UNESCO advocates for a human rights-based approach on big data and artificial intelligence at the Internet Governance Forum 2017

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UNESCO representative Xianhong Hu moderating the debate on the implications of big data and artificial intelligence at the Internet Governance Forum 2017.
© UNESCO/Zhaocan Li
10 January 2018

“As big data and artificial intelligence are in constant progression, we need privacy and data protection more than ever to ensure that these technologies benefit us all in building inclusive Knowledge Societies and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”.

UNESCO held a session on 21 December 2017 on the implications of big data and artificial intelligence in building inclusive Knowledge Societies and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals at the Internet Governance Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

UNESCO representative, Xianhong Hu, opened the debate stating that “new technologies involving artificial intelligence and big data are rapidly evolving, constantly reshaping our understandings of access to information." Reaffirming the importance of these technologies for human development, Xianhong Hu also insisted on "the crucial need to develop them along the values of UNESCO’s concept of Internet Universality which include human rights, openness, accessibility and multistakeholder participation".

Big data and open data are indeed evolving and contested concepts, as is the significance of the phenomena they point to. Debates exist over issues such as ownership, accountability and transparency, as well as human rights, evolving techniques, novel applications, reuse and interoperability of data. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly progressing. Intelligent machines are gaining the ability to communicate without human mediation via the Internet of things, learn, improve and make calculated decisions in ways that will enable them to perform tasks previously thought to rely solely on human skill and learning, raising issues for the future of learning and creativity.

Mila Romanoff from United Nations Global Pulse, a special initiative of the Secretary General on big data and artificial intelligence, said that “big data and artificial intelligence can be very valuable in understanding people’s needs, especially in times of humanitarian crisis. At the same time, these new technologies can present some risks, particularly in terms of privacy and data protection”.

In line with the previous speaker, Sophie Kwasny from the Council of Europe said that "the potential benefits of big data and artificial intelligence for humankind are huge. Great challenges also come with them, especially regarding human rights. At the Council of Europe, we are working on modernizing our 1981 Convention on the subject, including for example a right not to be subject to a decision solely based on the automatic processing of data".

Nanjira Sambuli from the Web Foundation then cautioned about “all the hope we may want to place in what big data and artificial intelligence will do for those who have been left behind traditionally. These technologies can be very harmful too, they can represent tools of oppression and further divides”. Nanjira Sambuli then concluded her presentation saying that “no technology will make up for the lack of political or social will to actually ensure human rights."

Tijani Ben Jemaa from ICANN/ FMAI addressed the data protection side of the debate and talked about how data can be collected, processed and analyzed to improve the quality of everyone’s life. In this sense, big data can be “a source of innovation and growth”. He then talked about how, at the same time, “collected data can be used for personal attacks, for business hijacking, for political interests, they can be sold, they may be used against us without our knowledge”. Hence the need to protect data with other technologies, with legal tools and digital literacy.

Frits Bussemaker, Chair of the Institute for Accountability and Internet Democracy said that “we talk about consent, about ethics, about values. But the translations and definitions of those differ from countries and cultures. We therefore need a law for the Internet and we need to make those who are collecting and using data accountable”.

Other participants talked about the misuse of data for oppression purposes, data leaks, as well as data and information literacy and the development of guidelines. Xianhong Hu concluded the session inviting all present stakeholders to consult UNESCO’s ongoing work to promote Internet Freedom and to define Internet Universality indicators.