As the pioneers and principal beneficiaries of digital innovation, technology companies have a responsibility to ensure that the digital world they create is inclusive to all. But just a handful of the world’s largest technology companies have lived up to their commitments on digital inclusion, according to a recent benchmark of the sector. This may soon change, however, as policymakers and investors apply greater pressure on the technology industry to improve its social impact.
The Digital Inclusion Benchmark, created by non-profit research provider the World Benchmarking Alliance, assesses 150 of the world’s largest technology companies, including telcos, IT vendors and internet companies, on their contributions to four dimensions of digital inclusion: improving access to technology, enhancing digital skills, trustworthy use and ethical innovation.
The findings from the Benchmark are stark. Just over 5% of the technology companies assessed have a ‘passing’ grade (above 50%) while the remaining organisations ‘failed’ the Benchmark. Tech giants including Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet ranked near the top, thanks to increased disclosures on human rights, diversity and inclusion, but they lagged behind telcos, which made up more than half of the top 20 businesses in the ranking
Spanish telco Telefonica sits at the top of the Benchmark, followed closely by Orange and Telstra, thanks to these companies’ initiatives in increasing digital access to underserved communities and a high level of transparency.
Orange, for example, has provided digital literacy skills to more than 40,000 unemployed women across its operating markets in Africa and Europe since 2015, and its Digital Centers programme hosts coding schools in Senegal, Tunisia and Cameroon. Telefonica provides similar programmes through its ProFuturo initiative and, most notably, has committed to ensuring that accessibility design principles are baked into all of products and services by the end of this year.
One reason for the telcos' high scores is that they are heavily regulated, explains Lourdes Montenegro, digital sector transformation lead at the World Benchmarking Alliance. “Telefonica, Orange and Telstra all operate in the heavily regulated telecoms sector," she explains. This "shows the potential for regulation as a means of doing away with the unsustainable ‘act first, think later’ mentality”.
Technology sector's 'weak' commitments on AI ethics
Ethical issues surrounding the use of AI have gained attention among the public and policymakers in recent years, and many technology companies have made commitments to ethical use of AI.
However, the Digital Inclusion Benchmark reveals that fewer than 10% of the companies assessed have committed to international standards for ethical AI practices. Instead, the majority have developed internal, voluntary ethical guidelines and frameworks. Researchers have described these voluntary frameworks as “weak”, focusing more on transparency than accountability.
It doesn’t hold a lot of weight when one company’s set of ethical AI principles are different from others.
Isedua Oribhabor, Access Now
“It doesn’t hold a lot of weight when one company’s set of ethical AI principles are different from others," says Isedua Oribhabor, business and human rights lead at campaign group Access Now. "[We] have international human rights standards that have already existed for decades which companies can rely on as a starting base for how they approach respecting the rights of people who rely on their services.
“Instead we’re seeing it being replaced by policies with weaker language and commitments, or a situation where companies don’t have any form of commitments at all.”
Tech industry's digital inclusion efforts lack impact assessments
Similarly, while a number of technology companies have made public commitments to improve digital inclusion, only a fraction have published impact assessments for their activities, leaving open the possibility of 'impact washing'. Telefonica's ProFuturo programme, which aims to close the educational and digital divide for young people in vulnerable environments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, is one of the handful of examples where a third-party auditor provided an assessment of its impact.
"The fact that impact assessments to understand potential risks aren’t being made public is really concerning," says Oribhabor. "These results show there is a fundamental disconnect between what companies believe their responsibilities are and what their consumers actually need.
"The phrase we keep hearing from the tech sector is to move fast and break things... so rather than waiting for such initiatives to be rolled out and then trying to retroactively address any issues that may arise, this is really the time for companies to start releasing impact assessments from the get-go.”
A race to the top
The Digital Inclusion Benchmark suggest the world's biggest tech companies are dragging their feet in fostering a more digitally inclusive society. "The tech industry really does have the power to either sabotage or boost our attempts to build a fairer, more sustainable and inclusive world, but very few are using this power wisely," says Montenegro.
There is reason for optimism, however, says Oribhabor. The tech industry has come under unprecedented scrutiny in recent years from governments, civil society and citizens at large who are keenly aware of the outsized influence a handful of companies have over the world, and investors are becoming increasingly attuned to such shifts.
"We're not only hearing calls for more digital inclusion from human rights organisations, we're hearing that from investors and shareholders as well," said Oribhabor. "Companies might not care about what a human rights organisation has to say, but they will care when they see their peers doing better or worse than them on a benchmark. A race to the top needs to happen."