As great an event as the Web Summit in Lisbon was in November, distinctly lacking were conversations about the relationship between these new technologies and human rights. Even less were discussions about what AI (artificial intelligence) – the buzzword of the conference – means, or could mean, for developing countries. Conversations about automated driving and VR (virtual reality) porn, while fascinating, felt far flung from the lives of the majority of the world’s population, and the biggest issues our world faces today.

That’s why Renata Avila, Senior Digital Rights Advisor for the World Wide Web Foundation, caught my eye on the list of speakers. Avila is a Guatemalan human rights lawyer working in the intersection between human rights, information, technological change and the power disparities between the Global North and South. She was part of the team of lawyers representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and sits on the Board of Creative Commons. I was honored to speak to her at length about digital rights, AI in developing countries, and what a decentralized internet might look like.

How will artificial intelligence and other new technologies affect developing countries?

The problem is that we don’t even understand or have data on how countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia will be affected. It’s a very different phenomenon when you do not have access to the knowledge, when you don’t have a team of engineers working on this technology at home. Or maybe you do – but the problem is we don’t know. So that’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is trying to map and identify the potential opportunities and problems brought by artificial intelligence in certain contexts and countries.

Think for example of obsolescence of works – like call centre jobs, which were really promising for transitional economies, will disappear. Not only will these workers be out of jobs very soon, but there’s also the question of the next generation. Are children today in Uganda, in Guatemala, in Indonesia, learning the right skills? Will their skills make sense for the new economy? Or will we create two worlds, one which is super developed with automated everything, and with really little space for low skill jobs, and the other – the rest of the world, left out of this big sophisticated economy? To an extent this is already happening, even within the same city.

Are these technologies only going to create more global inequality then?

The thing is that we are dealing at with so many pressing issues at the same time and sometimes this issue is seen as shallow. They needed food, now they need connectivity? But the fact is that those who are not connected are further excluded. The last ten years have changed everything – now companies, governments, public interest media and so on, rely on the internet to communicate with citizens.

Radio is more and more obsolete. And radio stations, including community radio stations, get most of their content from online – someone is connected and then communicates by radio. So the old media is linked to the new media. Whats more, new media is mostly an English only media, on top of the issue of power over the media being concentrated in a few hands. Now we have that with social media too.

Most governments see this as just an economic issue but it’s not. It’s a multilayered problem that is hitting those countries that are left out of this game hardest because they arrived late. They’re in a very precarious position. It’s an issue that even touches cultural rights: the right to participate in culture, the right not to be excluded from a global conversation.

Is that what you mean by digital rights and digital equality?

Yes, but it’s not only about connectivity. What we advocate for is first the respect of fundamental rights, online and offline, regardless of medium. We need to respect and defend the rights that took us so many wars and struggles to achieve.

But those rights are no longer enough. So at the World Wide Web Foundation we want to push for more rights as well as better preservation of the rights that we already have. We need to think about algorithm transparency and accountability, about data portability and the right to your own data. These kind of new rights need to be discussed at a global level, and there should not only be Europeans and Americans leading this but diverse voices from around the world.

Can international human rights law as it stands be used to defend digital rights?

For some, yes. Other phenomena are different. Like when you have to deal with robots, when you have to deal with new processes and technologies. For example the right to protest: we have it. More or less through the years we have managed to have gatherings of people protesting peacefully, not so controlled by the government. But this is in a physical space. How does it manifest online? Do I have the same right to gather, to exercise collectively? And what will be the manifestations of this? There are many gray areas and one of the main things that we need to do is to educate policymakers, the judiciary and the media on those – first that you have these rights, and then that we need to protect and defend them.

There is little progress in this area, but there is some. General awareness on the cost and harm of disconnecting people from the internet or internet shutdowns is a small first step. There’s also a general awareness of surveillance, though that’s one of the areas that instead of advancing we have a regression because many of the bad practices got legalized.

Then take hate speech. If you incite people to commit genocide by radio, or Twitter, or Facebook, or by pasting posters in your neighbourhood, it’s the same – and it is it is universally recognized as a crime. Racism is different because in some countries it is regulated and in other countries it is more liberal. For example in my country Guatemala, racism and discrimination are crimes. And regardless of whether you use Twitter or you upload a racist video on YouTube, you face the consequences.

So we need to respect local laws. I don’t like it when people say “oh let’s defend the free and open Internet” as though it was a person. At the same time, there will always been some opinions which you will never make everyone happy about. Remember how upset people were in the past for the rights of women, how sad people were about children of different races in the same school? What is not acceptable today, what might make us uncomfortable to hear, may be the normal of tomorrow. But by banning speech and opinions that upset us and opinions that we disagree with, we get nothing. We gain more control from the state and from corporations on different forms of speech.

