Indigenous Data Theft

Aug. 10, 2018, 6:59 p.m.

An off-shore translation company has come under fire for attempting to use te reo Māori for economic gain by soliciting Māori language services in a bid to teach Māori to robots.

Lionbridge which provides real-time translations to help eliminate language barriers between businesses.  In May of this year the company put the call out over Facebook for Māori speakers to participate in their language research projects for $45USD per hour. The Facebook post gained a raft of negative attention and they have since been approaching several language services such as iwi radio, wānanga and Māori language revitalisation groups.

With the rapid growing pace of technology Lionbridge is not the first to attempt to translate the Māori language into digital voice recognition with Te Hiku Media running a successful campaign to translate as many Māori sayings from voice to text.

Peter-Lucas Jones (Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kahu), General Manager for Te Hiku Media asaid the advert is simply a tactic to make money off te reo Māori, the cornerstone of Māoritanga and brings to light the issues of indigenous data sovereignty.

“These people have no regard for our language and you have to ask what is driving this company to pursue this? The answer is money.”

Jones said digital misappropriation of indigenous language and cultural data is the last frontier of colonisation and is concerned about a future where users can search for information through voice technology which would then access a range of indigenous knowledge with indigenous cultures having no control over that information.

“Data sovereignty has become a real issue…. Coming from a time where you got the strap for speaking Māori, now we have a situation where there is economic gain for our reo and if there is economic gain, it should be for our own Māori people, not an American company,” Jones said.

Te reo Māori is not the only language the company has been canvassing but also Hawaiian, Samoan and the first nations of Canada and America have also come under screening by Lionbridge.

When approached for comment a representative for Lionbridge said they were aware of the effects of colonisation and open to working with Māori communities to establish cooperation that would not cause disrespect.

“We want to make sure that Māori language will get a strong footing in the field of technology so that in the future Māori people will be able to use technology in their own language.”

Native Hawaiian, Keoni Mahelona said although it is an important kaupapa to bring indigenous languages into the digital age the issue is sovereignty and whether an American corporate company is the right fit to lead the data initiative.

“I’m sure there are some nice people working for this company but they don’t understand the cultural ramifications with what they are doing because they just don’t know the detriment it puts to indigenous cultures and the fight we have been putting up for the revitalisation of the reo”, Mahelona said.

Mahelona also warned the issues around signing waivers with companies like Lionbridge and giving away your rights to personal data.

“You have to be mindful that the access to data is huge.  They need to be upfront with what they will be using that data for.  Globally there is an interest in te reo Māori, and Māori need to be leading that on their terms and conditions”.



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