The cost of access

This was my opening introduction for Futurefest’s “Who Is the Internet For?” debate today in London. I didn’t hit all the points as smoothly as this, but I covered most of it throughout the debate.

In the description for this session, it says “Without the inputs from internet users with physical impairments we wouldn’t have the voice technology underpinning Siri or Alexa.” But what is the cost of using Alexa for people who would find it difficult or impossible to access the web or technology without voice recognition?

Assistive technology, such as voice recognition software, or screen readers that read the contents of the screen aloud have been historically expensive. One of the most popular screen readers, JAWS, costs more than £700. When Apple added VoiceOver, its own free screen reader, to its devices, it made screen readers much easier to access. For people who could afford iPhones.

It’s a wonderful thing that assistive technology is now built into some technology as a default. It’s an important part of making technology more inclusive. But in the case of Amazon’s Alexa, and many inexpensive or free solutions, the cost of access is your privacy.

Alexa, as part of Amazon’s Echo, means you are always connected to Amazon. Every request you make, every question you ask, is recorded and saved by Amazon. The always-on microphone means Alexa is always listening out for your requests. Alexa is always listening. What if the microphone gets hacked? What if the government requests access to your recordings? How differently do you behave knowing that there’s a chance someone is listening in on you? The same goes for Google Home.

I’m a designer and developer, I got into the web because I loved the idea of the democratisation of information. I want all people to have access to technology. Especially as technology is now so vital to involvement in society. I wrote a book to introduce accessibility to people who make websites, explaining how to make websites easier to see, easier to hear, easier to operate, and easier to understand. But I also work to build ethical alternatives to the mainstream technology.

Because not all technology is entirely beneficial.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Dr Frances Ryan interviewed disabled and marginalised people about the value of social media. Her article covers how social networks have provided “a lifeline – a bridge to a new community, a route to employment, a way to tackle isolation.” Social networking has become vital social infrastructure for all of us, especially for marginalised people.

However, the vast majority of social networks are free because they monetise our attention and our personal information. Shoshana Zuboff calls this “surveillance capitalism”.

And it isn’t fair that this is the cost of access. Marginalised groups are the most vulnerable to the use and abuse of their personal information. People from marginalised ethnicities are vulnerable to racist governments. LGBTQ people are vulnerable to homophobic and transphobic governments. Disabled people are vulnerable to discrimination from governments and insurance companies. Any marginalised group is vulnerable to abuse because the social networks we use value engagement over safety because engagement makes them more money.

Why has surveillance capitalism become so prevalent? It’s because the cis straight non-disabled white wealthy men who control the majority of technology are the least vulnerable to the monetisation of their personal information. They can afford special security and privacy measures. They can afford to pay for expensive access rather than being forced to sell their personal information.

I often try to sell accessibility by explaining that making the web more usable to people with disabilities, you invariably make the web more usable for everyone. The same goes for our ethical alternatives to mainstream technology. If we make, participate, support and fund inclusive alternatives, we will all benefit.