The implications of technology on social welfare can often underscore the inequality, discrimination, and harm that sometimes comes with institutional structures and practices. For example, in India, the centralized database of its population, Aadhaar, was created to efficiently manage and transfer citizens’ money through their mobile phones. However, malpractice has arisen, showing how personal data was sold through the platform. Elsewhere, in Kenya, a widely-used mobile paying service called M-pesa, meant to facilitate mobile banking, demands high fees from users and allows foreign investors to profit from these fees, pushing the poorest users into a cycle of debt and poverty. These few examples just begin to scratch the surface of the ways in which the growing digital divide is separating our world and pushing the most vulnerable behind, as technology is very rapidly touching every aspect of our lives.
Philip Alston speaking at a UN Headquarters conference
Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned us about the dangers of “digital transformation” as being a mask for intrusive government surveillance, damages to welfare spending, and chances for private corporations to generate profits for their own interests. This further highlights the fact that a technologically-driven society must be guided by human rights in order to capture and prevent the emerging dangers of the digital welfare state. While there are numerous analyses and warnings of the dangers for human rights that are inevitable given our technologically-driven future, none of them have “adequately captured the full array of threats represented by the emergence of the digital welfare state.”
In order to achieve global connectivity, we must come together to ensure that digital technology intersects with social welfare in safe, just, and equitable ways.
Furthermore, just recently this past June, the United Nations released the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, highlighting the roadmap that all stakeholders must follow in order to close the digital divide and enhance a safe and more equitable digital world. One key area for action specifically emphasized that those who are the most vulnerable–migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, older persons, young people, children, persons with disabilities, rural populations, and indigenous peoples–must be prioritized and protected from the detrimental effects of the digital divide through the coordination of initiatives, better metrics, and data collection. This roadmap provides key information on the need to provide all citizens and especially those who are most vulnerable with the proper skills and resources to succeed in the digital age as well as ensuring that their human rights are at the center of all regulatory frameworks and legislation.
Overall, as we are living in an inevitable future of rapidly changing technology, the digital divide is ever increasing and it is up to us to strive towards universal connectivity not only technologically but for the benefit of society as a whole. Therefore, it is vital for governments to ground their actions, policies, and laws in the prioritization of human rights in terms of privacy, surveillance, data protection, capacity building, and more.