In recent weeks, the Executive Committee (EC) and the General Chairs (GC) of the FAccT Conference have spoken to members of our community who are affected by the events in Iran and Tigray. As Executive Committee (EC) and General Chairs (GC) of the FAccT Conference, we stand in solidarity with members of our community who have been affected by the violent repression in Iran, as well as members affected by the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.
The brutal crackdowns in Iran began as a response to protests against the killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a 22 year-old Kurdish Iranian woman murdered by the government’s so-called ‘Morality Police’ after being detained for ‘improper hijab’. The protests have issued a rousing call for women’s rights, the rights of ethnic minorities (such as Kurds and Baluch) and more generally basic human rights and values of equality, justice, freedom. Our colleagues in the Iranian academic community have been directly involved in these calls for an end to oppression, and have been the target of violent attacks, arrests, and killings by the security forces. Such attacks range from assaults on Sharif University and other institutes of higher education to appalling attacks on high schools across the country.
Meanwhile, Tigray has been described as the world’s deadliest war of our time, and the Director General of the World Health Organization has referred to it as the worst disaster on earth. Researchers from Ghent University estimate the number of deaths to be as many as 500,000. Additionally, six million people are affected by a siege, which has resulted in dire shortages of food and medicine.
FAccT is committed to promoting inclusion and participation across different demographics and geographic regions, constructively integrating diverse methodological approaches to a wide range of problems raised by sociotechnical systems, and respecting the gravity of our research topic. We recognize that a core subject of our conference–technology and its politics–has been deeply implicated in these events. On the one hand, social media technologies have provided powerful means for the silenced population of Iran, enabling new forms of collaborative investigative journalism involving Iranian grassroots organizations as well as different forms of transnational solidarity. On the other hand, the weaponization of technology by government forces has ranged from the use of facial recognition tools for surveillance of women protesting against the mandatory hijab rules to digital misinformation campaigns and state propaganda, to issues of digital access and internet shutdown as tools of state authoritarianism. In the context of Tigray, drone attacks have targeted civilians, including a kindergarten, a camp for internally displaced refugees and a flour mill. A communication and Internet blackout has been used as a weapon, while the failure of social media companies to provide appropriate content moderation has enabled the widespread incitement of ethnic killings.
This interplay between the technologies we study, their implication as tools of oppression, and their utilization in the fight to defend human rights is not unique to the cases of Iran and Tigray. The deployment of facial recognition and mass surveillance has also been documented in China, where it has been used to track the Uighur minority. The failure of content moderation and the role of social media in inciting ethnic killings has also been reported in Myanmar. Furthermore, other risks such as those posed by autonomous weapons are increasingly pressing, as the US military continues to advance towards their deployment. And in a global context in which violence and climate change increasingly force people to migrate, the utilization of technology for surveillance, such as ICE’s improper access to utilities data in the US, and the use of drones and autonomous tools to patrol borders in the US and Europe, pose a risk to the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
These challenges once again provide a salient reminder of the responsibility of our community to address inequities in the attention allocated to studying and addressing the harms of data-driven and algorithmic tools affecting communities in and from the Global South. We have acknowledged some of these harms in this statement, but we know that there are many that are not here.
Studying the interplay between sociotechnical systems and human rights in a global context is central to our efforts. As we plan for FAccT 2023 and begin planning for 2024, we are looking to create opportunities to highlight the role of the technologies we study in contexts of state oppression and armed conflicts, particularly in regions that have typically received less attention from our community. We also encourage our community to submit work (papers, CRAFTs, tutorials, etc.) that focuses on this topic, and welcome input on other ways in which FAccT can promote approaches to technology grounded in an unwavering commitment to fundamental human rights.
FAccT Executive Committee, FAccT 2023 General Chairs
Acknowledgements: We thank Sina Fazelpour, Hoda Heidari, Tina Eliassi-Rad, and Atoosa Kasirzadeh for sharing their experiences and knowledge with us, and for their guidance in drafting this statement.