Regular readers of Commsrisk need no introduction to Global Voice Group (GVG), a telecoms revenue assurance company that has been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. GVG’s business model is grounded in the belief that every privately-owned telco routinely cheats on their taxes so governments will inevitably collect more money if they employ GVG to monitor all transactions that occur across networks. Their services are expensive but the governments who contract with GVG rarely arrange a competitive tender. A complicated web of legal entities obscures where GVG pays its own taxes, though their ongoing legal dispute with the Republic of Guinea saw GVG claiming to be located in the Seychelles, a notorious tax haven. Numerous civil societies have complained that GVG’s monitoring of electronic communications and mobile money transactions represents a threat to privacy. But GVG bats away all criticism by asserting it exists to make the lives of poor people better, despite the absence of any hard data to validate this claim. And presumably that is what GVG told the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, when explaining why GVG CEO James Claude will be a speaker at ‘AI for Good 2023’, an online summit to…
…identify practical applications of AI to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and scale those solutions for global impact.
I never had much respect for the ITU, but organizations that seek to have a ‘global impact’ should perform some basic checks on the ethics and the track record of businesses represented at their events. The Republic of Guinea is currently refusing to pay GVG for a contract they signed with a government that was not democratically elected. Lesotho’s government asked their High Court order to nullify their contract with GVG. This followed claims that the CEO of Lesotho’s comms regulator was fired because she refused to appoint a government minister’s company as a subcontractor to GVG. Ghana’s High Court ordered GVG to destroy illegally obtained data about mobile money transactions. An opponent of GVG’s Ghanaian contract told police that he had received death threats. But the ITU is using the money it effectively levies upon taxpayers in rich countries to promote the services of GVG so they can ‘scale their solution’. It seemingly occurs to nobody at the ITU to question which solutions deserve to be implemented at an even greater scale.
There are many risks associated with artificial intelligence. Great harm will be done if AI is deliberately misused. But nobody in the ITU has the sense to question if it is in the interests of ordinary Africans that a privately-owned company like GVG plans to become a pan-African monopoly of AI-powered network surveillance.
The global tech community neglects Africans because they are poor. Corruption makes Africans poorer. And so we lack interest in tackling corruption when we most need to draw attention to it. The cycle continues, guaranteeing the exploitation of ordinary Africans, despite the world’s leading blowhards pretending they have something useful to say about ‘sustainability’. We each have to fight for better lives for our brothers and sisters, wherever they may be. The decision to give GVG a platform shows why the ITU cannot be trusted to lead that fight.