A couple of years ago, Te Hiku Media – a small non-profit radio station in New Zealand – gathered Māori language data and used it to build a speech-to-text engine. And then big tech companies started knocking on its door, trying to buy the rights to it.
Te Hiku has refused these big tech advances, and in response started a campaign to highlight this trend as a move to recolonise indigenous people through language and data rights. “They suppressed our languages and physically beat it out of our grandparents,” Peter Lucas-Jones, a Te Hiku employee said, “And now they want to sell our language back to us as a service.”
Languages around the world are dying – the UN estimates that an indigenous language dies every two weeks. Selling this kind of data means big tech can mine language for commercial opportunity, as well as develop tools that will shape the future of the language. It could mean that Māori communities would miss out on the economic opportunities created using the language that belongs to them.
On the flip side, the fact that this story has been recognised and publicised suggests that our understanding of the need to decolonise a wide range of spaces, from language to land rights, is evolving in a positive direction.