By NEHA BHARDWAJ
Contention over human rights is by no means a new phenomenon. Civil activism and protest have long been the primary sources of such contention, but with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the obligation to safeguard human rights has fallen to governments. In recent years, the expansion of technology has created a nebulous intersection of the public and private sectors that has ultimately given rise to a new host of human rights concerns. Despite growing opposition to technological advancement and increasing calls to set an immediate digital ceiling, what we truly need is to institute new protections to ensure that technology can be enjoyed for its vast benefits without raising concerns over human rights.
A primary dispute is the increase in artificial intelligence and automation and its impact on industry. According to World Economic Forum, Machine Learning is expanding rapidly, potentially offering the key to a multitude of promising new technologies, ranging from cancer diagnosis to autonomous cars. Companies like HireVue are using AI and facial analysis to judge applicants and make the hiring process more efficient. Newly-available data has also shown potential for massive societal benefits, as big data analysis can use this data to identify key trends and provide early warnings for critical disasters before they occur, aiding their prevention and rapid response.
However, upon closer examination, troubling concerns over the fidelity of data arise. Inadequate data availability and biased or error-ridden data often infect results with data-related discrimination. For instance, in the aforementioned hiring technologies, algorithms mimic human decision-making, which can be biased. Moreover, the rapid rise of AI and automation is disrupting the global jobs market and significantly impacting labor rights by reducing the demand for certain skills. In fact, experts estimate that by next year, eighty-five percent of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent. According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, the use of machines to bolster productivity could drastically intensify inequality through depression of wages and loss of jobs. The growth of the “gig economy,” facilitated by technology, has increased the availability and flexibility of some positions, offering new opportunities to some while negatively affecting others. Misuse of personal data has also raised concerns regarding big data analytics (Business for Social Responsibility).
Freedom of speech and expression have proven to be equally divisive. The Internet provides ample opportunity for billions of individuals to freely express their thoughts and opinions on a global scale. Free speech has historically proven to be a much-needed and highly-valued check on government power to ensure that the voices of the people are heard and their needs are met. The Internet and social media also enable activists and charities to organize movements and spread their message more quickly and to broader global audiences.
On the other hand, governments around the world are notorious for suppressing free speech by digitally interfering in elections and slowing economies (World Economic Forum). Issues of “fake news” – again tying back to the idea of fidelity of digital information – have severely hindered elections in the United States, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Hate speech and extremist content also pose a critical concern, as they can be spread over massive distances in a short period of time and often culminate in violent demonstrations, mob activity, and an impediment to social and political progress. Governments are attempting to address this concern by pursuing increased, “monitoring, surveilling, removing, and blocking of certain types of content” (Business for Social Responsibility).
Finally, privacy rights are a keystone controversy in determining the future of technological development. As technology advances, the distinction between the private and public spheres is blurring and the right to privacy is being threatened. According to the Business for Social Responsibility, governments and technology companies have been increasingly plagued by, “the difficulty of obtaining informed consent from citizens for data use, [and] the need to establish privacy protocols for who has access to data, who controls data, and how data is used.” All devices connected to the Internet have the ability to access and track our personal data, from location tracking to built-in video cameras. The associated violations of privacy rights have bled into the world of children as well. There is a growing industry of “smart toys,” equipped with AI and speech recognition software that can send personal data back to the manufacturers (World Economic Forum).
Such concerns have brought the international community to fever pitch, and the clamor does not show signs of dying down. Two possible courses of action have presented themselves: cutting technological advancement off at the legs and moving away from its proliferation, or pursuing a world where humanitarian rights are bolstered, not impeded, by technology. Ultimately, despite the seeming severity of the aforementioned contentions, we cannot disregard the overwhelming benefits that technology can offer our society. Thus, the answer cannot and should not be to condemn technology in its entirety. Rather, the core of the issue lies in the fact that technological advancements have vastly outpaced society and policymakers. Proliferation and development of technology have charged forward at the speed of light, heralding in a new age dubbed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” while governments have not been able to institute appropriate policies, laws, and statutes to regulate technology at a matched rate.
Recently, the international community has seen intensified efforts to address this exact issue. Microsoft is collaborating with the United Nations to develop Rights View, which will allow UN human rights staff to accumulate large quantities of data on specific rights violations in real time. In addition, OCHA has opened a Centre for Humanitarian Data, and agencies like NASA and NOAA have been using technology to predict massive natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum has co-hosted a workshop to discuss civil society and technology with the UN and Microsoft. These discussions yielded the creation of the Partnership on AI, an example of public-private collaboration to address the crisis.
Although these are admirable and promising steps in the right direction, everyone seems to be in agreement that we still are not doing enough. We need targeted, comprehensive policies on both the national and international levels to address the issues of data discrimination, privacy, hate speech and extremist content, transparency, and child rights. Leaders are now calling for civil society, policymakers, and technology companies to take a greater responsibility in ensuring that human rights are at the core of future technological use and advancement. In the face of rapidly intensifying controversy and division, it seems high time we answer that call.