Enhancing Digital Equity


Book by Massimo Ragnedda on “Connecting the Digital Underclass…This book highlights how, in principle, digital technologies present an opportunity to reduce social disparities, tackle social exclusion, enhance social and civil rights, and promote equity. However, to achieve these goals, it is necessary to promote digital equity and connect the digital underclass.

The book focuses on how the advent of technologies may become a barrier to social mobility and how, by concentrating resources and wealth in few hands, the digital revolution is giving rise to the digital oligarchy, further penalizing the digital underclass. Socially-disadvantaged people, living at the margins of digital society, are penalized both in terms of accessing-using-benefits (three levels of digital divide) but also in understanding-programming-treatment of new digital technologies (three levels of algorithms divide). The advent and implementation of tools that rely on algorithms to make decisions has further penalized specific social categories by normalizing inequalities in the name of efficiency and rationalization….(More)”.

Coding Democracy


Book by Maureen Webb: “Hackers have a bad reputation, as shady deployers of bots and destroyers of infrastructure. In Coding Democracy, Maureen Webb offers another view. Hackers, she argues, can be vital disruptors. Hacking is becoming a practice, an ethos, and a metaphor for a new wave of activism in which ordinary citizens are inventing new forms of distributed, decentralized democracy for a digital era. Confronted with concentrations of power, mass surveillance, and authoritarianism enabled by new technology, the hacking movement is trying to “build out” democracy into cyberspace.

Webb travels to Berlin, where she visits the Chaos Communication Camp, a flagship event in the hacker world; to Silicon Valley, where she reports on the Apple-FBI case, the significance of Russian troll farms, and the hacking of tractor software by desperate farmers; to Barcelona, to meet the hacker group XNet, which has helped bring nearly 100 prominent Spanish bankers and politicians to justice for their role in the 2008 financial crisis; and to Harvard and MIT, to investigate the institutionalization of hacking. Webb describes an amazing array of hacker experiments that could dramatically change the current political economy. These ambitious hacks aim to displace such tech monoliths as Facebook and Amazon; enable worker cooperatives to kill platforms like Ubergive people control over their data; automate trust; and provide citizens a real say in governance, along with capacity to reach consensus. Coding Democracy is not just another optimistic declaration of technological utopianism; instead, it provides the tools for an urgently needed upgrade of democracy in the digital era….(More)”.

How to destroy Surveillance Capitalism


Book by Cory Doctorow: “…Today, there is a widespread belief that machine learning and commercial surveillance can turn even the most fumble-tongued conspiracy theorist into a svengali who can warp your perceptions and win your belief by locating vulnerable people and then pitching them with A.I.-refined arguments that bypass their rational faculties and turn everyday people into flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, or even Nazis. When the RAND Corporation blames Facebook for “radicalization” and when Facebook’s role in spreading coronavirus misinformation is blamed on its algorithm, the implicit message is that machine learning and surveillance are causing the changes in our consensus about what’s true.

After all, in a world where sprawling and incoherent conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and its successor, QAnon, have widespread followings, something must be afoot.

But what if there’s another explanation? What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments, that are making the difference for these conspiracy pitchmen? What if the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us — conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists, and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing (these conspiracies are commonly known as “corruption”) — is making people vulnerable to conspiracy theories?

If it’s trauma and not contagion — material conditions and not ideology — that is making the difference today and enabling a rise of repulsive misinformation in the face of easily observed facts, that doesn’t mean our computer networks are blameless. They’re still doing the heavy work of locating vulnerable people and guiding them through a series of ever-more-extreme ideas and communities.

Belief in conspiracy is a raging fire that has done real damage and poses real danger to our planet and species, from epidemics kicked off by vaccine denial to genocides kicked off by racist conspiracies to planetary meltdown caused by denial-inspired climate inaction. Our world is on fire, and so we have to put the fires out — to figure out how to help people see the truth of the world through the conspiracies they’ve been confused by.

But firefighting is reactive. We need fire prevention. We need to strike at the traumatic material conditions that make people vulnerable to the contagion of conspiracy. Here, too, tech has a role to play.

There’s no shortage of proposals to address this. From the EU’s Terrorist Content Regulation, which requires platforms to police and remove “extremist” content, to the U.S. proposals to force tech companies to spy on their users and hold them liable for their users’ bad speech, there’s a lot of energy to force tech companies to solve the problems they created.

There’s a critical piece missing from the debate, though. All these solutions assume that tech companies are a fixture, that their dominance over the internet is a permanent fact. Proposals to replace Big Tech with a more diffused, pluralistic internet are nowhere to be found. Worse: The “solutions” on the table today require Big Tech to stay big because only the very largest companies can afford to implement the systems these laws demand….(More)”.

