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Learning in the open

This post is part of the Green Web Fellowship. Fellows are exploring the intersection of digital rights and climate justice; and are reflecting honestly on what they learn. More about the fellowship and the fellows.

The link between public infrastructure and digital rights in decarbonization

Over the last decade I’ve worked to build data collection and analysis methods that help local governments improve their transport systems – mapping transit, improving bike infrastructure, and sharpening the lens through which we examine transport sustainability, access, and equity.

Much to my surprise, in 2021 I found myself filing an amicus brief in the US Court of Appeals in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s suit against former colleagues in Los Angeles, arguing for limits on transport data collection by cities.  

The story of what transpired in Los Angeles is a cautionary tale, both of the inherent political challenges in our transition towards less carbon intensive lifestyles, and in our potential to misunderstand and abuse digital infrastructure in managing this transformation.  

What began as a well intentioned effort by cities to establish much needed oversight of micromobility operators deploying fleets of scooters and e-bikes, quickly evolved into a radical re-framing of how we govern public streets, and exposed contradictions in our desire to improve environmental outcomes, while also preserving status quo social and economic hierarchies.

Public dialog about the program focused on scooters, and the many transgressions by venture funded companies deploying the vehicles. But in closed door conversations, city staff talked about partnerships with mobile phone companies, and building vast data collection infrastructure that would enable them to monitor and manage the movement of every vehicle in the city in real-time. Rather than simply holding private fleet operators accountable, the City of Los Angeles argued it had the right and responsibility to track citizens movements at a profound scale in the interest of “optimizing” how citizens used public infrastructure. 

Optimizing freedom

Despite city staff’s grandiose vision, implementation details were scarce. In reality, the city had quietly handed control of its transport strategy to a firm with expertise building large-scale digital surveillance infrastructure. Just a few years earlier executives from the firm advised the Chinese government, and numerous others, on “smart cities” surveillance technologies, including the deployment of city-wide camera networks – technologies we now know have played a key role reshaping public life as part of China’s growing surveillance infrastructure

Thanks to Los Angeles advocacy, this same surveillance-oriented approach to public life is now repackaged and sold to cities around the world as a foundational strategy for managing urban mobility. As it turns out, selling surveillance tech is substantially easier (and more profitable) than advocating for policies that actually improve the environmental and social performance of our transport systems.

When pushed on the risks, and possibility of undermining citizens’ rights through unrestrained data collection, the city argued protecting privacy was its first and foremost priority. However, by the time the ACLU’s suit reached the Court of Appeals, the city changed its view arguing citizens had no expectation of privacy in public, and therefore no right to ask for limits on the data collected about their movement. Just as there was a growing realization of the harms inherent in private sector surveillance technologies, the city hoped to replicate and codify many of the worst aspects of these data collection practices as part of public infrastructure. The Court of Appeals ultimately sided with Los Angeles and issued a opinion that further eroded already precarious privacy protections in the US.

Similarly the meaning “optimization” evolved dramatically as the project progressed. While initially framed around oversight of commercial fleet operators, and vaguely defined public safety concerns, the program rapidly evolved into a system for governing the movement of riders, allowing cities to enforce digital restrictions in contradiction to the actual laws governing use of public streets. In Los Angeles the police department used these tools to disable scooters enmasse, and arrest huge swaths of joyriding teens

I experienced this phenomenon last year, when my rented e-bike slowed to a halt while riding on a public street otherwise open to cars and cyclists. I was warned by the operator that I’d entered an area where the city had restricted use of e-bikes and that my account risked termination if I didn’t turn around. After months of investigation I was unable to determine the reasoning behind the restriction on this street, but was told by the bike operator that they are quite common in cities across the country, often as a response to public complaints about cyclists and scooter riders.

This story highlights several critical but often overlooked dimensions of the transition towards less carbon intensive lifestyles. New technologies, particularly those that reduce cost and energy intensity, often also upend existing social and economic hierarchies. Nowhere is this more true than in transportation where the car’s inherent cost (and wastefulness) plays a critical role in stratifying urban life, placing implicit limits on who can access public space. New technologies, like electric micromibility undermine these structures, just as the groups of joyriding teens in LA demonstrated.

Digital surveillance and enforcement technologies, often sold as tools for “optimizing” use of public infrastructure, are one path to re-implement existing hierarchies, even if explicit laws defining these hierarchies may not be legal. Just as LA found itself in the position of arguing against citizens rights when pressed for legal justification of its surveillance infrastructure, we can expect many similar flights as our work building more inclusive and sustainable communities forces us to redraw their implicit boundaries. 

Digital justice and political reform on the path to decarbonization

As a consequence of this experience I believe that expanding citizens rights, digitally and otherwise, will play a crucial role in enabling the transition to a less carbon intensive society. In the absence of new rights, the transition to lower carbon technologies will exacerbate existing inequalities as we find ways to re-stratify society in response to technologically induced shifts. Or we may undermine carbon reduction goals altogether as citizens are denied access to less carbon intensive technologies by those threatened by their rights-expanding possibilities. 

In the coming year I plan to examine similar themes in forms of digital infrastructure, and the link between reducing the carbon footprint of internet infrastructure and the growing economic and political pressure to expand surveillance capabilities. Just as “smart cities” vendors have linked their business models to surveillance technology, many of the firms that operate internet infrastructure have become dependent on surveillance-oriented business models. 

As part of my work I hope to unpack some of the economic, political, and environmental implications embedded in these businesses, and explore alternative approaches that may allow us to disentangle public infrastructure from corrosive uses of technology. Reducing the carbon intensity of digital infrastructure will be one among many causalities if the current path continues. And as a we see with transport, the more entrenched the private sector becomes in in defining digital infrastructure, greater the risk that it becomes linked with governance and business models (and profit expectations) that are antithetical to public goals.

The view exposes inherent, if inconvenient, political challenges in the path to decarbonization. Not only will it upend social hierarchies and norms embedded in existing technologies, it also highlights the risks of allowing the private sector to define public goals for innovation and decarbonization. We see this risk already, as the climate innovation in the US has evolved into a series of subsides to automakers building massive, high-value electric vehicles with questionable environmental or social value. Perhaps unsurprisingly some of the same politicians that celebrated Los Angeles attempts to restrain e-bikes and scooters are now responsible for marketing the Biden administration’s EV policies on climate and equity grounds. Their work fundamentally is about maintaining the status quo in the face of technological change–in this case the social stratification and business models enabled by auto-centric transport policy.

While pursuing reform at this scale seems daunting, history offers some hope. We faced many of the same challenges with political and economic capture in late-19th century industrial reform, which brought about new tools for restraining corporate power and more robust methods for building and governing public infrastructure. This type of thinking has reemerged as a tool for regulating global tech platforms, and may play a crucial role in the reforms needed for broader technological change in support of climate policy.

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