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The UN Warns Against Digital Welfare Dystopia

Careful and transparent consideration should always be given to the questions of why, for whom, when, and how transitions to digital systems take place”, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, states in a report that was presented to the UN General Assembly on October 18.

Digital governance is no noble enterprice
The report is specific and very clear in its conclusions that are centered around “digital governance” and “the digital welfare state”: “systems of social protection and assistance increasingly driven by digital data and technologies that are used to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish”.

Digital governance is already a reality or is emerging in many countries across the globe.

Examples are electronic voting, technology-driven surveillance and control including through facial recognition programs, algorithm-based predictive policing, the digitization of justice and immigration systems, online submission of tax returns and payments, biometric identification and many other forms of electronic interactions between citizens and different levels of government.

While governments present the digital welfare states as altruistic and noble enterprises designed to ensure that citizens benefit from new technologies, experience more efficient government, and enjoy higher levels of well-being. But in reality, Alston concludes, neoliberal economic policies are seamlessly blended into what are presented as “cutting edge welfare reforms”.

Trojan horses for human rights hostile neoliberalism

With that “digital welfare states risk becoming Trojan Horses for neoliberal hostility towards social protection and regulation (…)” says Alston and uses very strong language when he explains how the close ties between private sector big tech companies and states pose a major threat to the upholding of human rights for individuals.
Digital welfare programs are presented as being ‘scientific’ and neutral, but in reality “reflect values and assumptions that are far removed from, and may be antithetical to, the principles of human rights”. According to the UN Special Rapporteur one of the problems is that governments allow big tech companies to operate in a virtually human right’s free-zone.

And there is much more work to be done covering what is human rights in the digital age means, because : “nonone has adequately captured the full array of threats represented by the emergence of the digital welfare state”. And although: “There is no shortage of analyses warning of the dangers for human rights of various manifestations of digital technology and especially artificial intelligence (…) these studies focus overwhelmingly on the traditional civil and political rights such as the right to privacy, non-discrimination, fair trial rights, and the right to freedom of expression and information”.

Human rights grounded in hard law
According to Alston this perspective is to narrow – and ordinary citizens all around the globe are victims. He concludes that  a technologically-driven future will be disastrous if it is not guided by respect for human rights and grounded in hard law. Instead of obsessing about fraud, cost savings, sanctions, and market-driven definitions of efficiency, the starting point should be on how welfare budgets could be transformed through technology to ensure a higher standard of living for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
There is time, but we have to act now “as humankind moves, perhaps inexorably, towards the digital welfare future it needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia,

About the report:
• The author, Mr. Philip Alston (Australia), took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014.
• As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
• Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
• The report is based on several country visits as well as a global consultation that drew submissions from more than 30 countries around the world.
• There is remarkable consistency in the empirical evidence from countries in the high income countries in the north as well as from the Global South.