This app is helping mothers in the Brazilian favelas survive the pandemic



Daniel Avelar at Open Democracy: “As Brazil faces one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, a smartphone app is helping residents of impoverished areas known as favelas survive the virus threat amid sudden mass unemployment.

So far, the Latin American country has recorded over 115.000 deaths caused by COVID-19. The shutdown of economic activity wiped out 7.8 million jobs, mostly affecting low-skilled informal workers who form the bulk of the population in the favelas. Emergency income distributed by the government is limited to 60% of the minimum wage, so families are struggling to make ends meet.

Many blame president Jair Bolsonaro for the tragedy. Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, has consistently rallied against science-based policies in the management of the pandemic and pushed for an end to stay-at-home orders. A precocious reopening of the economy is likely to increase infection rates and cause more deaths.

In an attempt to stop the looming humanitarian catastrophe, a coalition of activists in the favelas and corporate partners developed an app that is facilitating the distribution of food and emergency income to thousands of women spearheading families. The app has a facial recognition feature that helps volunteers identify and register recipients of aid and prevents fraud.

So far, the Favela Mothers project has distributed the equivalent to US$ 26 million in food parcels and cash allowances to more than 1.1 million families in 5,000 neighborhoods across the country….(More)”.

‘Telegram revolution’: App helps drive Belarus protests


Daria Litvinova at AP News: “Every day, like clockwork, to-do lists for those protesting against Belarus’ authoritarian leader appear in the popular Telegram messaging app. They lay out goals, give times and locations of rallies with business-like precision, and offer spirited encouragement.

“Today will be one more important day in the fight for our freedom. Tectonic shifts are happening on all fronts, so it’s important not to slow down,” a message in one of Telegram’s so-called channels read Tuesday. “Morning. Expanding the strike … 11:00. Supporting the Kupala (theater) … 19:00. Gathering at the Independence Square.”

The app has become an indispensable tool in coordinating the unprecedented mass protests that have rocked Belarus since Aug. 9, when election officials announced President Alexander Lukashenko had won a landslide victory to extend his 26-year rule in a vote widely seen as rigged.

Peaceful protesters who poured into the streets of the capital, Minsk, and other cities were met with stun grenades, rubber bullets and beatings from police. The opposition candidate left for Lithuania — under duress, her campaign said — and authorities shut off the internet, leaving Belarusians with almost no access to independent online news outlets or social media and protesters seemingly without a leader.

That’s where Telegram — which often remains available despite internet outages, touts the security of messages shared in the app and has been used in other protest movements — came in. Some of its channels helped scattered rallies to mature into well-coordinated action.

The people who run the channels, which used to offer political news, now post updates, videos and photos of the unfolding turmoil sent in from users, locations of heavy police presence, contacts of human rights activists, and outright calls for new demonstrations — something Belarusian opposition leaders have refrained from doing publicly themselves. Tens of thousands of people all across the country have responded to those calls.

In a matter of days, the channels — NEXTA, NEXTA Live and Belarus of the Brain are the most popular — have become the main method for facilitating the protests, said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian analyst and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council….(More)”.

Digital technologies in the public-health response to COVID-19


Paper by Jobie Budd et al in Nature Medicine: “Digital technologies are being harnessed to support the public-health response to COVID-19 worldwide, including population surveillance, case identification, contact tracing and evaluation of interventions on the basis of mobility data and communication with the public. These rapid responses leverage billions of mobile phones, large online datasets, connected devices, relatively low-cost computing resources and advances in machine learning and natural language processing. This Review aims to capture the breadth of digital innovations for the public-health response to COVID-19 worldwide and their limitations, and barriers to their implementation, including legal, ethical and privacy barriers, as well as organizational and workforce barriers. The future of public health is likely to become increasingly digital, and we review the need for the alignment of international strategies for the regulation, evaluation and use of digital technologies to strengthen pandemic management, and future preparedness for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases….(More)”.

The co-ops that electrified Depression-era farms are now building rural internet


Nicolás Rivero at Quartz: “In 2017, Mark McKinney decided enough was enough. The head of the Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation in southern Indiana, a co-op that provides electricity to a rural community of 20,000 members, McKinney was still living without a reliable internet connection. No internet service provider would build the infrastructure to get him or his neighbors online.

“We realized no one was interested due to the capital expense and limited number of members per mile,” says McKinney, “so the board made the decision to go at it on our own.”

The coronavirus pandemic quickly proved the wisdom of their decision: Thanks to their new fiber optic connection, McKinney and his wife were able to self-quarantine without missing work after they were exposed to the virus. Their son finished the spring semester at home after his university shut down in March. “We could not have done that without this connection,” he said.

