Democracy and its digital discontents under the microscope at Biden summit

Democracy and its digital discontents under the microscope at Biden summit
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the virtual Summit for Democracy in the South Court Auditorium at the White House, Washington, DC, 9 December 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Tasos Katopodis / Pool)

US President Joe Biden’s virtual democracy summit rallied the world’s democracies to defend their endangered institution — especially in cyberspace.

A decade ago, during the Arab Spring, social media helped topple dictators. Now digital technology has been thoroughly co-opted by autocrats and is mostly used to destabilise elections and spy on political opponents. 

The world’s democracies resolved to take steps to recover their lost digital space from those authoritarian governments, at US President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy last week.   

More than 100 leaders of global democracies participated in the summit, most of whom expressed concern about the retreat of democracy across the world.

Africa was represented by Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema, Namibia’s Hage Geingob and Malawi’s Lazarus Chakwera, among others.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declined his invitation, possibly missing an opportunity to hear how others viewed the global state of democracy and to offer South Africa’s vision on what should be done to preserve and advance it. 

China had dismissed the summit as a “farce” — probably because Taiwan had been invited — and other sceptics had said it was presumptuous of the US to present itself as a global champion of democracy.

But the two-day summit did present a revealing picture of democracy around the world and agreed on measures to address its deficits. Biden said he would host a second summit in a year’s time, to assess progress of these measures.  

Political leaders, as well as leaders of civil society, unions, business and academia pondered a range of threats to democracy, including growing authoritarianism, particularly by means of digital technology; corruption; attacks on democratic institutions such as elections, the rule of law and freedom of expression; and the loss of confidence in democracies because of their failure to deliver public services.

Samantha Power, administrator of the US’s international development agency, USAID, chaired a discussion on one dominant theme; “Countering Digital Authoritarianism and Affirming Democratic Values”.

She noted that 10 years ago, social media had been a cause for celebration because it had helped bring down dictators in the Arab Spring. 

The internet was then seen as fostering openness and transparency. Access to information and the ability for people to connect in their own societies across borders “would shake authoritarian regimes to their core and accelerate progress toward democracy”.

“Today, it seems the opposite has happened,” Power said. Digital technology had contributed to democratic recession in the world by governments’ ability to monitor, censor and repress their people as never before. “Authoritarians learnt that Big Data, social media control the internet, and artificial intelligence could make them even more powerful.”

Meanwhile, tech companies, too, often favoured profit over principle, and many democratic governments, including the US, “stood by as digital repression spread around the globe”.

Egils Levits, the president of the Baltic state of Latvia — a country “on the frontlines of the fight against many digital threats”, (read Russia) as Thomas Carothers, senior vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it — said all democracies were facing the weaponisation of the information space against their societies, “the manipulation of our hearts and minds”.

Levits, a former judge in the European Court, said Latvia had proposed several measures to counter such threats, including the establishment in 2014 of the Nato StratCom Centre in Riga, one of the world’s leading institutions of research on disinformation. 

Levits also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had been a “digital exam” for all countries and Latvia had “passed the exam”. The Latvian government and public sector had worked fully remotely during the pandemic and were still doing so. 

Lawmakers had adopted and signed laws from a distance, fully digitally. Schools had worked remotely and daily communication between the citizen and the state had not been interrupted.  The state had also launched a mass programme to increase digital literacy and had committed to giving every pupil and teacher a laptop. 

It had also provided every citizen with a digital identity, supplied unlimited internet for everyone, and established a one-stop digital shop for most public services.

“In short, to build back democracies, we need modern, digital and trustworthy public services that will restore trust in our public institutions,” he said. 

Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, noted that Taiwan was on the frontlines of the global struggle against authoritarianism — presumably a  reference to its tensions with China, which does not recognise it as a separate state and has threatened to take it by force if it formally declares its independence. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, democracy had retreated in many countries as authoritarian regimes used lockdowns to justify human rights violations in the name of public health and the greater good, Tang said.

