The Structural Blindspot
In the month of March, every year, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) convenes an annual meeting where representatives of member states come together to identify critical challenges and evolve new concrete policy directions for advancing the gender equality agenda worldwide. This year, in its 67th session that is scheduled to be held between 6-17 March 2023, the UN CSW is examining the priority theme of ‘Innovation and Technological change and Education in the Digital Age’ in order to set a new global agenda for the empowerment of all women and girls. The outcome document, ‘CSW67 Agreed Conclusions’, will encapsulate the so-called world community’s political vision on gender and digital technologies.
The negotiating text of the draft provides a peek into what is taking shape on the gender consensus for digital innovation. Despite its useful focus on “the full, equal, and meaningful participation” of women in the digital paradigm, the text betrays an anachronistic techno-solutionism that limits this idea to women’s inclusion in connectivity and gender-aware techno-design. Without a giant leap in imagination that situates the language in the current political economy of gender and technology, the distance to transformation in the digital age will remain untraversed.
The draft Agreed Conclusions do not recall the short but tumultuous history of the digital. References to equipping women for the “millions of decent and quality jobs created by the digital transition” and redistributing care work burdens by “promoting work-life balance” reveal a myopia about the systemic exclusions of the emerging digital economic order. The collinearity of extreme, unprecedented inequality in the world borne disproportionately by women and the consolidation of intellectual monopoly power of Big Tech corporations is not accidental. It is the reality of a regime designed for status quoism.
References to equipping women for the “millions of decent and quality jobs created by the digital transition” and redistributing care work burdens by “promoting work-life balance” reveal a myopia about the systemic exclusions of the emerging digital economic order.
The absence of a structural perspective in the document – one that can unravel the ideologies and manner in which techno-social processes have produced societal outcomes – results in a policy vision that is rather glib and tired. Yes, we do need “inclusion” and “diversity” in digital innovation ecosystems. But, is that to be reduced to the capacities and expertise of companies and academia for stimulating the development of digital solutions?
The weight of evidence about the misdeeds of Big Tech is crushing. Research indicates that platform companies are eager to embrace rainbow capitalism when LGBTQI identity politics can be gamed for the eyeball economy, but blatantly disregard the investments needed in algorithmic content moderation to prevent sexist hate. The ChatGPT story shows how the inherent prejudices in datasets and under-investment in the crucial work of good-quality data collection and annotation have created a world that is alarmingly sexist and racist. Add to this the dataveillance apparatus of the state that polices women and girls, and automated welfare systems that are built to exclude, and what we get is a digital age that signals a gender emergency.
The reinforcement of gender injustices by the current innovation paradigm cannot be ignored. Its roots – in virtue signaling by digital corporations ready to peddle the next app and policy fait accompli by rapidly centralizing digital states – must be called out.
Digital tech is no benign tool, it is, what feminists would call, ‘deep structure’.
Yes, we do need “inclusion” and “diversity” in digital innovation ecosystems. But, is that to be reduced to the capacities and expertise of companies and academia for stimulating the development of digital solutions?
Making CSW67 Gender-transformative
It is evident that the ‘CSW67 Agreed Conclusions’ need to shift focus and center the urgent need to redirect the vision and pathway of digital innovation for a new feminist development framework. A just digital transition is not optional; it is the only way people and the planet can be protected from corporate excesses that exploit women and threaten life and lifeworlds (paying heed to Para 3 of the Beijing Declaration and its call to equality, development, and peace as a necessary condition for all humanity). From this standpoint, we recommend that the following agenda be incorporated into the final outcome that is adopted by CSW67.
(a) Address corporate impunity for women’s human rights abuses
Exhorting transnational corporations to “avoid human rights violations or gender bias” does not address the corporate accountability imperative. Technology-mediated violence and incursions on women’s privacy online are a direct result of choices in techno-environments controlled by corporations. They cannot be seen merely as individualized attacks or crimes. Algorithmic affordances programmed for profit need to be called to account for creating and perpetuating human rights abuses against women.
The ‘CSW67 Agreed Conclusions’ must demand new regulatory benchmarking for the democratic governance and independent public oversight of commercial digital innovation. The proposed UN Global Digital Compact presents an opportunity to call for binding obligations with respect to transparency, accountability, and compliance, including pre-emptive and post-facto audits and assessments, in corporate-controlled, algorithm-mediated platform ecosystems. The Agreed Conclusions must leverage this unique moment, invoking the Compact and also calling attention to women workers’ foundational rights in digital labor platforms, including freedom from algorithmic surveillance. A vast terrain of data rights remains to be covered in the current text; from civic guarantees in digital governance systems managed by private corporations to protection from exploitation by agri-tech, fintech, and other digital corporations.
(b) Accord primacy to public financing for digital infrastructure and innovation
It is time to acknowledge unequivocally that market-led digital innovation, while driving unprecedented private wealth generation, has contributed little towards public and social value. The gender digital divide cannot be bridged meaningfully unless the benefits of innovation can be democratized. A strong role for public digital innovation emerges in this regard; with infrastructures grounded in feminist and communitarian approaches.
Algorithmic affordances programmed for profit need to be called to account for creating and perpetuating human rights abuses against women.
The Agreed Conclusions must underscore the role of public financing mechanisms for development of gender-responsive national digital policies and frameworks. A shift in frame is in order here, this is a much-needed transition from bridging divides to creating and provisioning feminist infrastructures and public innovation systems. For the guarantee of universal, equal, and safe access to platform, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructures to be available to all women and girls, developed countries need to commit concrete Official Development Assistance targets. International financial institutions must be called upon to create new mandates to enable and support developing countries to build digital capabilities for domestic development and gender equality.
(c) Expand the data governance agenda beyond personal data protection
Self-determination in data is both a political and economic right. This means protections for privacy must go hand-in-hand with the right to equally access benefits from the data commons.
The Agreed Conclusions must urge an effective commoning of digital, data, and AI resources to benefit women and girls. The international community must embrace the urgency for a new global digital constitutionalism to promote a radical and emancipatory vision of our digital futures. We need an international data order based on sovereign equality of all nations and peoples, designed for gender justice and the equal right of women in community data stewardship. Laying the ground at the CSW through progressive text in these directions will augur well for the outcomes of the Global Digital Compact.
(d) Endorse a vision of democratic global governance of the digital
Smooth endorsements of multistakeholderism often overlook the powerful corporate interests at play in digital policymaking.
CSW67 must clarify that the spirit of multistakeholder collaboration in the development of digital ecosystems should adhere to Paras 35 and 61 of the WSIS Tunis Agenda, underscoring that while stakeholders must be able to contribute in their respective roles towards democratic development of public policies, public policy processes themselves remain the right and duty of States. Needless to say, our futures in the digital age require new visions, processes, and mechanisms, nationally and globally, to create and sustain ‘listening institutions’ that heed to the voices of the most marginalized women. The Agreed Conclusions must commit to the role of democratic institutions in enabling the creation and flourishing of digital infrastructure and innovation ecosystems. This is non-negotiable if we seek fair and equitable economies, accountable polities, and pluralistic societies, grounded in a robust commitment to women’s human rights and gender equality.