The involvement of technology companies in the delivery of essential public services has significant implications for privacy, equality, and democratic decision-making. Nubian Rights Forum recently participated in the Contesting the Foundations of Digital Public Infrastructure meeting, and heard from activists and experts from various countries who discussed the challenges posed by the increasing role of private global North companies in providing government services. This meeting explored the need for regulations, the concept of corporate capture, and the specific impacts on healthcare, education, social assistance, and government tech purchases.
Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State Project, highlights the case of Amazon’s involvement in the healthcare sector as an example of the pernicious influence of tech companies. The cross-sector influence of such companies poses privacy and equality concerns. As private actors become key players in essential government services, it becomes crucial to establish appropriate regulations to safeguard public interests. The design of online government services, such as welfare benefit applications in Chile, relies heavily on web portals as the primary mode of communication between citizens and their government. The choices made in presenting information and options, system navigation, and the lack of appeal functions significantly impact individuals’ access to services and their interaction with the government. Private actors often shape the design of these websites, raising concerns about transparency and the influence of corporations on public service delivery.
Risk Scoring Software and the Need for Transparency:
Governments employ algorithms to categorize and rank individuals, using risk-scoring software in areas like policing and welfare. Instances from India, the Netherlands, Australia, and Argentina demonstrate how these systems can disproportionately flag certain groups, leading to the denial of benefits and potential human rights violations. The lack of transparency and companies’ reluctance to share details with governments underscores the necessity of regulation and transparency in these practices.
Impact of Technology on Education:
Delphine Dorsi, Director of the Right to Education Initiative, focuses on the impact of technology on education. The increased use of online teaching, including artificial intelligence, open online courses, script preparation, and video monitoring in schools, witnessed a substantial surge during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the absence of sufficient regulations allowed tech companies like Google Classrooms to amass massive profits, while concerns regarding access, student privacy, and inequalities remained unaddressed. The urgent need for a national and international regulatory framework is highlighted, particularly regarding digital consent and the protection of children’s privacy.
Challenges in Social Assistance:
Hoodah Fayker, National Advocacy Manager at the South African organization Black Sash, shares the negative experiences of using technology in social services. The example of the South African Social Security Administration outsourcing social grant distribution to a private company exposes issues of disparity between rich and poor, urban and rural communities. The company involved, Cash Payment Master Services, gained access to beneficiaries’ personal information and engaged in unauthorized deductions and loans without informed consent. This case highlights the tension between profit incentives and constitutional obligations and underscores the need for regulations and accountability in private involvement in fulfilling government obligations.
Corporate Capture and Government Collusion:
Bobby Ramakant, Policy Director and Health Editor at Citizen News Services in India, sheds light on the concept of corporate capture, where economic elites exert undue influence within public institutions, undermining human rights and the environment. Private tech companies’ collaboration with the government during the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in challenges in accessing medical services and breaches of data privacy. Ramakant emphasizes the need for regulations, stronger enforcement of human rights treaties, and increased accountability for multinational companies involved in critical public infrastructure.
The increasing involvement of tech companies in the delivery of critical public services has far-reaching implications for privacy, equality, and democratic decision-making. The examples discussed demonstrate the urgent need for regulations and transparency to protect individuals’ rights and prevent corporate capture. Governments, civil society organizations, and international bodies must work together to establish a robust regulatory framework that ensures the responsible and equitable use of technology in public service delivery.