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Digital Rights and Wrongs

29/05/2009

With the European Elections fast approaching, the Open Rights Group have asked UK candidates what they think about key digital rights issues such as online privacy, surveillance state, open internet and copyright reform.  To view responses, visit the Open Rights Group EU Election pages.

The Open Rights Group is a grassroots technology organisation which exists to protect civil liberties wherever they are threatened by the poor implementation and regulation of digital technology.  This is an important area for advocacy and got me thinking. When we consider digital rights – particularly Internet access as a human right – government action to ensure equitable internet access and close digital divides appears straightforward.  However, the intersection between the internet and disabled people as users is not the sum, total interface between digital infrastructure and disability.

Last year at the biennial Disability Studies Association conference in Lancaster (UK), Australian academic Dr Helen Meekosha presented the keynote Contextualizing disability: developing southern/global theory. This paper advocated global perspectives on disability, challenging gaps in western/northern disability discourse.   Meekosha observes that global levels of disability are not a given, they are dependent on factors such as war, disaster, economics and climate change.  In view of this, the decisions made by elected governments on defence, trade, international aid and the environment have repercussions for levels of disability around the world.  I would argue that digital legislation is bound into this policy ecology.  For example, in environmental terms… (I’m thinking of Nicolas Carr’s assertion that the average Second Life avatar consumes as much energy as the average Brazillian and the revelations that the CO2 emissions of the ICT industry outstrip aviation) …green computing could be concieved as a human rights and disability issue.

However, Meekosha identifies more direct causal effects relating technology and disability, specifically through outsourcing to ‘eSweatshops’.  She also observes:

Disability scholars rarely venture into this territory – leaving these issues to scholars in feminism and international development.

Citing the excellent article ‘A New Front in the Sweatshop Wars?‘ by Farrell & Olsen, (2001) Meekosha highlights the emergence of eSweatshops, dedicated to data processing, as a physically damaging, disabling environments.  Farrell and Olsen scope high-profile academic digitisation projects that have been sub-contracted to countries such as Barbados, India, Mexico and Cambodia whilst observing the lack of any regulation.  In one instance they describe disabled people targeted for employment by a Harvard sub-contractor.  This is a complex area of competing interests, deftly handled by Farrell and Olsen. More recent literature from organisations such as Cafod focuses on manufacturing sweatshops, for ICTs and software. It’s a reminder that digital resources, tools and structures can infringe rights and create impairment, outside traditional views of inaccessible systems and accessibility discourse.

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