negative consequences for human rights, I’ve had the unfortunate realization that the prevailing notion that the internet is inherently good for human rights is, in fact, incorrect. The conclusion is not less internet. It’s better internet for more people, but we have to actually make that happen, together.

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