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Joana Varon (far left) and Valeria Betancourt (far right).

This presentation was jointly delivered by Joana Varon (Coding Rights) and Valeria Betancourt (APC) at the Global Digital Compact Americas Multistakeholder Consultation held in Mexico City on 15-16 February 2023, organised by the Mexican and German governments in cooperation with the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology.

The formal objectives of the consultation were to:

  • Contribute to the exchange of ideas about the potential as well as the challenges in the future use of digital technologies.

  • Develop actionable inputs regarding digital inclusion to be included in the framework of the Global Digital Compact.

  • Create a shared vision of the challenges and priorities of the Americas regarding digital transformation.

Following the release of the report Our Common Agenda, which proposes, among other recommendations, the development of a Global Digital Compact (GDC) to be agreed upon during the Summit of the Future, various international and regional civil society organisations in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have sought to facilitate discussions with our peers and to organise workshops and meetings with other stakeholders, so as to share our perspectives and identify priorities for the region. In line with these efforts, together with the programming committee of the LAC IGF, our focus for the regional event in 2022 was the discussion of priorities for the Compact. As a result, we have been able to gather numerous contributions that have emerged along the way regarding our digital future, and we would like to use this space for discussion and consultation today to share some of the main propositions that have emerged from the discussions and exchanges held in the region over the course of almost two years related to the theme of this session: digital inclusion, empowerment and active participation.

We will be offering an overview of the challenges that we are currently facing, and which the Global Digital Compact should address.

As this session is meant to address empowerment, I believe that first we need to ask: who holds the power?

The Global Digital Compact is being conceived in a very different tech scenario from the one at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), when the first multistakeholder debates about internet policies and governance were taking shape, and connectivity was the core issue on the agenda. Now, among other things, we live in a context of monopolies of Big Tech companies, which are situated in specific geographies, all operating in a data extractivist model. In this scenario, inclusion is more likely to mean becoming a target of surveillance capitalism. And, as more people "get included", the more information these companies are able to collect, and the more market power they earn – becoming powerful monopolies to an extent never seen before in the history of humankind. Because, as digitalisation progressively pervades every aspect of our societies – economically, culturally and politically – their influence in these spheres also increases. As a result, their political power is greater than many, if not most, national states. So is their power to influence human behaviour and mental health, as the denunciations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Hagen have proven.

Coming from Brazil, after the most important election in the history of our young democracy, I also cannot fail to mention that these monopolies are profiting off of hate and threats to our democracies. Hate speech, gender-based political violence and misinformation about electoral procedures are all promoted and monetised by their algorithms that prioritise engagement, while being biased against LGBTIQA+ and other vulnerabilised communities. Algorithms that operate based on the workforce of content moderators from the global South operating in very poor conditions.

Last but not least, the internet is not a cloud, and artificial intelligence systems are not magic systems; they have materiality. And how this materiality unfolds also expresses power relations. On the map we developed through the project, we show how key minerals for the tech we use are extracted from countries in the global South, with severe socio-environmental impacts. That is the case of the lithium extracted from Chile, Argentina and Bolivia to power batteries. Or the gold that is being illegally extracted from Indigenous land in the Amazon region, poisoning water in Yanomami territory to supply Apple, among others. E-waste is also being dumped mostly in African and Asian countries. In the meantime, countries in the North are the most heavily connected and are the ones who benefit the most. Looking at these extractivism patterns on a map, we can see the maintenance of very colonial power relations. But why would we want a digital transformation that destroys territories, endangers land defenders and ultimately accelerates climate change?

Our main point is that in order to talk about empowerment and participation, first we need to situate Latin America in this context of power asymmetries and recall the geopolitics behind the technologies we use.

For instance, in a scenario of monopolies, framing and defending human rights solely from an individual perspective, though important, is not enough. How can we can consider that consenting to the terms of service and privacy policies of a big tech service is a real and valid consent if we barely have the power to say no? To address these power imbalances, we need to advance in the enforcement of collective rights, through regional and international multilateral agreements – from digital labour unions to data unions to international regulations.

With that in mind, reducing the debate here just to "digital inclusion", or to how to "enable vulnerable communities to produce content", to "be included in tech development", though important, does not address the bigger picture of the problem and tends to maintain the status quo of the practices of surveillance capitalism and digital colonialism, with all the destruction and disempowerment they cause.

It also falls short of the long trajectory of the region in producing critical analysis of tech development. So the proposal here is that we connect the debate with key issues that are also the main focus of debates in other international forums addressing the digital world. Breaking big tech monopolies, addressing gender-based political violence, platform regulation, limiting and prohibition of surveillance tools, socio-environmental justice in tech development, human rights considerations for AI and emerging tech, among others: these are some of the topics that require international coordination to be dealt with as harmful trends, and should be deepened in the GDC consultations.

It is essential to recognise structural inequalities and develop mechanisms to redress them, through investments in education, research and infrastructure that are also structured on the basis of affirmative action – both nationally, considering the inequalities caused by all of the layers of historical oppression and their intersectionalities, and internationally, considering how the consequences of colonisation still guide the power relations of world geopolitics.

