The Thread

Collaborating to Build a More Equitable Digital Future

Article In The Thread
New America / Hurca on Shutterstock
June 23, 2022

We live in an era of rapid technological transformation. At the same time, we are experiencing growing economic inequality, social and political fracturing, and declining trust in democratic institutions and processes. It is increasingly clear that digital technologies, particularly in the hands of unscrupulous, uncaring, or misinformed creators and users, are accelerating these outcomes. Managing the potential harms of digital technologies to our rights and our democracies will require not only a deep understanding of their impacts but also innovative policy solutions.

Earlier this month, RightsCon 2022 — a civil society-led conference on human rights in the digital age — hosted hundreds of informative online sessions over five days, all converging at the intersection of tech and public policy. A featured event of the conference was USAID Administrator Samantha Power and New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter in conversation about building a rights-based digital future. Together, they announced the launch of a collaboration to support the drafting of a new “technologist code of ethics.” Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession, this tech code of ethics will be drafted through an open and inclusive process led by a diverse group of technologists, civil society advocates, digital activists, academics, and other community leaders from around the world.

Dozens of New America staff, fellows, and alum presented and participated in RightsCon. We shared our rich findings on how to shape and seed the field of public interest technology with more diverse voices, rank “big tech” platforms on their policies’ respect for human rights to freedom of expression and privacy, promote transparency, and collaborate across sectors to harness tech for the public good.

Speakers from across New America highlighted our programmatic work toward a more sustainable, equitable digital future — one that does not come at the cost of privacy, freedom of expression, and other human rights.

  • The Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) and Public Interest Technology (PIT) programs partnered on a panel to follow up New America and USAID’s announcement: “A Technologist Code of Ethics: Galvanizing the Tech Workforce to Foster Digital Democracy.” New America alumna Afua Bruce moderated with opening remarks provided by DIGI Senior Advisor Allison Price and USAID and closing remarks from PIT Director Andreen Soley.
  • DIGI convened two additional events and shared their insights on sustainable funding mechanisms for public interest technology — with guidance for tapping into more equitable funding streams to invest in tech for the public good. And separately, DIGI convened an interactive community lab with the Ford Foundation and Microsoft to discuss reconceiving “the missing layers of the Internet” for a more equitable digital future through open protocols.
  • The Open Technology Institute (OTI)’s Spandana Singh provided vital input to Facebook’s Oversight Board on improving transparency around its operations and providing civil society organizations and researchers with better data to facilitate research on the effectiveness of content moderation. Singh also spoke at a community lab to workshop best practices for human rights-focused algorithmic audits and assessments of tech companies to ensure AI doesn't harm marginalized communities.
  • Ranking Digital Rights, New America’s longstanding initiative to evaluate the world’s most powerful platforms on their respect for freedom of expression and privacy, hosted two workshops on equity in content moderation and lessons from investor action on human rights.

This work represents many pieces of a complicated puzzle. No stand-alone solution, code of ethics, or audit will serve a panacea to all of our tech-related challenges — but combined, this ecosystem is a necessary complement to ongoing legal, regulatory, and multilateral policy work. The RightsCon community alone represents thousands of amazing global ideas for a brighter digital future. It is clear that more venues are needed to ensure a robust examination of how to collectively address challenges raised by emerging digital technologies.

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