Sharing instructive primers for developers interested in creating technologies for those affected by gender-based violence.

Image by ijclark (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

Digital technologies are increasingly proposed as innovative solution to the problems and threats faced by vulnerable groups such as children, women, and LGBTQ people. However, there exists a structural lack of consideration for gender and power relations in the design of Internet technologies, as previously discussed by scholars in media and communication studies (Barocas & Nissenbaum, 2009; Boyd, 2001; Thakor, 2015) and technology studies (Balsamo, 2011; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999). But the intersection between gender-based violence and technology deserves greater attention. To this end, scholars from the Center for Information Technology at Princeton and the Oxford Internet Institute organised a workshop to explore the design ethics of gender-based violence and safety technologies at Princeton in the Spring of 2017. The workshop welcomed a wide range of advocates in areas of intimate partner violence and sex work; engineers, designers, developers, and academics working on IT ethics. The objectives of the day were threefold: (1) to better understand the lack of gender considerations in technology design, (2) to formulate critical questions for functional requirement discussions between advocates and developers of gender-based violence applications; and (3) to establish a set of criteria by which new applications can be assessed from a gender perspective. Following three conceptual takeaways from the workshop, we share instructive primers for developers interested in creating technologies for those affected by gender-based violence. Survivors, sex workers, and young people are intentional technology users Increasing public awareness of the prevalence gender-based violence, both on and offline, often frames survivors of gender-based violence, activists, and young people as vulnerable and helpless. Contrary to this representation, those affected by gender-based violence are intentional technology users, choosing to adopt or abandon tools as they see fit. For example, sexual assault victims strategically disclose their stories on specific social media platforms to mobilise collective action. Sex workers adopt locative technologies to make safety plans. Young people utilise secure search tools to find information about sexual health resources…

What is the responsibility of the private industry, which runs and owns much of the Internet, towards human rights?

The Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. Image: United Nations Photo (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“The digital access industry is in the business of digital expression […] since privately owned networks are indispensable to the contemporary exercise of freedom of expression, their operators also assume critical social and public functions. The industry’s decisions […] can directly impact freedom of expression and related human rights in both beneficial and detrimental ways.” [Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, June 2017] The Internet is often portrayed as a disruptive equaliser, an information medium able to directly give individuals access to information and provide a platform to share their opinions unmediated. But the Internet is also a tool for surveillance, censorship, and information warfare. Often states drive such practices, but increasingly the private sector plays a role. While states have a clear obligation to protect human rights on the Internet, questions surrounding the human right accountability of the private sector are unclear. Which begs the question what the responsibility is of the private industry, which runs and owns much of the Internet, towards human rights? During the 35th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council this month, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) for the right to freedom of expression, presented his latest report [1], which focuses on the role of the private sector in the provision of Internet and telecommunications access. The UNSR on freedom of expression is an independent expert, appointed by the Human Rights Council to analyse, document, and report on the state of freedom of expression globally [2]. The rapporteur is also expected to make recommendations towards ‘better promoting and protection of the right to freedom of expression’ [3]. In recent years, the UNSRs on freedom of expression increasingly focus on the intersection between access to information, expression, and the Internet [4]. This most recent report is a landmark document. Its focus on the role and responsibilities of the private sector towards the right to freedom of…

The algorithms technology rely upon create a new type of curated media that can undermine the fairness and quality of political discourse.

The Facebook Wall, by René C. Nielsen (Flickr).

A central ideal of democracy is that political discourse should allow a fair and critical exchange of ideas and values. But political discourse is unavoidably mediated by the mechanisms and technologies we use to communicate and receive information—and content personalisation systems (think search engines, social media feeds and targeted advertising), and the algorithms they rely upon, create a new type of curated media that can undermine the fairness and quality of political discourse. A new article by Brent Mittlestadt explores the challenges of enforcing a political right to transparency in content personalisation systems. Firstly, he explains the value of transparency to political discourse and suggests how content personalisation systems undermine open exchange of ideas and evidence among participants: at a minimum, personalisation systems can undermine political discourse by curbing the diversity of ideas that participants encounter. Second, he explores work on the detection of discrimination in algorithmic decision making, including techniques of algorithmic auditing that service providers can employ to detect political bias. Third, he identifies several factors that inhibit auditing and thus indicate reasonable limitations on the ethical duties incurred by service providers—content personalisation systems can function opaquely and be resistant to auditing because of poor accessibility and interpretability of decision-making frameworks. Finally, Brent concludes with reflections on the need for regulation of content personalisation systems. He notes that no matter how auditing is pursued, standards to detect evidence of political bias in personalised content are urgently required. Methods are needed to routinely and consistently assign political value labels to content delivered by personalisation systems. This is perhaps the most pressing area for future work—to develop practical methods for algorithmic auditing. The right to transparency in political discourse may seem unusual and farfetched. However, standards already set by the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s fairness doctrine—no longer in force—and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s fairness principle both demonstrate the importance of the idealised version of political discourse described here. Both precedents…