Next, we will share more points to be considered as possible approaches to address these challenges.

As noted, there are major challenges that persist, and others that have emerged, with regard to taking full advantage of the benefits and opportunities offered by digital technologies for the common good and digital inclusion. In this context:

  • It is therefore essential to recognise that the design, management and development or evolution of digital spaces and technologies are profoundly shaped by the visions and positions of specific individuals and the interests of corporate and government actors in positions of power, and this has a major impact on the lives of the majority of people, especially those who have historically faced structural and intersecting conditions of inequality, exclusion, discrimination, oppression and violence. It is impossible to talk about digital inclusion and empowerment without taking structural and systemic factors and determinants into account.

  • When it comes to inclusion and empowerment, the how and why are fundamental. Including people in situations of marginalisation in the digital sphere when they do not have the skills needed to use the technologies and create digital content that is relevant to their priorities and their contexts, without the willingness to listen to their needs and priorities, and without viable and sustainable mechanisms for participation, will ultimately do more harm than good. The “digital inclusion” of communities for the sole purpose of feeding into capitalist logics merely exacerbates inequality, oppression and inequity.

  • Communities have a voice, and they can identify their realities and their needs, as well as articulating the most beneficial solutions for their contexts in order to participate in the digital economy and the digital space in general. However, their voices are structurally silenced and their realities are invisibilised, despite the fact that they are the ones who are best able to identify their needs and who should participate in the design of devices, programmes, solutions and decisions that affect their future.

  • Bottom-up participation processes as well as multistakeholder processes are crucial for people to be able to access and use a free and open internet to exercise their agency and autonomy, build collective power, strengthen movements and organisational capacity, and transform power relations. Alongside this, there is a need to establish affirmative political actions and policies to foster meaningful participation.

  • Participation and empowerment in the digital sphere and with regard to digital issues are also related to cybersecurity, particularly in terms of the real and differentiated threats faced by individuals and groups and particularly those subjected to marginalisation, persecution and stigmatisation, and for whom the impacts are also differentiated and disproportionately negative.

  • The promise of innovation is achieving better processes, improving the living conditions of people who have access to technology and use it on a daily basis. However, the boom in platform-mediated work has resulted in more precarious working conditions, where people lose their autonomy and see their freedoms curbed with no recourse to mechanisms that enable their empowerment in the face of decisions made by algorithms that determine their means and conditions of employment.

  • In the meantime, the absence of mechanisms that facilitate access to culture and knowledge within the predominant paradigm of intellectual property hinders the production of relevant and meaningful content that responds to and resonates with people’s needs and realities.

  • Moreover, at a time when there should be the greatest ever circulation of local, situated and diverse content – given the global reach of digital technologies – we are paradoxically facing the imposition of a hegemonic and homogenising culture that neither recognises nor accepts diversity. This standardised cultural expression determines content moderation in a way that results in the cultural imposition of what is deemed proper, acceptable and fit for consumption, with no regard for cultural and linguistic contexts, and ultimately increases bias and the stigmatisation of anything considered different or disruptive.

  • We cannot fail to mention the increase in technology-mediated gender-based violence and the obstacle it poses to active participation and digital inclusion. Gender-based violence has moved from the physical world to the digital space, where it can also take advantage of technological tools to further the reach and scope of violence. This violence deepens the gender divide in access to technology, as online gender-based violence serves to discourage the use of technology and the development of capacities to seize the potential benefits offered by digital tools.

In closing, we would like to put forward a few key questions around priority issues for the region when it comes to digital inclusion, active participation and empowerment, which could be addressed by the upcoming discussion groups:

  • What opportunities are offered by the GDC process and other digital processes more broadly to reaffirm the principle that human rights must be respected both online and offline and to contribute to the protection of human rights?

  • What specific priorities and functions could be recommended for the United Nations system in order to promote digital inclusion, curb the growing power of corporations, and advance towards a free, secure and open internet?

  • How can governments, the private sector and civil society guarantee the use of mechanisms for genuine public participation in the design, development and implementation of digital technologies and policies around these tools that respond to people’s priorities and contexts?

In view of all of the above, we believe that in order to safeguard human rights and build a free, open, inclusive and secure digital space, we must prioritise the concept of the internet as a common good and of rights as collective rights that place priority on the right to a dignified life.

Finally, we would like to reiterate the commitment of our organisations to the GDC process and our willingness to contribute constructively and substantially to the various phases of the process.

Valeria Betancourt is the Programmes and Advocacy Engagement manager at the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network of civil society organisations founded in 1990 dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communications technologies (ICTs), particularly the internet. APC firmly believes that the internet is an enabler of human rights, development and justice, including social, gender and environmental justice.

Joana Varon is a researcher affiliated to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and executive directress at Coding Rights, a feminist organisation based in Brazil. In her work she uses feminist theories and practices as tools for political analysis of power imbalances embedded in the development and deployment of technologies and to envision alternative futures – futures that respect our past and ancestral knowledge.