This is why distinctions between hate speech and opinion need to be made my humans, not machines. This should be an example of an assessment that public authorities should be involved in – not only private companies like Facebook and Google. They are so far away from the problems, and so disconnected and so big. That’s why another thing that might make our rights online more effectively protected is the decentralization of the web.

What would a decentralized web look like?

At the beginning, the web was easier to govern and manage, but now its power is so concentrated that if there is a glitch the effect is huge. One thing I’d like to see is decentralized social media. Imagine if we didn’t have just one or two social media platforms. Some might argue you lose the power of the network if you fragment it, but I disagree because you can feather it but have decentralised points of control.

In order to do this we’d need to enable small companies to grow and to flourish everywhere, and then link them. One of my favourite examples is the postal service. Pre-internet the world managed to communicate with each other all the time, with different languages, different protocols, different offices, in some parts public and in some parts private, and it worked well with general rules.

Why don’t we do the same with social media? It would make more sense. You check your own social media but you can also connect with the social media somewhere else. If you are a European newspaper you use a European platform instead of Facebook – then your rights as a European citizen would be protected. And an African platform would have site usability closer to what Africans need – it would have the option of all the languages of Africa represented, would be coded locally, stored locally, and connected with the rest of the world.

We have stopped considering the local possibilities and fallen into the monopoly trap. Right now as we all use the same platform we get nothing out if it because our data is only benefitting big companies like Facebook and Google. But imagine an alternative. If the citizens of say, Uganda, wanted to develop artificial intelligence and other technologies that Ugandan people need, and has access to data via a decentralised social media. That would give them a competitive advantage compared to outsiders because they would be able to develop tailor made services for Ugandan people, and sell it locally. The problem we have right now is that the only companies who have the ability to develop any kind of service are those who have the data. This means the local startups cannot really compete in this new field of artificial intelligence and so on, because all the data is taken by the tech giants.

So each region would have their own Facebook equivalent?

Yes. And as a Latin American I can envisage it. We had it for e-commerce in Latin America. Instead of Amazon, we had something else. It was an Argentinian platform but all Latin Americans used to use it. It was called Mercadolibre. Everyone was using it, and then Amazon and Ebay came and ate it alive.

So we actually started with a very decentralized web. I remember the early days of the internet when everyone had email services associated to the telephone company or local email services – many people in Germany still have the web.de. But then people like Google have come along and developed really nice products, so we fell like children for candy. And we are still hooked to candy, but we have electronic diabetes.

But it’s important that solutions are developed and implemented locally. There may not be a market for drones delivering pizza in Uganda. But maybe there is a need for drones delivering medicines. Ok, so most countries wouldn’t catch up with Silicon Valley. But we do not need to compete. We need collaboration. And we need these technologies to be good enough for local, they don’t need to be the shiniest device or product.

But is it too late?

It’s not too late. Half of the global population is not connected yet. We are at the right moment to decide: what kind of web do we want? Do we want to be the colonized individuals of the big empires of Silicon Valley? Or do we want to have autonomy and do we want to create diverse web opportunities for everyone?

It is not isolated from global problems like literacy, gender inclusion and so on. It’s an equality problem and has to be dealt hand in hand with the solutions to other problems, by the political and social leadership that we need.

You used the word colonization. Is there a neocolonial aspect to these trends?

Totally. It is wiping out complete identities, languages, ways of doing things. Look at the normalized conduct even on the way we conduct speech. That’s one of my concerns on the policing of social media by big tech companies, for example – look at the nuances of language – British English is very different from Caribbean English and so on. How can an automated system restricting some forms of speech get the nuances, get the local context, sarcasm? And if these services force people to speak English more and more, because there isn’t a way to participate online in indigenous languages, who is ever going to invest in services for these small languages? No one – no one unless we do it.

And the other aspect is that we will have for the first time in the history of humankind a centralised actor knowing more than anyone else about the rest of humanity. The risk is that these companies have the ability to modify the behavior of human collectives, because if they can predict that if you move here and there, that you hide this information and promote this information, you can make these people vote for certain candidates or to decide not to go on a strike or go on a strike, or go shopping or not go shopping. I mean if you can manipulate the conduct of human collectives, then there’s the end of human freedom because you cannot see it. We used to be able to feel and see censorship –  a blocked website, a banned book, a forbidden space – but now we cannot see what we are not allowed to see.

About the author

ALICE McCOOL is Managing Editor of Raddington Report. Alice's work has been published in outlets such as The Economist, The Guardian and VICE. Before moving into journalism, Alice worked for anti-corruption group Transparency International.