UN special rapporteur on digital technology and social protection denounces a “human rights free-zone”

The report of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights condemns in strong terms the way governments are privitizing and automating welfare management.

In early 2019, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UN) appointed Philip Alston, a professor of Law at New York University, as their special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Mr Alston will present his 20-page report (docx-file 77,3 KB), to which AlgorithmWatch was given early access, this Friday at the UN General Assembly.

Mr. Alston and his team based their report on 60 submissions which were sent to them last May by as many civil society organizations, academics or corporations. AlgorithmWatch’s submission, which was published this June, was quoted several times.

The report aggregates dozens of examples of “digital welfare” from a wide variety of countries, ranging from Kenya’s attempt to biometrically register all its population to the Netherland’s SyRI program (AlgorithmWatch reported in June 2018). While Mr Alston agreed that digitization could, in theory, contribute to a better and more efficient distribution of welfare benefits, he argued that this vision was not being implemented. Instead, he wrote that, on its current path, the digital welfare state was rather “a Trojan Horse for neoliberal hostility towards welfare and regulation.”

“Disastrous future”

Mr. Alston used such blunt language throughout the report, which makes for a very interesting read. He denounced the lack of regulation of private-sector companies, especially Big Tech, which operate in a near "human rights free-zone" while selling tools that transform welfare management, often eliminating the all-important human component. He highlighted the political charge of many efforts ostensibly aimed at boosting efficiency, which allow for “neoliberal economic policies [to] seamlessly blend into what are presented as cutting edge welfare reforms.”

He also noted that the poor were most impacted by the current drive towards digitization, whether because they do not have the required tools or skills to use the services imposed onto them or because those services systematically discriminate in ways that exacerbate existing inequalities. His conclusion is clear if ominous: “a technologically-driven future will be disastrous if it is not guided by respect for human rights.”

Not a UN declaration

Special rapporteurs often use such directness, which stands out from the very polished tone of the declarations of other UN organs. For Ronny Patz, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Munich and a specialist of the UN, the work of rapporteurs is aimed at public opinions much more than at diplomats of UN member states. It is unclear if such a strategy is effective in nudging UN member states to address the issue at stake, he added.

Mr Alston’s report may have little impact on welfare policies in the short run. However, its sharpness shows that there is a growing consensus among academics that automated decision-making in the public sector is far from a neutral tool, as AlgorithmWatch has argued several times.

The report is now available on the website of the UN special rapporteur (docx-file).

Nicolas Kayser-Bril


Photo: Julia Bornkessel, CC BY 4.0

Nicolas is data journalist and working for AlgorithmWatch as a reporter. He pioneered new forms of journalism in France and in Europe and is one of the leading experts on data journalism. He regularly speaks at international conferences, teaches journalism in French journalism schools and gives training sessions in newsrooms. A self-taught journalist and developer (and a graduate in Economics), he started by doing small interactive, data-driven applications for Le Monde in Paris in 2009. He then built the data journalism team at OWNI in 2010 before co-founding and managed Journalism++ from 2011 to 2017. Nicolas is also one of the main contributors to the Datajournalism Handbook, the reference book for the popularization of data journalism worldwide.