The structures and systems that support and allow algorithmic colonialism to thrive can be counterbalanced by strong data governance, privacy, and digital rights policy. I interviewed Neema Iyer, an artist, designer, and technologist, who is also the founder of the civic technology company, Pollicy, based in Kampala, Uganda. She actively works on research projects centred on data, gender, and digital rights, and builds products to improve service delivery across the African continent.
Margarita Osipian: You are the founder and director of Pollicy. Can you talk about the name of your organisation and what it means?
Neema Iyer: Pollicy is a portmanteau of the words poll and policy. It’s meant to be a combination of citizen’s voices and policy/decision-making.
MO: What inspired you to start this organisation?
NI: I was inspired to start Pollicy after experiencing and witnessing frustration at various touch points with government, whether securing important documents or information or services. I felt that there was an opportunity to use data to improve service delivery across African countries.
MO: For our Algorithmic Colonialism event, we wanted to focus on the asymmetry between Facebook and other Big Tech companies extracting data in Europe and North America vs them extracting data from people in countries with less economically and geopolitically powerful positions. This can be tied into previous projects undertaken by Facebook and Google to connect people by providing ‘free’ or inexpensive internet as a way to capture specific markets. How does this asymmetry of power around data extraction and privacy intersect with gender and the research you’re doing at Pollicy around feminist online spaces and the feminist internet?
NI: We can think of it in terms of asymmetry between Western/Northern countries versus geopolitically weaker countries, but also between genders. Women in many African countries tend to have lesser economic power, digital literacy and access to meaningful connectivity or devices. This makes them even more susceptible to depending on free/inexpensive internet. Our recently concluded research looked at how feminist movements across Africa use data and digital tools for the advancement of our causes, and many challenges, concerns and gaps were identified, which indicates that there is significant work to be done regarding building trust, skills and funding for feminist internet and data governance structures. Some of the challenges identified were limited access to the internet and devices, lack of digital and data literacy, lack of gender-disaggregated data, gatekeeping by institutions and donor agendas. To read more about this report, visit https://pollicy.org/feministdata.
MO: In the summer of 2020, Facebook unveiled “2Africa,” a subsea cable project that will encircle nearly the entire continent of Africa. Julie Owono spoke about this project in a podcast interview with Tristan Harris and said that “It’s critical now that communities have a seat at the table. I fear that if we don’t seize that opportunity, the internet will definitely become a tool of repression in places that desperately need freedoms and democracy.” Have you looked at this subsea cable project within your work at Pollicy?
NI: We have not looked at it, but are aware of it. Though, it is worth considering that given the current regressive laws in certain countries in Africa, such as the social media tax in Uganda or exorbitant fees under blogger regulations in Tanzania, even without the undersea cable, the internet (and lack of) is used as a tool of repression when it comes to internet shutdowns, surveillance, oppression of dissenting voices, government-funded troll armies, disinformation etc. I agree that communities must have a seat at the table in determining our digital futures, but there needs to be stronger support from regional and continental bodies that is grounded in democracy and openness, which is unfortunately, very lacking at the moment.
MO: Following up on the previous question, what tools are there (or should be developed) to give communities a seat at the table when it comes to these larger technical infrastructure projects?
NI: There need to be more discussions at different levels of stakeholders to educate people on how these technical infrastructure projects operate, what the current incentives, advantages and disadvantages are, what kinds of policies are needed for equitable internet access, and determine appropriate channels to liaise with governments on implementing these enabling policies. I particularly feel that women’s rights and feminist organizations, who have become experts in mobilizing and movement building for social justice, could play a major role in promoting the causes of just internet governance. They are however not particularly involved in this technological discourse and this an an area that could be further resourced.
MO: Before the “2Africa” initiative, Facebook tried to bring internet connectivity to other countries through the ‘Free Basics’ program and the internet.org initiative. This program was successfully shut down in India by digital rights activists, and one of the activists that led the shutdown, Nikhil Pahwa, said that this ban allowed local internet providers to flourish and an increase in connectivity. ‘Free Basics’ is still available in a number of African countries. Do you think that Facebook should be providing internet connectivity or should this be something that is taken up on a local or national level?
