Living in a digital society – but at what cost?

The digital revolution and access to online spaces has transformed the ways we communicate, work, and organise. It has also become critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – not least SDG target 5b to ‘Enhance the use of enabling technology to promote the empowerment of women’.

This digital transformation has been accelerated over the past two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the European Commission going so far as to note the pandemic’s potential ‘positive’ impact in “increasing further the number of internet users and their interactions online“.  Yet research carried out by the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster since the start of the pandemic compellingly illustrates the costs of inclusion in digital societies to individuals, democratic institutions, and the economies of lower income countries.

In their work with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Kevin Hernandez and Tony Roberts also outlined the challenges of governance in a world where a significant percentage of the world’s social, economic and political life now takes place on digital platforms. Platforms that are owned by private monopolies whose algorithms are optimised for private profit, cannot be held accountable, or democratically governed to service development or human rights goals.

Imbalance of power in digital trade provisions

Research by Karishma Banga has highlighted the digital trade provisions in trade agreements, showing how African countries are entering continental negotiations at a severe disadvantage. This is unsurprising given that the revenue of the big five firms (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook) reached $7.5 trillion in 2020, which was three times the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of all African nations combined. She argues that we need to understand the embedded power structures in digital development – which are vividly illustrated by the involvement of global technology companies such as Google in lobbying in Kenyan trade agreements.

Digital-only access to work and social assistance

In our research carried out for the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre Kevin Hernandez and I have been looking at how decisions made by powerful digital actors shape experiences for different users based on their levels of digital access. As access to job seeking and welfare during the pandemic moved online, we sought to understand the impact on people with limited digital access and skills. As a welfare advisor in the UK put it “At the very basic level you need some kind of Internet access these days to administer a benefit [Welfare] claim… It’s become as vital as water and electricity.”  Yet we found that already marginalised individuals were especially vulnerable to being further excluded by services that were only available digitally during the pandemic.

This move to online only service provision is also the case in the humanitarian context. Our recent working paper for the BASIC project shows that there are also significant risks involved when people have to provide personal information for digital databases to humanitarian agencies in order to access social assistance. Amid increasing pressures to digitise the whole value chain of humanitarian cash assistance, our research highlights a raft of key issues requiring further scrutiny, from the purported ‘value for money’ to the technical effectiveness of biometric ID systems. Issues that have become even more urgent by the recent revelations of a cyber-attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross resulting in the leak of personal data of more than half a million people registered on their international family tracing service.

Online backlash against women

Mobile phones and internet technologies are being used positively by women and marginalised groups to access information, organise on online spaces to demand their rights, and to influence policy and political change. However, the same online technologies are also used to disrupt civil society, spread disinformation, target online hate speech and to silence dissent. In our work with the Countering Backlash programme we are collaborating with partner organisations to research the online backlash against women’s rights, which threatens not only women’s rights to be seen and heard online, but our economic right to access platforms which are essentially now our workplaces; vital for commerce, professional engagement, job seeking, and distribution of our creative outputs.

Online civic space and surveillance

Finally, people’s ability to act using digital tools or online digital spaces in ways that allow people to exercise, expand, and defend their rights and freedoms has been growing in political importance over the past decade. However, this digital citizenship is threatened by digital authoritarianism, as explored by Tony Roberts in his case study with Tanja Bosch for the OECD’s recent Development Cooperation Report.

The work of the African Digital Rights Network shows how digital authoritarianism in the forms of digital surveillance, online disinformation, and internet shutdown by states and corporations  – violate human rights, close civic space, and reduce the space for digital citizenship. Their research across ten African countries identified 115 “digital closings” of civic space including mandatory mobile SIM card registration and social media taxes, and only 65 positive examples of “digital openings”, including social media activism and innovations to provide transparency and track corruption. Their work on Surveillance Law in Africa showed that governments are carrying out illegal digital surveillance of their citizens, highlighting the need for strong civil society, independent media and independent courts to challenge government actions.

This snapshot of research from the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster and our partners demonstrates the importance of contributing to understandings of power asymmetries and exclusions in all aspects of our digital lives; from political mobilisation, to e-commerce negotiations and access to welfare payments. This knowledge will be critical for policymakers and practitioners within development seeking to further social, environmental and gender justice in today’s digital world.

With thanks to Jasmin Morris for her contributions to this opinion article.