A critical question for internet health remains: how do we create a truly inclusive digital world?
The tech industry itself is grappling with this challenge and its responsibility ––increasingly in public settings. Many tech companies have faced high-profile accusations that their services are facilitating harmful discrimination and profiling. The last year saw a wave of protests led by employees of tech giants, many of which called on companies to cancel contracts some staff viewed as unethical. Amazon staff and A.I. experts called on the company to stop selling biased and flawed facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies. A letter signed by over 100 Microsoft employees demanded the company “take an ethical stand” and cancel its contract with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. So far, these demands have not been met.
It’s hard to imagine a truly inclusive digital world when the companies building so much of the infrastructure have a bad track record for being inclusive themselves. There’s been some progress: when more than 20,000 Google employees walked out over the company’s mishandling of sexual misconduct cases, some demands were met not only by Google, but also by Facebook, eBay and Airbnb. Still, companies did not make all the changes protesters wanted and there remains much more to do to make the tech industry a safe, welcoming space.
While the mainstream focus tends to center on Silicon Valley, many serious harms are happening elsewhere around the world. Factory workers in China, Malaysia, Brazil and other countries make cell phones, smart watches and hardware in grueling and often dangerous conditions, for meager pay. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter outsource content moderation to low-wage workers, many of whom experience symptoms of trauma after viewing thousands of disturbing and violent images every day.
Tech workers organizing and standing up for inclusion within their companies is a positive development for internet health. But it hardly compares to threats to digital inclusion more broadly. Online abusers threaten and intimidate in an effort to silence the voices of especially women, nonbinary people, and people of color. Nearly two-thirds of female journalists say they have been harassed online. Better solutions to solve hate speech are still wanting.
But there’s also good news: codes of conduct, which have long been valued as critical tools for empowerment by underrepresented people in open source, are increasingly being integrated into open source projects. One particular Code of Conduct, called The Contributor Covenant, was adopted by thousands of open source projects in just five years.
Access also remains a fundamental challenge for inclusion. We’re right to celebrate that over half of the world is now online. But the connectivity gap between the richest and poorest countries has not improved in the last decade. The slowest internet in the world is also the most expensive and there are still far fewer women online than men.
It’s clear that equality won’t be achieved by accident. If we want to create a digital world that is welcoming of all people of the Earth, we still have much to do.