Oxford Internet Institute

Founded only recently in 2001, and with a focus on digital technologies in society, we might have hoped that systemic racism would be absent from the material we research and teach, and the academic context in which we operate. Born of a determination to study the implications of Internet technology, to ‘learn faster than the world turns’, the Oxford Internet Institute was founded with support from a philanthropist, Dame Stephanie Shirley, whose credentials on providing employment for the economically disenfranchised and support for disability charities were impeccable. Her early vision for the OII was of a research-led department whose scholarship could contribute not just to academic understanding but the broader public good. But we have come to understand that grand aspirations are no guarantee of perfect results. Just as the technologies we study were lauded as emancipatory, democratic and egalitarian but have turned out to to reflect, reproduce and even exacerbate social injustice, so the OII itself is part of a wider institutional system which, without conscious intervention, could serve to perpetuate inequality. Much of our research is driven by a determination to understand who benefits and who loses from the spread of digital technologies; in 2020 we are asking the same question of our own practices.

At the end of a year in which the individual and societal costs of racism have been laid bare, this is an urgent matter. Systemic racism can only be eradicated if we all act together, but each of us must take responsibility for getting our own house in order first. As the statement from our Director makes clear, we are committed to eradicating inequality and injustice in academia, and we embrace anti-racism initiatives such as this website as necessary steps in that process.

Anti-racism efforts

2020 has been a year in which the injustices of racism have been laid bare. Against a backdrop of COVID-related health inequalities, consistently shocking police brutality and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, OII students, staff and alumni came together to challenge us to do more to eradicate racism, and to do it now. Their open letter to the department was published in June, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, presenting an ambitious template for institutional change. The depth, rigour and constructive spirit of that letter was such that it has already been shared in other academic institutions, including other departments in Oxford, the Ada Lovelace Institute in London and universities in the United States. At OII, current staff and students quickly established four volunteer working groups to kickstart a programme of anti-racism activity, looking at issues around recruitment, student admissions and funding, teaching and curricula and institutional accountability. Their dedication has already borne fruit, for example, generating new pilot resources to support faculty developing inclusive and representative teaching, and presenting recommendations for improving department practice across a range of areas. Further ‘knowledge’ events are planned by the letter’s authors for the forthcoming year, with a view to expanding the conversation and helping the department identify further aspirations for change. We are so proud of their determination to make a difference.

As we now begin a new academic year the OII’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee will pick up this agenda, with a formalised working group including paid student members tasked with developing an anti-racism action plan for longer-term sustainable change. Some of our goals, such as achieving a more diverse faculty body, will not be resolved overnight, but we are determined to promote a more equitable world through all our institutional practices. We are very grateful to Luminate for their support of this activity.

Research base – projects that shed light on injustice and inequity

As scholars of technology and society, our faculty have a strong track record of investigating the ways in which technology policy, design and implementation can reproduce and amplify social inequalities of race, gender, class and ability. Many of our ongoing research projects generate practical insights that could societal efforts to eradicate racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. A few are highlighted below.

Given the plethora of research undertaken examining the implications of digital innovation for workers in the Global North, Professor Mark Graham’s Global Challenge Research Funded FAIRWORK project attempts to redress the imbalance, investigating the economic benefits of platform work in the Global South. Assessing the impact of precarious gig labour on some of the most vulnerable workers, including women and immigrants, FAIRWORK documents the gap between platform work and decent work, and proposes new standards and accountability systems to mitigate the worst harms.

Professor Gina Neff’s AI & Data Diversity project addresses the work practices and business models that generate value from data science, too often without consideration of whether data sets reflect diversity within a population or whether they might be used in ways that generate bias or discrimination. Her research will provide insights into how human biases and unrepresentative data science can stymie equitable design and decision-making as well as how more diversity in teams might counter this.

Our research programme on governing emerging technologies investigates the legal, ethical and social aspects of AI and machine learning. One of the three main themes explored by Professor Sandra Wachter and Dr Brent Mittelstadt concerns bias and fairness, namely how we can identify and prevent harmful discrimination in algorithmic systems and data, with suggestions for improved legal frameworks that could help address this. 

On the topic of racist hate speech, OII researchers collaborated with the Alan Turing Institute to create a tool capable of detecting prejudice against East Asians on social media. Several different minority communities have experienced an increase in online hate speech since the emergence of COVID-19, and if social media spaces are to remain safe for use by all, even in times of heightened social tension, it is vital that we have effective tools to identify and tackle these problems.

We have also launched scholarships in honour of our founder Dame Stephanie Shirley. The Shirley Scholars Fund includes a track supporting DPhil students with a specific focus on diversity and fairness in technology, helping us build a new generation of researchers committed to creating a more equal and just society.

Teaching that exposes technology’s role in reproducing inequality

The OII has four degree programmes (two Masters courses and two DPhil programmes), all designed to ensure that the next generation of graduates will be not just Internet- and data-science literate, but also aware of the technologies’ ethical limitations and appreciative of inequalities in access and use. All students should leave the OII with an understanding of how social science theories and techniques can be employed to critically interrogate the grand claims made for digital technologies’ potential to improve every aspect of our lives. Several of our core and option courses are centred on empirical questions about who gains and who loses as digital innovations are rolled out, as well as normative questions of how bias and discrimination could be avoided or human rights better upheld (see, for example Introducing fairness, Accountability and Transparency in Machine Learning, Foundations of Social Data Science, and Digital Capitalism and its Inequalities).

In addition, core and option courses regularly incorporate topics and readings which highlight gender and race-based inequalities. We ask all faculty to seriously consider the diversity and representativeness of the material set when curricula are reviewed each year, whilst recognising that convenors’ academic expertise is paramount in ensuring course quality. Every submitted reading list should be accompanied by a statement noting how considerations for equality, diversity and inclusion have been taken into account.

There is, of course, still more to do, however. Much of the most-cited literature in our field is North America- or euro-centric, whilst huge swathes of research into ethical, legal and social implications of digital technologies address technologies developed by North American companies. Equally, our teaching faculty is nowhere near as diverse as our student body, and we are aware that our BAME students lack academic role models they can identify with. We are working on these challenges. For example, our student-led anti-racism working groups have put significant effort into developing exemplar guidance to support faculty in developing anti-racist teaching and curricula and have also helped us think about how to generate suggestions to improve our materials further. Since 2019, extra effort has been put into showcasing BAME role models, both by inviting a more diverse array of academic speakers to the OII, and through initiatives such as the celebration of ‘Black Internet Heroes’ during Black History Month.

Moving forward

We have acknowledged that we can do better. We are looking at our own policies and processes to ensure fairness within the OII. We continue to undertake cutting-edge research to enable technology and the internet to work in the interests of all communities and are working to provide a balanced curriculum that offers a broad range of perspectives on technology’s contributions to society.

Taken together, these measures and a continued commitment to collaboration between staff and students at the OII, will enable us to play our part in building a greater diversity of thought, people and practice at the University of Oxford.

Through building new partnerships and admitting a new generation of researchers committed to diversity and fairness through our Shirley Scholars Fund, we are taking the necessary steps to tackle racism and inequality. There is still much work to be done, but we are embracing a journey that all in academia need to take.