Digital equality and the complexities of inclusion — #LoveOutLoud

In the last couple of years conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity have slowly made it onto the agendas of almost every tech conference and debate about the digital society worldwide. My main lesson: we have to be tactical and strategic about our endeavours — only if we address the challenges in a comprehensive manner will we be able to make a change.

#LoveOutLoud, © Cathleen Berger

During this year’s re:publica, May 8–10, 2017 digital inclusion finally took centre stage. Under the theme “Love Out Loud”, more than 9000 participants came to the STATION Berlin to follow a 500h programme on 20 different stages that featured no less than 1030 speakers from 67 countries — 47% of them women (yes, that is possible). This reflected a bold and very political call to create a more inclusive digital society, one that is not divided by hate speech or prone to manipulation and fake news interfering with our democracies. 2017 has not only seen the election of Trump and the high (if luckily not majority) results for right-wing parties in the Netherlands and France, it’s also election year in Germany. Many of the worries, concerns, but also hopes for a better, open and more welcoming (online) culture marked the conference visibly. There were many great speakers, who shared their insights and reflections on digital inclusion and equality including the fantastic Caroline Sinders, who talked about the opportunities that machine learning could bring to the sensitivities of the work of content moderators, or the amazing Kübra Gümüşay, who reminded us of the emotional challenges related to activism, political discourse and inclusion, as well as author and philosopher Carolin Emcke, who shared her reading on the call to action related to “love out loud” — placing emphasis on fighting hate and populism.

They are inspiring. And their messages are important. We’ve been calling for societal and political change for years — but do we have the means to bring it about or are we ultimately chasing impossible ideals?

One thing is clear: the challenges are complex. Digital equality, as Renata Avila (The Web Foundation) pointed out, can be tricky to define. It’s a multilayered issue and — stating the obvious — taking the quest for equality to the digital sphere does not reduce the challenges that come with it. Which is why I enjoyed the approach that our panel adopted in order to break down some of these complexities: Thomas Lohninger (epicenter.works) looked into the metalevel of infrastructure and regulatory frameworks explaining why net neutrality is a core principle of the free and open web; Melanie Dulong de Rosnay (CNRS) presented the community level of distributed networks that not only connect hard to reach areas but also help circumvent surveillance; and I addressed the individual level of inclusion and literacy.

You can watch the video here:

A healthy internet that provides equal opportunity necessarily requires empowered and aware citizens across the globe. I strongly believe that the digital age can only live up to its potential of supporting innovation, enabling global public discourse and strengthening inclusive policy-making processes, if everyone is put into a position to meaningfully participate. But we still have a long way to go to make this a reality if we look at the current stats — right now it seems that we are risking to increase the economic, social and political divides that already exist “offline” today.

There are regional gaps, for instance 88% of Germany’s population is online, but the same is true for only 34,8% of India’s population and even worse for as few as 4,4% in Burundi. Barriers such as affordability, language and local content, gender and age aggravate these divides. What does it tell us if 58% of the world’s population cannot afford basic data plans (calculating with less than 5% of GDP), even if that gap is less pronounced for mobile connectivity? Most notably since this doesn’t even reflect the quality of that access. Moreover, something that is often and easily forgotten in the bubble of digital rights conferences: only 25% of the world’s population understands English, yet 52% of websites are in English, whereas Chinese is the second biggest language online in terms of users but only 2% of online content is Chinese. Research also shows that in developing countries, women are nearly 50% less likely than men to access the internet, partly due to a lack of skills, partly due to awareness, and partly due to a lack of cultural acceptance. In addition, women are 30–50% less likely to use the internet for economic and/or public purposes, and thus fall short of reaping the benefits of connectivity, even when they are in a position to access the internet.

Where does that leave us? As Kübra put it: The ideals of diversity, inclusion and equality are exactly that: ideals. Something to strive for, every single day, in ourselves and as society. Participating in constructive interaction, speaking up against hate speech and reassessing our own “reality” — that we tend to take for granted — is an every day practice, not just something to talk about. So let’s not despair over reality and continue working for the better.