#InternetPizzaFriday Roundup: Is Technology Neutral?

In the first iteration of our three part series of #InternetPizzaFriday ‘s at the iHub, the Research team tackled the question: “Is technology neutral?” What comes next is a natural progression of this analysis, where we try to understand what it means to be neutral. According to Merriam-Webster neutral basically means not being engaged on either side; not aligned with a political or ideological grouping; a neutral nation.

So with this understanding then, is technology really neutral?

Technology as it exists bears:

  • the intention of it’s creator
  • the possibilities and limits of its design; and
  • the foreseen and unforeseen results of its implementation

Bearing this in mind, technology being neutral is an aspiration, and not a current reality, and this can be showcased with a couple examples in the Kenyan context:

Free Basics

Kenya is no stranger to the net neutrality discussion. Airtel Africa in 2015, partnered with Facebook to launch Free Basics Services in 17 African countries, among them Kenya. As part of the Free Basics services, customers with an airtel mobile connection would be able to access all the services that form part of Free Basics, without paying extra for data charges or rental. Facebook were very keen on putting at the forefront the message, that Free Basics would aid in bringing more people online and reduce the digital divide, and that access to the internet is a basic internet right, which we would be hard pressed to argue with such noble convictions and goals.

However, a closer look at the Free Basics program, reveals that it offers access to some sites and not others, while being able to read all data passing through the platform. Wouldn’t this then pose concerns surrounding user free will and security, which should ideally be front and centre of principles surrounding technology?

At the same time, it is important to note, the difficult position we are in when we argue against free access to the internet, when 3.9 billion are still unconnected. Access to the internet, IS a human right. However, we need to objectively consider the risk of such programs being susceptible to manipulation and control. Furthermore, the problematic nature of providing partial access, masked as full access, should make us all question the motives of such initiatives. In retrospect Facebook’s recent  and not so recent troubles, should propel us towards being more analytical of the Free Basics offering and the importance of users’ free will.

Unlike in India, Kenya has not experienced much resistance of the Free Basics program, and this makes you wonder how governments lack of infrastructure development influenced this turn of events, making it convenient in the face of lack of alternatives or government intervention.

Cambridge Analytica

During the 2017 elections, it was revealed that Kenyans’ data was mined to help win a heavily contested election, with the help of Cambridge Analytica. Kenyan voters were psychologically manipulated, by the use of apocalyptic ads and smear campaigns against the opposition candidate, painting him as violent, corrupt and dangerous1. Unfortunately, Kenya with its weak privacy laws and lack of implementation are a fertile ground for organisations such as Cambridge Analytica to run their unethical programs.

Online Harassment

As more and more Kenyans connect to the internet, the internet has subsequently become a dangerous place with women facing the biggest brunt of cyberbullying, revenge porn, doxxing and stalking. Due to the patriarchal nature of the Kenyan society, women face an inordinate amount of online harassment, when you compare it to their male counterparts. Furthermore, majority of these online platforms have challenges addressing harassment on them (as a result of substandard and biased reporting functions), thus propagating these inequalities.

In a technological aspect, you may ask yourself how we end up with such flawed online platforms, and we can see an example here of how Facebook has been engineered to be biased against black children and to protect white men. Remember as we earlier stated, more often than not, “technology bears the intention of its creator”. This introduces the concept of privilege and power differentials in the neutrality discussion. By definition, privilege is an unearned advantage given because a person is born into a certain group in society. Privilege in society then takes different forms, through our gender and gender identity, education levels, class (social and economic status), sexuality, race, skin tone, body size, religion, mental and physical ability, debt, employment status and many others.

By being conscious about our privilege and subsequent bias, then we can proactively work towards eliminating it in our everyday lives and especially in technology.

As the event wound up, my parting shot was pointing out the importance of challenging cultural perceptions and bias, and re-imagining new ways of thinking and doing things in the age of technology; while being cognizant of power differentials. Only then can we truly make substantial steps towards making technology neutral.

1How Cambridge Analytica poisioned Kenya’s Democracy

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