Access to technology is unevenly distributed within and between countries, privileging some over others. That was on full display during live-streamed interviews with candidates vying to be the next Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
On several occasions, Susan Okalany’s connection to the internet failed. Okalany is the only woman short-listed for the job. She is also only candidate based in Africa (the Nigerian candidate is based in the United States). Some might note that internet connections are notoriously poor in countries like Uganda. And sure, that is true. We know that. The Assembly of States Parties of the ICC, which organized this event, knows that. The ICC knows that. The international community, however one might define it, knows that. That widespread, collective knowledge didn’t stop Okalany from being put at a distinct disadvantage during the proceedings.
None of this is new. The inequality experienced by individuals and communities with uneven internet access is often referred to as the global digital divide. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has warned that inequality will be exacerbated by the prevalence of digital platforms. Others have pointed out that the digital divide and, specifically, unequal internet access risks deepening inequality both domestically and internationally. According to UNCTAD, out of the box thinking to address the divide is needed.
In this context, it is worrying that the technical issues were not effectively addressed prior to the interviews. While Okalany impressed with her perseverance and calm, at one point, after the connection failed multiple times, Okalany rightly exclaimed: “this is a circus”.
To be clear: I do not know what went wrong. I do not know who, if anyone, didn’t do enough to ensure that Okalany had what she needed to participate fully in the proceedings. I do not know what other methods of live-streaming were considered or whether organizers offered Okalany the technology and support she needed to maintain a stable connection. While the interview was stopped at some point so that Okalany’s connection could be repaired, I do not know why it then continued without her able to participate fully.
I do hope that these questions are answered in the coming days, because it is abundantly clear: somewhere along the line, something or someone failed Okalany. It is not good enough to say, “that’s just how it is; everyone has internet problems these days.”
One possible retort to this issue that should be immediately dispelled is that providing Okalany with the technological means to participate fully in the interviews would have demonstrated bias towards her. There are surely ways to loan out the necessary technical resources for candidates who are disadvantaged by no fault of their own. More to the point, not doing so biases the interviews against Okalany and for the other three candidates. I am also quite sure that none of the other candidates would have protested because the live-streaming issues didn’t just hurt Okalany, but all of the candidates as well as the process.
This is not simply about getting a chance to speak, or answering questions posed by moderators. Westerners and those with the means to afford technology have massive, structural advantages over others who can’t or who live in states without the latest advances in internet connectivity. I know this from experience: working with Nigerian investigators and prosecutors, the Wayamo Foundation dedicates time and resources to ensuring that the participants in our capacity building cyber workshops have the means to participate meaningfully in our online courses.
Having a bad connection or having your internet connection fail altogether means that other candidates have an unfair advantage in reality and in perception. When that happens, those have unstable internet connections may feel isolated and unsettled. They have to gather themselves after any sense of rhythm is disrupted, repeat themselves and ask if they can be heard, deal with anxiety that may arise because they are ‘missing’ questions, risk repeating what others have said because they could not hear the answers of others, feel responsible that the technical difficulties are their fault, and so on.
Together, this can create the (wrong) impression that the candidate isn’t as prepared or even as ‘capable’ as those with stable connections. As Peter Stoett observes: “This raises an interesting equity question: how often has superior tech resulted in an unfair advantage in hiring decisions in international law/diplomacy?”
The bias that serves those with the technological means persists, not just at the ICC but in universities, conferences, international organizations, etc. This should be a wakeup call and an opportunity to learn and do better. The Court and its various associated bodies, including the ASP, should not be complicit in widening the digital divide. They should be involved in subverting it and playing a leadership role in ensuring a level playing field for candidates from across the globe.
What can be done now? First, it needs to be established what went wrong. Second, concrete decisions should be made to ensure that no one is disadvantaged like this again. Third, civil society should work with members of the ASP to hold another Q&A interview session that would permit equitable participation. If Okalany is still in Uganda, Owiso Owiso usefully suggests that perhaps the ICC field office in Kampala be tasked with setting up a secure and reliable.
On multiple occasions during the process, Okalany apologized for her unstable internet connection. She shouldn’t have had to. If anything, she is owed the apology.