“Taiwan combated the pandemic with no lockdowns and the infodemic with no take-downs.” The government used innovative digital measures such as SMS-based contact tracking to avoid lockdowns.

The US and its allies would take greater responsibility for the digital tools they exported, ensuring they were not used to abuse human rights, through a new Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative, which included the US, Denmark, Norway and Australia.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen noted that digital technology had created opportunities for democracy as well as challenges, including repression and censorship to stifle free speech and democratic expression. 

She said digital social media companies had to be held responsible for what was put on their platforms and must remove damaging content — as some were already doing.

Microsoft President Brad Smith said technology had been a great enabler of democracy. But it had been weaponised by some, including through the intentional dissemination of disinformation, domestically and by foreign nation states. 

He said there were only two ways to hold societies together: by sustaining truth, or by force. 

“But you can’t sustain trust if you can’t sustain truth,” he added. “And in the tech sector, this is one of the big challenges we need to look at. We need to recognise that our business models and architecture and algorithms can be misused, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by adversaries, to undermine trust in all of our institutions.”

Tech companies needed to exercise greater restraint to protect democracy. 

“But we also need to recognise that ultimately no company, no industry, no technology, no person, should be above the law. We are not nation-states; elected governments of the world are. And we do need a new generation of laws and regulations and international collaboration if we are going to sustain the trust that is indispensable to democracy.” 

He quoted John F Kennedy as saying in 1961 that, “Technology has no conscience”, but, Smith added, “people do”.  And so, “We all need to act with conviction to exercise our consciences to use technology to protect democracy.”

Levits agreed that global internet platforms could not be left to regulate themselves. 

“These are companies in our countries and we should be capable to address that issue. The power of decision-making, where one sets the boundaries of speech, responsibility for hate and accountability has to return to democratic institutions through rule of law and regulation.”

He noted that the European Union was already drafting legislation to regulate global internet platforms, “which should guarantee a certain responsibility of those platforms and at the same time to guarantee freedom of speech. That’s very important.”   

Power said that of the 3.8 billion people in the world with internet access, about three quarters lived in countries where governments, last year, arrested and jailed people for expressing non-violent political or social views online.

She nonetheless also agreed with Manuel Muñiz, Provost of Spain’s IE University, that the democracies participating in the summit represented about 70% of global GDP and so had the power and leverage to regulate global digital-tech companies and counter authoritarian abuse of digital technology. 

“Authoritarians only own the future if we let them,” she said. The vast majority of people preferred democracy to repression and free speech to censorship. 

The summit for democracy provided “an opportunity to build a global consensus on an affirmative global vision of digital democracy”, Power said. She announced several new initiatives that the US intended to undertake over the coming year — in the run-up to the second democracy summit next year — as part of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal that Biden had announced at the summit.

Power said USAID would expand its digital democracy work, investing up to $20-million annually to help partner nations align their rules governing the use of technology with democratic principles and respect for human rights. 

With its democratic allies, the US would build a global charter for digital public goods in which all stakeholders, including governments and tech companies, would endorse open-source tech products that respected human rights.

The US and its allies would take greater responsibility for the digital tools they exported, ensuring they were not used to abuse human rights, through a new Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative, which included the US, Denmark, Norway and Australia.

The US, Canada and Denmark would also launch a Surveillance Principles Initiative to lay out how governments should use surveillance technology in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rule of law.

Power noted the US had already banned four companies developing and supplying “the most irresponsible surveillance tools” from doing business with US companies. These were Israel’s NSO Group and Candiru, “which sold spyware to repressive regimes for use against activists, journalists, academics”, as well as Russia’s Positive Technologies and Singapore’s Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, “which both developed dangerous cyber-intrusion tools”.

The US was also providing up to $3.75-million to help build democratic values into the next generation of technologies, like privacy-preserving artificial intelligence.

And the US would establish a fund to finance anti-censorship technology to help people in closed societies access the open internet. 

The US would also work with its partners to strengthen the multi-stakeholder system of internet governance, to advance a global vision of an internet that is open, interoperable, reliable and secure. DM


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