Beware rise of technology-fuelled racism in Asia: UN report

The unchecked spread of hate speech on Facebook against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was among the examples of racism enabled by new technology given in the report.
PHOTO: Reuters

Asian countries should study how emerging technologies fuel racism, a UN-appointed rights expert said on Thursday, after presenting a report highlighting technology’s role in alleged racial discrimination in China, India, Indonesia and Myanmar.

E. Tendayi Achiume, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, said considerable work still needed to be done to understand how new technologies could worsen racial inequality and discrimination in Asia.

“I think it would go too far to say there isn’t attention [being paid] to ethnic and religious and racial forms of discrimination in Asia; I would say that what you’re seeing less of is a conversation about how that discrimination overlaps with emerging digital technologies,” she said in an interview with This Week In Asia.

“There are many different reasons for that. I think in many parts of the world emerging digital technologies are considered the purview of tech experts who aren’t necessarily the same universe of people as human rights advocates.”

Achiume made the remarks after presenting a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday which described how technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence “exacerbate and compound existing inequities, many of which exist along racial, ethnic and national origin grounds”.

“The public perception of technology tends to be that it is inherently neutral and objective, and some have pointed out that this presumption of technological objectivity and neutrality is one that remains salient even among producers of technology,” the report reads.

“But technology is never neutral – it reflects the values and interests of those who influence its design and use, and is fundamentally shaped by the same structures of inequality that operate in society.”

Examples of alleged racial discrimination enabled by technology that the report points to include the mass surveillance of Uygurs in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang; Indonesia ’s imposition of internet blackouts in Papua and West Papua; the introduction of AI-based sanitation management that has eliminated jobs for workers from the lowest castes in India; and the spread of hate speech against Rohingya Muslims on Facebook in Myanmar.

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Vimal Kumar, founder of the Movement for Scavenger Community NGO in Ladwa, India, said that technological advances in sanitation had disproportionately affected members of the already marginalised Dalit community, who have been forced to do dirty work such as cleaning out sewers by hand “for generations because they are not given any other job”.

“They face caste-based discrimination” every day already, he said, and should be provided “alternative dignified opportunities for work” if technology renders their roles obsolete.

The report was also welcomed by Human Rights Watch, with Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono saying it supported a 2019 ruling by a Jakarta court that found the government had broken the law by blocking internet access during anti-racism protests in Papua and West Papua.

“Both documents should prompt the Indonesian government, especially the Ministry of Communication and Information, to educate members of the civil service, the police, and the military in understanding the prohibition on racial discrimination like what the Indonesian constitutions demands,” Harsono said.

“It should include an understanding on discriminatory practices, particularly against dark skin people in eastern Indonesia like the Papuans, with emerging digital technologies.”

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Achiume’s report, which does not restrict its focus to a specific region, also highlights databases and algorithms that it says have led to unwarranted surveillance and over policing of black and other minority communities in the United States and Britain, and software that uses “opaque” processes to assist with judicial decisions in Latin America.

Governments should work with tech companies, the reports says, to ensure better representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the design and use of emerging technologies and to institute “legally binding obligations to prohibit – and provide effective remedies for – racial discrimination”.

The report’s findings and recommendations are non-binding on UN member states.

Achiume said that while the issues highlighted in her report were not confined to Asia , the region needed to have “deeper conversations” about how technology was having an impact on human rights.

“I think it is important for there to be deeper conversations in Asia and other parts of the world about the human rights implications of emerging digital technologies, and I think because Asia is also on the forefront of developing the technologies there’s a need to pay greater attention to these issues,” she said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.