Alexandra Reeve Givens is the President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for protecting democracy and human rights in the digital age.
When the Biden administration hosts next month’s Summit for Democracy to combat the global rise of authoritarianism, the relationship between technology and democracy cannot be just one of many topics on a packed agenda. It must be part of every discussion, because issues like protecting data privacy, supporting credible election systems, limiting government surveillance, and addressing abusive online content fundamentally impact every aspect of democratic governance and human rights.
The Summit represents a high-profile opportunity for governments to underscore shared values as legislatures around the world grapple with proposals to regulate the tech industry. If they succeed, leaders will articulate a shared democratic vision that counters the “Great Firewall” of China, the Russian splinternet, and efforts by authoritarian regimes to silence dissent through internet shutdowns and by pressuring tech companies to censor opposing voices.
The vision democracies must rally behind is clear: tech governance that addresses inequality, supports healthy online civic spaces, protects users’ privacy, and addresses abusive online content while protecting human rights and the rule of law. This vision must be a welcoming one, that commits to fighting for the human rights of people around the world, no matter whether they live in a democratic regime or an authoritarian one.
One of the thorniest questions the Summit will grapple with is how to deal with mis- and disinformation and hate speech, whether from within democratic societies or as part of malicious campaigns by outside adversaries. While recognizing the harm this causes––especially hate speech and disinformation that targets already marginalized groups based on race, religion, or other sensitive characteristics––it is crucial that solutions do not erode the freedoms of expression and association that are the lifeblood of functioning democracies.
To ensure that the cure isn’t worse than the affliction, we should fix our attention on the conditions that enable mis- and disinformation to flourish. Vanishing local media, weakened civics education, and under-resourced elections infrastructure all work to create environments where mistrust and false information can thrive. Bad actors also exploit “data voids”, targeting non-English communities and issue areas where there isn’t adequate legitimate information online. Governments can combat this by enhancing authoritative, fact-based information: improving online resources provided by local government officials; supporting a vibrant, independent press; and allocating public funds to bolster civic resources and digital literacy.
They can also adopt and enforce strong data privacy legislation that limits the ability for tech companies to track users’ behavior and develop the profiles and content-targeting systems that are manipulated to spread disinformation. The EU, for example, must double-down on its enforcement of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), while in the U.S., the Biden administration must take a leadership role urging Congress to establish strong federal privacy protections.
Big Tech also has a role to play by increasing transparency and accountability in how they moderate and amplify content, working in partnership with civil society organizations and inviting broad public consultation. Platforms should ensure that users whose content is removed––or people whose request for content removal is denied—have avenues to remedy. They should provide increased access for researchers to better understand how information travels on the platforms, and to provide an outside check on how platforms’ moderation decisions are made and whether they have the intended effect. The Summit, and the year of action that will follow it, should prioritize removing barriers to this kind of research so that all of our future policy debates can be rooted in a stronger evidence base.
Surveillance is another area with significant implications for the health of global democracy. As the U.S. and other democracies rightly condemn efforts by authoritarian regimes to conduct mass surveillance of their citizens and silence dissent, the Summit should also examine participants’ own surveillance activities, and ensure they are conducted in line with global human rights standards. The European Union’s Court of Justice has already made clear that the U.S. must reexamine its surveillance authorities as a condition of reestablishing a framework for U.S. companies transferring European customers’ data across the Atlantic. Surveillance laws in any democratic country should incorporate robust privacy safeguards, both to protect individuals and to facilitate the flow of data across borders. Crucially, governments must not undermine individuals’ ability to use strong end-to-end encryption.
Democratic nations can also come together to support the technology and infrastructure that allow people around the world to access information and to communicate privately. Summit leaders can draw a clear contrast with repressive regimes through shared guarantees to support an open, accessible and affordable internet, and not to use internet shutdowns to combat public unrest or perceived online harms. In doing so, they must redouble their efforts to make a secure, open internet a reality for people in all countries, and not leave journalists, activists, or everyday people in repressive regimes out in the cold. States should reaffirm their support for the Open Technology Fund and increase efforts to sustain secure, censorship-resistant and privacy-preserving technologies that facilitate communication without fear of government surveillance.
If the Summit is to tackle the important and challenging task of establishing a vision for “the future of the Internet”, it must work towards these important substantive goals. But it will also rise and fall on how it engages on these questions. A core tenet of human-rights respecting Internet governance is a commitment to open, transparent, multi-stakeholder dialogue. Governments must consult closely with affected communities from the outset, and give civil society the opportunity to help set the agenda, see concrete proposals, and provide feedback and expertise. These conversations should also build on the existing work and intergovernmental structures that have been created to advance human rights in the digital world. This includes the UN’s B-Tech Project and the Freedom Online Coalition, which now comprises over 30 governments across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, as well as a robust advisory network that includes civil society and industry.
December’s Summit is just the beginning of a longer process. Participants should seize the opportunity to identify common priorities – and then proceed in a thoughtful, deliberative manner to engage civil society, existing coalitions, and broader stakeholders to refine and identify further commitments. When countries around the world unite with civil society and industry partners to commit to forward steps they each can take, we have a real chance to achieve a human rights-centered, democratic vision for digital governance.