Oxford reflections: Charting a course through digital surveillance, AI's double-edged sword and global cyber politics

Back in the summer of 2023, specifically in July and August, I was honoured to attend the prestigious programme, Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP), at Jesus College, University of Oxford. My time at the oldest university in the English-speaking world offered more than the serenity of the campus: it also afforded a multitude of perspectives. This, while presenting to me an opportunity and platform to learn and ideate around the challenges and opportunities in the digital realm.

Organised by the University of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and the University of Johannesburg’s School of Communication under the theme, “Technology and Policy in Turbulent Times: Whose Right and Whose Responsibilities?”, the 2023 cohort was attended by an incredible group of colleagues, from career scholars to media lawyers to policymakers. Over two weeks, we focused on exploring the current global tech law and policy challenges. These included AI's role in content moderation, internet shutdowns in Africa during government elections, media and tech regulation challenges in the Ukraine war, Big Tech's content moderation issues in Kenya, and the evolving landscape of technology-driven misinformation in Latin America and India.

Guided by leaders in the field of digital rights and global media policy and government – such as Titi Akinsanmi, an expert in African digital economy policy, and Patricia Adusei-Poku, the executive director of Ghana’s Data Protection Commission – the discussions were quite profound. For me, they were very informative and had me drawing insights that were relevant to a lot of the work I do, particularly around data governance and digital inclusion. The knowledge I obtained from the institute included the nuanced relationship between EU’s AI Act and its digital laws, as presented by the act’s drafter Gabriele Mazzini. I was also enlightened on Africa's advancements in the field and challenges voiced by Patricia Adusei-Poku. Additionally, the transformative impact of social media in areas such as migration was a key takeaway. All these bolster our collaboration potential with global South organisations, particularly feminist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As I dive more into my reflections, here are just a few key takeaways from the programme:

Geopolitics and the digital realm: Our exploration of "cognitive warfare" painted a vivid picture of the far-reaching implications of geopolitics in this age. The discussions, using the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts as a stark backdrop, emphasised that modern warfare transcends physical boundaries, infiltrating perceptions and core beliefs. In an era marked by relative truths, this Orwellian tilt to warfare underscores the imperative for vigilance. More than ever, we need to ensure that the narratives defining the African digital landscape are free from manipulative external influences pursuing geopolitical agendas.

The rise of digital constitutionalism: An “ideology” that aims to establish a normative framework for protecting fundamental rights and balancing powers in the digital environment. The concept of digital constitutionalism, now evolving with trends like fragmentation and polarisation, was illuminating. This shift not only pertains to the governance of digital infrastructure but also redefines the balance between freedom and power online. As both liberal and illiberal regimes shape digital spaces, it underscores the intertwined nature of internet rules and constitutionalism. Challenges arise as these regimes navigate safeguarding rights while managing power dynamics, all further complicated by the global influence of technologically advanced countries such as the US and China. This insight strengthens my conviction that as we shape policies, they must be forward-looking, ensuring they remain relevant and protective even as the digital landscape evolves.

AI's double-edged sword: The sessions on AI underscored its transformative potential and inherent vulnerabilities. While the revolution AI promises across numerous sectors is undeniable, it's essential to approach it with a balanced perspective. Personal interactions with generative artificial intelligence tools like Gemini (formerly Bard) and ChatGPT, accentuated the fact that AI, while powerful, is not error-free. As we move forward, there's a need to harness AI's potential judiciously while putting safeguards in place against its imperfections.

The shifting sands of global internet governance: Tracing the evolution of internet governance from its origins, spurred by uncertainties around radio regulations, revealed an evolving and sometimes fractured landscape. With nations like China and Russia adopting more stringent internet policies, coupled with increasing surveillance apprehensions, there's a tangible shift in public trust in online platforms. This knowledge intensifies the dedication to championing digital rights, ensuring the African digital realm remains cohesive, protected and genuine to its constituents.

Surveillance, technology and human rights: One of the most thought-provoking sessions at Oxford delved into the challenging nexus of surveillance technology and human rights, sparked by the emergence of targeted tools like the Pegasus Project. Civil society groups, such as Access Now, argue that specific technologies might inherently clash with human rights, but governments often counter by asserting their use on "legitimate" targets. To harmonise surveillance with human rights, a framework – drawing largely from Access Now's principles – was discussed, encompassing legality, legitimate aim, proportionality, transparency, unbiased public oversight, and rigorous due diligence of technologies. Yet, a resonating caveat emerged: no single tech or legal solution can comprehensively address the human rights dilemmas in surveillance.

My reflections from Oxford PCMLP, particularly on generative AI, freedoms of expression, digital surveillance and tech-facilitated violence, have profoundly underscored the significance of my day-to-day work. This experience has crystallised my vision and deepened my understanding of digital inclusion and AI regulation, making my contribution to addressing online violence and safeguarding digital rights even more clear and profound. The invaluable insights from Oxford PCMLP will be meticulously woven into our strategies, reshaping our approaches and initiatives. As we move forward, our focus remains unwavering: understanding geopolitics, upholding internet constitutionalism, maximising AI's promise while being mindful of its flaws, and adapting to the ever-evolving terrain of internet governance.

Our commitment to collaboration remains undiminished. By joining forces with entities across the global South, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, we aspire to co-craft a digital realm that's just, inclusive and reflective of our shared aspirations. The journey is  complex, but with shared wisdom and unity, we are poised to redefine the digital narratives of our age.

Applications are now open for the Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute, hosted by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford from 29 July  to 9 August 2024. This year's theme is "Technology, Policy and Democracy in Flux: From Inequalities to Inclusion". You can apply by 24 March 2024 for an early decision, and 24 April 2024 is the final deadline.

 

Gilbert Beyamba is a 2023 alumnus of the programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford. His attendance was facilitated by the APC Member Engagement and Travel Fund (METF) while still director of programmes at Pollicy, an APC member.
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