Civil society must respond to digital colonialism with just digital transformation
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WACC General Secretary Philip Lee sits at a table and gives his presentation. Projected slide reads "The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”

Civil society must respond to digital colonialism with just digital transformation

An entrenched digital colonialism is shrinking public space and violating communication rights. The global ecumenical movement is called to respond with digital justice, WACC General Secretary Philip Lee told communicators from the Council for World Mission (CWM) gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 16–18 January.

Our world of digital interconnectivity presents both opportunities and risks, Lee said in his presentation “Public Space, Decolonialization, and Digital Justice” at the event, a preparatory workshop for CWM’s Assembly in June 2024.

People are able to acquire knowledge, share information, and communicate on an unprecedented scale, Lee noted, with gains for the defense of human rights. Yet “there has also been a simultaneous escalation of oppressive and in many instances unlawful conduct by governments and service providers that have infringed people’s rights and increased digital vulnerability.”

Digital technologies used to curtail public space

Lee pointed to the arbitrary curtailing of public space such as mobile Internet stoppages in India during protests or the SIM registration law in the Philippines that WACC partner the Computer Professionals’ Union says is being weaponized to suppress dissent.

The rapid — and largely unregulated — expansion of artificial intelligence into public systems and information spaces presents further risks to democratic communication.

Online violence against women is a particular concern as is surveillance capitalism, which, according to the WACC general secretary, is monitoring users’ behavior “in astonishing detail and depth — most often without their explicit consent.”

Questions of control due to rise of digital colonialism

Lee highlighted the rise of a digital colonialism through control of the world’s digital ecosystem being concentrated in the hands of a few companies. “Sharp increases in inequality, the rise of state-corporate surveillance, and sophisticated police and military technologies are just a few of the consequences of this new world order.”

In this current context, movements for change must broaden their focus from questions of access to questions of ownership and control, Lee emphasized. “Civil society must advocate for a fundamentally different technological ecosystem that places control directly in the hands of the people,” Lee stressed.

Advocating for a just digital transformation

This digital transformation needs to be people-centred, he said, driven by the needs of local communities. The aim must be to shape “communication and information ecosystems firmly rooted in principles of justice, freedom, equality, and mutual solidarity.”

Lee called on ecumenical and other civil society actors throughout the world to educate themselves and to facilitate public spaces for discussion about policy directions and likely outcomes.

Civil society needs to prepare for and raise their voices at two key international events in particular: the UN Summit of the Future in September of this year and the World Summit on the Information Society +20 in 2025, Lee told the CWM communicators. He invited them to join WACC’s agenda for just digital transformation and advocacy for communication for all in these processes.

“At both events, civil society and the global ecumenical movement need to invoke the universal principles of truth, human dignity, and non-violence [to] underpin global, regional, and national policies and infrastructures,” he said. Only in this way can “genuine accessibility, affordability, and inclusion” be guaranteed.

About 27 men and women of different races stand in two rows for a group picture

Participants of the CWM Communications Workshop 2024 “Rise to Life: Together in Transformation.” Photo: CWM

Together in transformation

In his welcome address, the Revd Dr Jooseop Keum, CWM general secretary, focused on the importance of multidirectional communication.

He noted how a rapidly changing world has transformed how we communicate with each other, reshaped the ways we exchange information, and profoundly influenced the dynamics of society.

“We cannot discuss communication in the contemporary world without acknowledging the digital revolution. Social media have become a powerful force in shaping public discourse,” he said.

The CWM workshop offered the opportunity for communicators from the worldwide partnership of 32 Christian churches to share experiences, learn from each other, and develop new communication plans to better connect with their communities and achieve their mission goals in alignment with the 2024 Assembly theme “Rise to Life: Together in Transformation.

“The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” WACC General Secretary Philip Lee speaks about public space, decolonization, and digital justice at the CWM Communications Workshop 2024. Photo: CWM

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