NI: This is a tricky question. From our research in certain countries, Free Basics was applauded as a tool for connectivity where there otherwise would have been none, either due to high costs of operations or repressive governments that clamp down on communication. Previously, I would have sided with free, fair and open internet, but some countries have not made those strides in supporting local internet providers, building the infrastructure, reducing connectivity costs etc. Some are on their way to introducing taxes such as the social media taxes or digital taxes which make connectivity even more prohibitively expensive. When presented with some internet versus no internet, who am I, as someone priviledged, to say who should or shouldn’t have access to the internet, when at present, there is no alternative.
MO: In your interview with Chenai Chair, these questions that you raised, about the other side of the coin when it comes to data use in new technologies, stood out to me: “Who has access to and owns this data? How will they capitalize on this information? Will it become a new currency for control and subjugation? And, overall, will we be able to keep any parts of our lives private?”. These questions all speak towards the need for more ownership and control over our personal data. Is this something that you think individuals need to take into their own hands (through using open source tools, using Signal instead of WhatsApp, Nextcloud instead of Google Drive, etc) or should this be done through governmental policy?
NI: People are becoming more conscious about the value of their data, and learning more about how their data is used by both big tech and governments. I do not however believe that governmental policy should lead these efforts, knowing that some of our government can use this very data against marginalized groups or dissenting voices. The same questions arise when talking about cloud-based servers for example, would you trust the secure, remote servers owned by big tech or locally-based servers that could be raided at any time under any pretense by government agencies. Difficult questions. I do not have these answers yet. It will be interesting to see what new models of data ownership, stewardship, collaboratives etc. arise, how transparent tech companies are willing to be, how intellectual property laws filter into these debates on digital extractivism etc.
MO: The reports and research that you publish at Pollicy take on unique formats, like the chat box structure you created for the “Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets: Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet” report and the interactive fiction game on disinformation. What are some of the reasons you have for publishing your work and research in these ways?
NI: I always find that talking about data governance, digital rights and similar topics can be quite academic or filled with jargon, which impedes different communities from interacting with the subject matter. At Pollicy, we aim to use creative tools, whether it’s interactive chat bots, interactive fiction, data artistry, games, documentaries, podcasts etc. to open up the conversation to a wider audience. Those who might be coming online for the first time, or people from different fields new to tech policy, or persons with low literacy etc. We need as many voices as possible in determining what our digital futures should look like and we need to ensure that everyone feels welcomed to give their opinions and share their experiences/vision.
MO: You are an artist and a technologist. How does your work as an artist intersect with your work as a technologist and the policy and research work you’re doing?
NI: In all kinds of ways. I illustrate for several of our projects such as the Choose Your Own Fake News game, our blogs, our reports etc. My love for art also comes through in our creative approaches to disseminating our work. I like to think that the art pulls people in to the policy and research work that we do.
MO: We noticed that your project, Afrofeminism Data Futures, is supported and commissioned by Facebook and you are involved in other projects with Facebook owned companies like WhatsApp and Instagram (which you outline in this medium post). As you write in the description of the ‘Afrofeminism Data Futures’ project, one of the focuses of this work is to better understand “how this knowledge can be translated into actionable recommendations for private technology companies in terms of how they share non-commercial datasets.” For this project in particular, how is Facebook involved? Is it just financially through a subsidy or research fund program, or is there a deeper involvement in Facebook policy?
NI: Facebook put out a call for proposals on studying how feminist movements in Africa use data, to which we (Pollicy) replied. We then worked together over 3-4 months on the research report on Afrofeminist Data Futures. However, I also serve as Facebook’s Women’s Safety Expert Advisor for Africa and as a organization, work together with Facebook on community engagements on the ground.