Final remarks – Jose Manuel Alonso
Jose Manuel Alonso, Director of Digital Citizenship at the Web Foundation.
Thank you very much Robert and the organization for inviting me.
And thanks to the brave people that are staying until the end of the conference. I have been attending most of the time the sessions on social media and democracy because that relates more to the work that we do at the web Foundation and my program at the foundation called digital citizenship.
I took some notes and reflected on the report and the discussions and the work that we do. There was this Main theme of the conference off the advent of the online and offline world’s that are blurring and what is the kind of world that do we want? That is my question.
Technology, as we heard many times during these two days has the ability to revolutionize our society. It can flatten hierarchies, it can open up opportunities and it can change our dynamics. But the benefits of technology or not automatic.
Right now, the web reflects the world that we have, but not the world that we want. It’s predominantly white, well educated, affluent men who are creating the most benefit from technology and the web. Instead of levelling the playing field the Haves are becoming the Have-mores and I will explain this.
First the traditionally privileged groups or more likely to be online. In the EU, countries like Sweden and Denmark enjoy internet penetration rates of 95% or higher. But in other countries such as Bulgaria or Romania, one third of the population or even a little bit more is still offline.
At the Web Foundation, we have a report that we typically release every year that is called the Affordability Drivers Index. We studied everywhere, it was well beyond the European Union. It was specifically on lower-middle-income countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America. And what we found out is that you are more likely to be online if you live in a city, are young and male. This leaves rural areas, rural residents, women and older age groups behind in the new economy.
Last year, for example, the sustainable development goals set a target of Universal internet access by 2020 but at the current trend that we are observing we will miss this target by more than two decades. That is one of the issues that I have spoken on, in the discussions.
The other one related to this, is that the usual suspect are benefiting from job creation in new tech industries. There was quite some talk about this one.
For example, we have an office in London. A recent survey in London for office start-ups told that almost 80% of the founders are white men. Census data only saw that 45% of London residents identify as white British. This is an improvement on a similar survey in other countries like the U.S. where up to 95% of the respondents were identified as white. But there is clearly a lot of work to be done to get all the groups into the mainstream.
For example, the other figures that we collected – venture capitalists in the U.S. alone invested 1.4 billion in female lead companies compared to 58.2 billion in male led companies. So, there is an important gender gap there. The digital inequality gap starts early on in the young age. And the effects are compounded throughout their lives.
Schools in wealthy districts and countries are more likely to have computer science courses. Are more likely to offer the latest technology and digital skills to their students, and are more likely to push their students towards careers in technology.
That’s another thing that we have to keep in mind. I mean we have to understand what the root cause of the problem is. Instead of using technology to close the gender gap, we are at the risk of entrenching it.
For example, we have an initiative across the whole of the foundation that is called the Women’s Rights Online. Where we study 10 emerging cities all over the world where we found out that women were up to fifty percent less likely to be online than men. Less likely to speak out online. Less likely to use the web to look for a job. If you look at this conference for example, and it’s very, very usual at conferences unfortunately, barely a third of the speakers where women. Gender equality was only mentioned – that I could find, and apologies if I’m mistaken – in one sentence in the 45-page background report.
There is no dedicated mention and I would really suggest that this is taken into consideration on others, to erase the gender gap in STEM education and skills. On the number of women in the STEM careers, that’s very important in my opinion.
Looking at some of these trends is sobering but some sections in the same country, maybe you see self-driving cars while they’re Compatriots are not even online yet. As jobs are automated, and we had some discussions about that, the new digital Industries become the leading sources of employment, women around the world may fall further behind instead of charging ahead – if we don’t address this disparity now. So how do we change this? Because it’s notable about the problem I can also offer some solutions. In my opinion to build the world we want, we must build the web we want.
This is what we do at the Web Foundation. I don’t remember if any of you were watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics a few years ago. There was this weird guy in the middle of the stadium that popped up from inside a house with a strange black computer. That was our founder Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee. He sent a message to everyone where he said: “this is for everyone” with “this” referring to the world of the web and the internet.
We strongly believe in this.
