“I really believe that technology can make social change,” says Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, and her life proves it. At 16, she visited an internet cafe in Herat, an experience she says “opened [her] eyes to a new world.” Now she’s helping thousands of Afghan women get online and learn skills like social media, coding, and financial literacy.
Mahboob is cofounder of the Digital Citizen Fund, which has opened 13 information and communications technology centers across Afghanistan. The centers educate women, improve their confidence outside a narrow social circle, and help them start small businesses. Afghani women are often restricted from talking to men outside their families or villages, limiting their careers and opportunities.
The men don’t want women online because the internet “spreads bad values” and allows women to see beyond the small male-controlled world they’re supposed to be kept within. “[The men] need to restrict information because when the [women] don’t have enough information, [the men] do whatever [they] want,” she says.
Mahboob appears in the “Internet Without Borders” video series from Jigsaw, Alphabet’s (Google’s) incubator for free expression tech. Mahboob attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, which gathers activists, journalists, and others to “brainstorm ways to expand freedom and unleash human potential across the globe.”
The dream of “Facebook revolutions” spreading freedom around the globe has died somewhat since the failure of the revolutions of Arab Spring. Governments used social media to track protesters as much as activists used it to organize. Meanwhile, the internet spreads fake news, enables harassment, intrudes on privacy, and catalyzes extremism. Technology is not always emancipatory.
But, as Mahboob shows, technology can also be incredibly useful for campaigners and journalists in unfree environments, whether it’s a socially repressive society like Afghanistan (Mahboob call it a “social dictatorship”) or a politically repressed one like North Korea. Technology can get information to people who’ve been denied it, record regime abuses, and make people freer. Korean activist Jeong Kwang talks here about smuggling USB sticks in North Korea to show the people what the outside world looks like.
“The role of technology in all of these struggles is complicated,” says Dan Keyserling, Jigsaw’s chief spokesman. “Technology is a tool that can be used by individuals, organizations, governments. But the more we understand about the dynamics of these roles over time, the better we can develop tools that help the world’s vulnerable populations.”
Jigsaw’s current projects include Project Shield, which protects small and mid-level publisher web sites from DDOS cyber attacks; Conversation AI, which spots harassment online; and U-Proxy, which lets someone in a repressive society share the internet connection of someone in an open internet access country.
Jigsaw was created earlier this year when Google became part of the larger Alphabet holding company. The successor to Google Ideas, it sees itself less as a think tank and more as a fully fledged engineering shop and incubator. And Keyserling insists Jigsaw is its own entity, with its own priorities separate from Google. “We have a lot of flexibility. We often work with Google as a partner, but being within Alphabet, we can explore a variety of different approaches.”