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Why do we need to speak about digital colonialism?

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Artificial intelligence is creating a new colonial world order. Digital colonialism is rooted in the design of the tech ecosystem for the purposes of profit and plunder.

With FemAI - Center for Feminist Artificial Intelligence and our 9th Feminist AI and Digital Policy Roundtable we are investigating how AI is enriching a powerful few but dispossessing communities that have been dispossessed before.

Two amazing speakers presented unignorable perspectives on the mostly hidden effects of AI and tech solutionism. Thank you very much, Favour Borokini and Patricia Gestoso-Souto for your insights that should get more attention within the current AI race.



How does AI affect African women?

  • Technology is standing for critical infrastructure

  • However, women have less access to the Internet (Digital Gender Divide)

  • Governments believe AI is the solution for most issues without questioning who is included and who is excluded

  • People from the Global North have the power to form narratives and images that do not represent the diversity within our world. Public perception in the Global South is driven by the Global North.

  • Facial recognition, Border control, VISA evaluation algorithm are highly discriminatory against (female) People of Color

  • Mobile devices are the primary devise but who has access to these devices gets asked very rarely

What are the cost of AI?

  • AI has negative effects on the environment. These effects are mostly ignored in AI strategies, policies and project design.

  • Content moderator in Philippines and India causes mental health issues at a very low wage (i.e. raping scenes, discriminative content and porn). Sometimes this leads to suicide.

  • Metal and Lithium mining from regions like D.R. Kongo are associated with terrible working conditions, negative health impact and exploitation

  • 40% of the minors are children (with a 1,25 Dollars payment per day)

  • 80% of the e-waste goes to Asia, and a lot of this is impacting children

What are the risks using AI (without regulation) in Global South?

  • Data protection is not a global framework (i.e. governments starts to predict teenage pregnancies)

  • AI data-labelling firms found cheap and desperate workers amid a devastating economic crisis, creating a new model of labour exploitation.

  • As input data is mostly providing by the global north, applying AI to people from the global south might lead to high error rates

  • Models being overfit to digitally rich profiles, which usually means middle class men, and a lack of ways to interrogate AI

  • The specific needs of African countries are not addressed (i.e. we have more than 3000 languages on the African continent)

  • AI surveillance tools, built on the extraction of people’s behaviours and faces, are re-entrenching racial hierarchies and fuelling a digital apartheid.

  • Google and Facebook dominate the online advertising industry, and are considered an existential threat to local media

  • Facebook’s monopoly power and subjected them censorship and surveillance

What can the Global South do?

  • Free and Open Source Software: to allow transparency without ignoring that only 3-5% of Open Source Software is created by females

  • Taylor-made solutions: As solutions built elsewhere don’t simply transfer without consideration of local context and culture, we need local projects

  • Participation: limited to U.S. allies from Europe and East Asia. No nations from Africa or South America participated in many conferences.

  • Visibility: Mapping AI in the Global South*

  • National AI strategies: the lack of Global South participation in such efforts may have to do with the fact that several countries still lack national AI strategies


It seems that the impact of AI is repeating the patterns of colonial history. The AI industry is recreating this violence today, now using different, more insidious means to enrich the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor. This industry has developed new ways of exploiting cheap and precarious labour, often in the Global South, that are informed by the implicit notion that these populations do not need living wages and economic stability - or they deserve less.


Including the holistic view in AI strategies, policies and project design may help us to address current power distances. Hence, the impact of AI on people and our environment needs to be more present in the current AI debate. With a feminist perspective, we are able to avoid reductionism.

This article intends to put an emphasis on those who most suffer from tech solutionism and are overheard and overlooked in current AI and digital policy processes.




Sources:


❤️ Favour Borokini (PhD Candidate in Immersive Technology Policy at Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training | African AI and Technology Ethics Researcher | CIDOB 35 under 35 Future Leaders Award | Lighthouse3 Rising Stars in AI Ethics Award)


❤️ Patricia Gestoso-Souto (Director Scientific Services and Operations SaaS | Ethical and Inclusive Digital Transformation | Award-winning Inclusion Strategist | International Keynote Speaker | Certified Life and Career Coach | Cultural Broker)

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