GENEVA (15 July 2020) – Emerging digital technologies driven by big data and artificial intelligence are entrenching racial inequality, discrimination and intolerance, a UN human rights expert said today, calling for justice and reparations for affected individuals and communities.
Even when tech developers and users do not intend for tech to discriminate, it often does so anyway, Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on racism, said in presenting a report on emerging digital technologies and racial discrimination to the UN Human Rights Council.
“Technology is not neutral or objective,” she told the Council. “It is fundamentally shaped by the racial, ethnic, gender and other inequalities prevalent in society, and typically makes these inequalities worse. It is resulting in discrimination and unequal treatment in all areas of life, from education and employment to healthcare and criminal justice.”
The problem is not simply extremist racism, xenophobia and intolerance, the independent expert said. “It goes deeper than that. Corporations such as Facebook have economic and business models that mean they actively profit from misinformation, discrimination and intolerance.” In addition, she said, many governments have adopted algorithms “that structurally discriminate against marginalised groups”.
Achiume called for greater scrutiny of the design of digital technology, reparations for those affected by entrenched racism, and possible banning of some technologies.
“The deaths of George Floyd and countless others have prompted a transnational uprising against systemic racism in law enforcement,” she said. “Part of the human rights response must include greater scrutiny of how the design and use of digital technologies is further entrenching this systemic racism.”
Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit racial and ethnic minorities hardest, she also warned that the technology being used to combat spread of the disease “is the same type that has been used to exclude these communities from full enjoyment of their human rights in the past”.
“States’ obligations to prevent and eliminate racial discrimination in the design and use of these technologies require including racial and ethnic minorities in the industry’s decision-making process in a non-tokenistic fashion. Their obligations also require them to mandate human rights impact assessments that include emphasis on equality and non-discrimination. States must also provide the full spectrum of effective remedies for those against whom emerging digital technologies have racially discriminated. This includes accountability for racial discrimination, and reparations to affected individuals and communities. As recent moves to ban facial recognition technologies in some parts of the world show—in some cases the discriminatory effect of digital technologies will require their outright prohibition.”
Her report includes concrete recommendations for implementing human rights protections against racial discrimination in the design and use of digital technologies.
Ms. Tendayi Achiume (Zambia) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in September 2017. Special Rapporteur Achiume is Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law. She is also a research associate of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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