Vanilla Plus: What did Covid-19 Do to the Plan for Fair Tech?

Vanilla Plus: What did Covid-19 Do to the Plan for Fair Tech?

This article was originally published at Vanilla Plus on 14 July 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever that it’s only fair that everyone has access to technology and connectivity. During this period, it has been those with access to high-speed internet connections that have been better equipped to continue their lives during 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, says Ivan Ivanov of Access Partnership.

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 second annual online conference, the Fair Tech Forum, which delved into the evolving role of technology on a range of corporate and social issues.

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. Access Partnership’s managing director, Gregory Francis, highlighted at the forum that the need for a more coherent global approach.

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.

A multilateral approach to fair tech

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, director of the telecommunication development bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and a candidate for secretary general of the ITU, at the Fair Tech forum discussed the importance of involving all stakeholders, including the private sector, in tacking some of the greatest challenges of our time, such as Covid recovery, bridging the digital divide and climate change. The convening power of the UN and the ITU can make a huge difference in building a back better world.

Policy makers need insight from tech companies 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.

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, to create a system that is fair, and which allows every society to reap the rewards of technology, global harmonisation of regulation is paramount.

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