United Nations warns of ‘digital welfare dystopia’

The UN has warned internet users of handing over their data to ‘big tech’ and accused companies of exploiting the poorest users.

data charts on a desk

Tuesday, 22 October, 2019

Digital dystopia!

The United Nations has published a study warning of the human rights implications of Big Tech companies continuing unregulated.

The report was written after visits to countries including the UK and US, as well as 60 submissions from 34 further countries. The study talks of the world “stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia”. While this sounds like a plot idea for season 25 of The Walking Dead, it’s actually much more serious.

Their main concern is the lack of digital literacy of citizens and the potential for organisations to exploit unsuspecting users. This could be Facebook using user data to target advertisements for unfairly priced goods or untrustworthy sites spreading fake news.

Governments unaccountable

However, the biggest threat to vulnerable citizens is the automation of welfare services. The paper found that many don’t have internet access or the digital skills to use online welfare systems. This means that they could be cut off from services like benefits or subject to penalties.

The paper’s author, Philip Alston said:

Crucial decisions to go digital have been taken by government ministers without consultation, or even by departmental officials without any significant policy discussions taking place.

- Philip Alston

Alston went on to criticise the online automation of government systems. He argues that automation removes accountability for governments. With AI making decisions there is no one for citizens or consumers to dispute.

Another sinister tactic mentioned is the use of online surveillance to target beneficiaries. Again, this use of a sophisticated automation tactic to target the vulnerable is ethically dubious.

Will we finally see regulation?

The paper will be a harsh read for many governments, who are increasingly turning to automation to save money on call centres for services. However it’s not just government behaviour that is being called out.

This is a conversation that has been going on for some time with consumer rights groups too. Another major concern is Big Tech firms, social media platforms and businesses using user data to nudge consumers towards sales.

Many users do not realise they have consented to their browsing data being shared between Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google etc… This means online stores have the unfair advantage of anticipating our every potential interest.

This is just the latest in the ongoing pile on of Silicon Valley. Calls for the regulation of Big Tech and Big Data firms have been going on for years, and rightly so! However perhaps with governments now under scrutiny for the same issues we might finally see some accountability.

Natalie Dunning author picture


Natalie Dunning is a freelance writer and Media Psychology researcher based in Manchester.

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