The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever that it’s only fair that everyone has connectivity. During this period, it has been those with access to gardens and high-speed internet connections that have been better equipped for lockdowns. However, as it stands, connectivity isn’t something to be enjoyed by all and barriers remain not only to this, but also in access to technology and digital literacy for all.
With technology acting as a key enabler of economic growth, for starters, it’s vital that everyone is granted the same ease of access and use. Currently, what technology companies offer is not perfect, as such it’s important to find a way to code fairness into technology that is beneficial for all societies and enables them to build upon technology in ways that are fair and lasting.
To define ‘Fair Tech’ and identify the challenges in our quest to achieve it, Access Partnership organised its inaugural online conference, the Fair Tech Forum, on 15 July across multiple time zones with panels from APAC, EMEA and the Americas.
A path to fair tech
Today, operating internationally requires every technology company to subscribe to each government, each issue and each piece of legislation, year by year. As aspects such as legislation differ from country to country, and even sometimes from state to state, this is costly and time-intensive. Fairness is something that both governments and technology companies want to achieve, however, the route to this point is yet to be agreed upon.
As they look to solve this problem, one approach is for governments to develop new regulatory capabilities, although this piecemeal approach is heavy on resources, only provides fairness in some places and isn’t always fair on users. In his opening keynote, Access Partnership’s Managing Director, Gregory Francis, highlighted the need for a more coherent global approach, for example, through standards such as the Budapest Convention, the first international treaty that addresses cybercrime by harmonising national laws and increases cooperation among nations. By finding such an institution, governments will satisfy their needs for effective regulation. Also, markets will be predictable and transparent, making it easier to operate and enforce trust. The latter option is likely to be better equipped to provide fairness everywhere.
The current discourse, however, between governments and technology companies doesn’t look like it will reach a point that is fair fast enough and if a path to fairness isn’t agreed upon soon, it’s likely that in 20 years there will be an even greater big tech and digital divide worldwide. Therefore, a framework is needed to hardwire fairness into technology for the benefit of the international community and to ensure that the benefits of technology reach the people who need it most. As the international community develops a framework for fair tech, one of the key considerations should be global data policy.
Harmonisation of data policies
Data policy and the protection of individuals’ data has been up for debate for many years. However, as with every other aspect of technology, there is not a single global approach to data policy. Instead, they are set by different bodies depending on where you are located with varying impacts on both technology companies and consumers. Therefore, a universal approach to data policy is needed to make it fair for all involved – ranging from technology companies to governments, and consumers.
Since its introduction two years ago, the European Commission’s GDPR has – somewhat by accident – become the gold standard for data protection. The implementation of the regulation was timely, introduced at during a period when the techlash debate was just beginning to gather pace due to growing awareness of how global platforms were treating, or mistreating, data. By and large, GDPR has been seen as a success and the EU has become the de facto global leader on data regulation, inspiring other countries around the world to implement similar European-style regulations in this field.
This harmonisation of legislation across Europe is a positive move and is an indicator of how one policy can be implemented across multiple jurisdictions. A coordinated approach would be welcomed in many different technological spaces, including in handling digital trade and cross border data flow, which is where organisations such as the UN have big roles to play as they have the insight needed to see what works in one country and how it could be replicated in another.
Cooperation among big tech platforms
Given the evolving nature of regulation, some of the impetus needs to be put on technology companies to act responsibly and consider not only how they hope their tech will be used but also how it is used in practice. Ultimately, technology companies make their own decisions about the products and services they want to offer and the business practices they want to adopt, and it is these factors that have the biggest impact on consumers. This means if businesses choose to operate under a model that is less privacy friendly or protective of society’s interest, creating a regulatory system that will catch those who fail to adhere to regulations will be extremely difficult.
Also, policy makers need insight from these platforms in order to be able to better understand and regulate these areas, thus big tech companies should play an active role in moving the discussion of technology regulations along and discuss what they as platforms can do. Cooperation across platforms could also bring together standards in terms of how users are treated, and the terms and conditions they sign up to. With online platforms taking a harmonised approach to data policy, creating regulatory frameworks would be much easier, while users of these platforms would be granted more peace of mind.
A multilateral approach to fair tech
Multilateral systems have traditionally been a space in which governments talk to other governments, and businesses only speak to other businesses. But what is needed now is an approach in which these different parties work together to create standards that interoperate around the world. This will allow systems to scale and help to build a fairer technology sector, for all involved. With the aim of creating a fair system in which every society has access to the same tools needed to grow economically and thrive, it’s essential that developing countries also have a seat at the table in these discussions. Multilateral actors like the UN will play an instrumental role in helping developing countries participate and contribute to global policy discussions, and to also learn from how other countries have tackled such issues. Ultimately, in order to create a system that is fair, and which allows every society to reap the rewards of technology, global harmonisation of regulation is paramount.
Author: Ivan Ivanov, Senior Marketing Manager, Access Partnership