Democracy has run into a difficult patch, with 2020 perhaps amongst its worst years in decades. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index found that as of 2020 only “8.4% of the world’s population live in a full democracy while more than a third live under authoritarian rule.”
To counter “backsliding on democracy and human rights,” a task force formed last year by American think thanks including Freedom House, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the McCain Institute has released its final report and recommendations for “a New US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism.”
The report is the product of several expert working groups which put forward “a broad set of ideas to rebuild democratic alliances; strengthen institutions essential to democracy; address the challenges posed by technology; counter disinformation; address corruption and kleptocracy; and harness US economic policy to support democracy.”
Technology- often shorthand for the internet and social media platforms in the parlance of the report- is framed as a challenge to bolstering democracy that needs to be met with new priorities, organizations, investments. Three of the seven key strategies put forward focus on elements of technology and the public sphere, including:
Scaling investments in “pillars of open, accountable, inclusive, democratic society,” to include the creation of a “large-scale Enterprise Fund for Independent Media to promote free expression and quality journalism internationally.”
Developing a “strategic digital technology policy agenda for a democratic world” to offer leadership on technology issues that is rooted in democratic values. Goals of such a policy include shoring up support of a global, open internet and stemming the spread of technologies that can be used for repression and authoritarian governance. Specific proposals include “appointing an ambassador-at-large for technology diplomacy, creating a new Bureau of Cyber Security and Emerging Technologies, and establishing a State Department office in Silicon Valley.”
Developing a “strategy to rebuild trust in the information environment and to counter the spread of disinformation, online hate and harassment.” The report suggests a number of specific ideas to raise these issues to the fore, including appointing “a senior official on the National Security Council staff to lead this effort” channeling aid dollars towards media literacy and cybersecurity education, and establishing a “Global Task Force on Information Integrity and Resilience” to create a space for the world’s democracies to work on these issues with the private sector.
The development of a new technology policy agenda is framed in the context of competition with the Chinese techno-authoritarian model, and strengthening ties between the United States and the European Union. “Authoritarian governments, most notably China, have become increasingly adept at using digital technology for repressive purposes at home and have capitalized on the growing export market for surveillance and censorship technologies abroad,” write the authors. The report suggests the key strategy to counter this competing model is indeed to pursue a “values-based” agenda on technology policy that would focus on “joint strategic technology R&D investment; tech standards-setting; human-rights-based analysis of government and private sector use of data and algorithmic decision-making tools; export controls on technologies that can be used for repression; regulation of digital platforms aligned to democratic values; countering disinformation; and civic education on responsible use of social media.”Democracy_Task_Force_Report_2021_Final4_04132021
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.