All of our strategy is directed towards achieving what we call digital equality. A world where everyone has the same rights and opportunities as the ideal future we are fighting for. We want a web where citizens are included in government planning for the digital future. It is very exciting to see exercises like these including the survey, where there is a direct consultation with the citizens. We have to be careful and we mentioned this many times over the two days about the echo chambers in numerous places, numerous discussions that I heard in different sessions. And these are still happening in the offline world.
I can tell you a personal experience of mine at the European Commission I used to be part of the expert groups on electronic government not many years ago. And I remember when we were discussing the Horizon 2020 what were the main themes, topics that should be funded. I remember there was a lady from a government representative from a European country that was telling me: “look I was yesterday working on my email and then I have a grandson, a teenager, that was looking over my shoulder and he was telling me : “what are you using there? Oh, I see is that the thing for grannies?””. This guy didn’t know how to use it. Was not interested in how to use it, because he was a millennial he was a digital native. He had no interest in that.
These are the people that we refer to a number of times in this conference but are not in the room, are typically not a part of the discussions so it’s good that we have surveys on which we can curate people directly but we have to make an extra effort in my opinion, because these are the people that will join the Parliament in the future will join the government in the future etc. and will run the world in the end.
We have to be careful also about other things and Mariete mentioned this very recently. That institutions that may arrive at the decisions have to be accountable, transparent and algorithms should be unbiased. Citizens have to take part, control of their personal data, and they have the right to know how it is used. It’s something that is very difficult to address, I know, but it’s something that we need to fight strongly for.
The GDPR is a good start in this direction in my opinion, but we need to understand what factors are taken into consideration when we are considered for loans, jobs, universities and other things in life. I think that we need the right to question the decisions made by those machines, to be frank.
I think it would be unfair otherwise and we all need to work together because what I learned recently at the conference here in Brussels a month ago or so we told that digital rights experts is that we have yet to properly define the problems. It’s very difficult to say: “okay this is the solution that I have today”, because we don’t know exactly how the problem looks like.
There was some discussion over the last two days about the need for more research and I totally support that, I think we need to better understand these things before trying to propose good solutions to them.
As I mentioned before we want a web in which women and men benefit equally, I have mentioned a number of times that already. I think that also I might have mentioned this a web on which everyone can freely Express their views without fear of censorship or unwarranted public surveillance.
We’ve seen very concerning moves, for example the recent Investigatory Powers Act in the UK. That has a chilling effect on Free Speech in our opinion and that there are measures that to us they look like are only surpassed by undemocratic regimes, to be frank. We have to keep on fighting for that freedom of expression online. We must also be careful of turning some of the platforms the Facebooks in Google’s of this world, as the Arbiters of Truth and makers of decisions on our behalf.
Finally, there is something that has been mentioned a number of times, in relation to all these new areas of work. All these new technologies, which is the fake news. This is a point of reflection in my opinion for all of us. What are we doing? What is our own behaviour in this new world of data advancements?
Sometimes people are worried about fake news or about what is called alternative facts. Is this something that really exists or are we talking about pure damn lies? For example, one of the issues that we have nowadays is that it’s very difficult to distinguish what is true and what is not. Given the mountain of information and given how good some of the bad guys are behaving and faking some of the real actions a lot of the real things by themselves.
One of the issues that we have is that we cannot go back in time and say when I was really young, when I was ten years old my dad typically – I am Spanish I still live in Spain – we didn’t have so many newspapers but my dad typically on a Sunday was buying the five main newspapers in the country, laying them out on the kitchen table for me and looking at the same news items on every single newspaper to see how they were reporting on a particular news item. You could spot the different views of the different newspapers, how on different occasions, how related to their political orientation or their independence or what not.
Nowadays, very difficult to do that online. Please keep that in mind. I mean, are we ourselves contributing to that? Are we re-tweeting links that we don’t even read or open for example? Do we know if what we are saying is true or we have no clue and we are just interested in contributing to the famous Echo chamber that we mentioned before?
Basically, I will conclude here – all the issues that have been discussed over the last two days are extremely important and unfortunately difficult to understand and difficult to address but I think we are setting the lines of the groundwork for doing so in the near future.
Basically, just to conclude – We believe at the web foundation, as I have said before – in digital equality and we believe it is a choice actually. But we have to choose it and choose it properly.