Across the rural US, more than 100 cooperatives, first launched to provide electric and telephone services as far back as the 1930s, are now laying miles of fiber optic cable to connect their members to high speed internet. Many started building their own networks after failing to convince established internet service providers to cover their communities.

But while rural fiber optic networks have spread swiftly over the past five years, their progress has been uneven. In North Dakota, for example, fiber optic co-ops cover 82% of the state’s landmass, while Nevada has just one co-op. And in the states where the utilities do exist, they tend to serve the whitest communities….(More)”.

The Misinformation Edition


On-Line Exhibition by the Glass Room: “…In this exhibition – aimed at young people as well as adults – we explore how social media and the web have changed the way we read information and react to it. Learn why finding “fake news” is not as easy as it sounds, and how the term “fake news” is as much a problem as the news it describes. Dive into the world of deep fakes, which are now so realistic that they are virtually impossible to detect. And find out why social media platforms are designed to keep us hooked, and how they can be used to change our minds. You can also read our free Data Detox Kit, which reveals how to tell facts from fiction and why it benefits everyone around us when we take a little more care about what we share…(More)”.

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Digital inequalities 3.0: Emergent inequalities in the information age


Essay by Laura Robinson et al in FirstMonday: “Marking the 25th anniversary of the “digital divide,” we continue our metaphor of the digital inequality stack by mapping out the rapidly evolving nature of digital inequality using a broad lens. We tackle complex, and often unseen, inequalities spawned by the platform economy, automation, big data, algorithms, cybercrime, cybersafety, gaming, emotional well-being, assistive technologies, civic engagement, and mobility. These inequalities are woven throughout the digital inequality stack in many ways including differentiated access, use, consumption, literacies, skills, and production. While many users are competent prosumers who nimbly work within different layers of the stack, very few individuals are “full stack engineers” able to create or recreate digital devices, networks, and software platforms as pure producers. This new frontier of digital inequalities further differentiates digitally skilled creators from mere users. Therefore, we document emergent forms of inequality that radically diminish individuals’ agency and augment the power of technology creators, big tech, and other already powerful social actors whose dominance is increasing….(More)”

It’s complicated: what the public thinks about COVID-19 technologies


Imogen Parker at Ada Lovelace Institute: “…Tools of this societal importance need to be shaped by the public. Given the technicality and complexity, that means going beyond surface-level opinions captured through polling and focus groups and creating structures to deliberate with groups of informed citizens. That’s hard to do well, and at the pace needed to keep up with policy and technology, but difficult problems are the ones that most need to be solved.

To help bring much-needed public voices into this debate at pace, we have drawn out emergent themes from three recent in-depth public deliberation projects, that can bring insight to bear on the questions of health apps and public health identity systems.

While there are no green lights, red lines – or indeed silver bullets – there are important nuances and strongly held views about the conditions that COVID-19 technologies would need to meet. The report goes into detailed lessons from the public, and I would like to add to those by drawing out here aspects that are consistently under-addressed in discussions I’ve heard about these tools in technology and policy circles.

  1. Trust isn’t just about data or privacy. The technology must be effective – and be seen to be effective. Too often, debates about public acceptability lapse into flawed and tired arguments about privacy vs public health; or citizens’ trust in a technology being confused with reassurances about data protection or security frameworks against malicious actors. First and foremost people need to trust the technology works – they need to trust that it can solve a problem, that it won’t fail, and it can be relied on. The public discussion must be about the outcome of the technology – not just its function. This is particularly vital in the context of public health, which affects everyone in society.
  2. Any application linked to identity is seen as high-stakes. Identity matters and is complex – and there is anxiety about the creation of technological systems that put people in pre-defined boxes or establishes static categories as the primary mechanisms by which they are known, recognised and seen. Proportionality (while not expressed as such) runs deep in public consciousness and any intrusion will require justification, not simply a rallying call for people to do their duty.
  3. Tools must proactively protect against harm. Mechanisms for challenge or redress need to be built around the app – and indeed be seen as part of the technology. This means that legitimate fears that discrimination or prejudice will arise must be addressed head on, and lower uptake from potentially disadvantaged groups that may legitimately mistrust surveillance systems must be acknowledged and mitigated.
  4. Apps will be judged as part of the system they are embedded into. The whole system must be trustworthy, not just the app or technology – and that encompasses those who develop and deploy it and those who will use it out in the world. An app – however technically perfect – can still be misused by rogue employers, or mistrusted through fear of government overreach or scope creep.
  5. Tools are seen by the public as political and social. Technology developers need to understand that they are shifting the social-political fabric of society during a crisis, and potentially beyond. Tech cannot be decoupled or isolated from questions of the nature of the society it will shape – solidaristic or individualistic; divisive or inclusive….(More)”.