Big tech has done a lot of shady stuff in the last few years, but one UN report has shown that the industry is eroding human rights on a global scale through the unregulated use of automated systems that unfairly target poor people.
Tech and humans rights seem like they should be a match made in heaven. After all, the marriage of complex problems and innovative technologies designed to solve them is what the tech industry was built on. However, in recent years, the tech industry has attracted criticism from some quarters for its approach to human rights. From poor working conditions to anti-trust cases, big tech has sometimes struggled to align progress with fairness and transparency.
All this makes the report from the UN all the more unsettling, as it shows an overwhelming lack of regulation when it comes to how technology from these companies is being used throughout the world.
What Did the Report Say?
The report comes from Philip Alston, the current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights at the UN, and plainly states that big tech companies are currently operating within “human rights free-zones” as far as their technology is concerned. As Alston puts it:
“Crucial decisions to go digital have been taken by government ministers without consultation, or even by departmental officials without any significant policy discussions taking place. [Subsequently] digital technologies are employed in the welfare state to surveil, target, harass, and punish beneficiaries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them,” wrote Alston in the UN report.
Alston describes this as the rise of the “digital welfare age,” an era in human history that has now seen entire city, state, and federal budgets dedicated to installing automated services designed to cut costs and improve efficiency at the expense of social programs designed to help the most vulnerable people in our society. And that, in so many words, is bad.
Why Is This a Big Deal?
Criticism of technology — specifically automated systems like artificial intelligence — is all too common in the world today. It's not too hard to pinpoint the reason why, when daily headlines outline poor practice from tech companies, whether it be Facebook's privacy track record with Cambridge Analytica, or the revelation that workers are listening in to our smart device recordings.
The reality is that the technology developed by big tech companies isn't inherently good or bad. Where the problems arise, as Alston points out, is in the overwhelming lack of policy and regulation when it comes to installing this technology into government systems that have real life implications for the most vulnerable people in our society. And if a push for a “lack of regulation” isn't the war cry of the capitalist, we don't know what is.
Can Big Tech Be Trusted?
Right now, it may not seem like it. Yes, some companies have made small efforts here and there, such as Google recently banning payday loan apps, and Facebook donating millions to charity. In the grand scheme of history though, tech companies could be accused of asking if they can do things, rather than whether they should. A lack of moral oversight from some companies is tarnishing tech's reputation as a whole. Even the messaging seems a lot less clear these days. Remember when Google's motto was ‘Don't be evil'? Well, it's officially ditched that, even though it's hard to argue against it.
Apple isn't complying with the already aggressively lax labor laws in China, Google is embroiled in a number of anti-trust cases, and Facebook couldn't find a moral leg to stand on if they were paid to falsely advertise for one. Throw this latest UN report into the mix, and tech has a long way to go before it wins back our trust again.
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