The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.
This week, President Biden will gather leaders from over 100 countries to attend his long-promised virtual Summit for Democracy. After a year of consultation, coordination and action, these leaders will come together once more for a second summit to report on progress on the initial set of commitments to protect human rights, counter authoritarianism and corruption.
Having been born in the former Soviet Union, I cannot help but feel a sense of optimism about the summit. Even as a very young child, I felt the chill that came from living in a place that restricted freedom of expression and speech and where information and just about every aspect of life were greatly controlled by the state or a select few in power. My personal experiences make me grateful to be an American citizen. But having lived under an authoritarian regime, I’m acutely sensitive to the reasons this summit is taking place: the democratic recession taking place around the world.
No area is as critical in this democratic competition as technology. If leaders hope to make progress on the three core tenets of the summit, they will have to ensure that technology serves democracy and human rights. This includes facilitating investments in open internet and critical infrastructure as a way to counter digital authoritarianism, countering disinformation, strengthening societal resilience and making greater investments in emerging technologies and tech entrepreneurship that are consistent with democratic values and diversity.
Reporting indicates that we are likely to see commitments made on strengthening the internet, increasing funds for media literacy and civic education and enforcing export controls for dual-use technologies, among other initiatives. These are all useful steps. But if they are to last beyond the summit, they will require public-private-civic partnerships to truly implement and scale. Here are three areas that merit our collective attention:
First, digital authoritarianism, the use of technology to repress citizens domestically via regulation, censorship and export of technologies, has become a pervasive global problem. We don’t have to look much farther than China and its pioneering state-controlled internet or Russia and its ever-tightening control over internet infrastructure, online content and privacy. What’s more, by exporting this form of authoritarianism to other regions of the globe, including Africa and Latin America, these countries are helping foster “system rivalry” between democracies and authoritarian regimes.
There is much the private sector, civil society and governments can do together to counter this evolving threat. This includes working together to develop critical infrastructure in emerging markets while tightening export controls of repressive technologies. At the subnational level, the U.S. and its allies should work to increase access to the internet and promote internet freedom, with a particular focus on marginalized communities. Civil society in particular should use its voice to advocate for local regulations and practices to keep both governments and the private sector accountable. Multinational corporations, too, should harness their power for good by conducting human rights assessments in countries they are operating in, to ensure that they are neither committing human rights abuses nor inadvertently aiding authoritarian regimes in their business practices.
Second, disinformation, the intentional spread of falsehoods and half-truths, continues to be a serious threat to democracies globally. In recent years we have seen election and COVID-related disinformation in the United States and around the world spreading like wildfire on social media platforms, mainstream media and through our trusted networks. Russia, China, Iran and domestic actors have carried out disinformation campaigns not only to cause chaos and confusion, but as we saw during the January 6 insurrection, inflict serious harm. What’s more, these disinformation campaigns have bled over to hateful rhetoric against marginalized communities, including women and girls, the LGBTQ+ community and journalists. This is one area where governments, private sector and civil society should and must act on their commitments in the coming year. Otherwise, democracies simply will not be able to keep up with information pollution — on or offline.
There are a number of ways to do that. The bipartisan Task Force on the U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism, on which I served, proposed the establishment of a Global Task Force on Information Integrity and Resilience in order to build trust in the information environment. Our proposal was grounded in the belief that while this task force may be led by leaders of like-minded countries, both the private sector and civil society should have strong participation to collaborate and share information on disinformation, online hate and harassment in order to anticipate, preempt and counter these threats. Ultimately, the goal should be to build societal resilience for the long term.
Third, the private sector and civil society must invest in and scale partnership with governments to implement initiatives on digital and media literacy, and civics education in existing and nascent democracies, reaching citizens beyond the capitals. At the same time, in the coming year, the private sector, especially digital platforms and mainstream media, need to double down on providing credible, quality information to citizens, because, to put it simply, our lives depend on it. There have been a number of proposals on increasing transparency and accountability of digital platforms to prevent algorithmic bias, misuse of data and the spread of malicious content. Ultimately, as we seek to build the best information ecosystem possible, these principles are about building trust — between citizens, content providers, governments and industry.
We will not be able to move the needle on countering these threats without a deep investment in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing. Investments in identifying and exposing these threats — and understanding their impact — should not be exclusive to the U.S. or Europe. As startups develop these technologies, they should ensure their products can safely scale to emerging markets.
Spurring innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging markets is the final area where the private sector and civil society have a meaningful opportunity to work with governments. Research shows that innovation and entrepreneurship create economic growth, and this is true for the technology sector as well. The surest way to inoculate developing countries from authoritarian tech is to invest in the next generation of talent, especially youth, women and girls, and other marginalized communities. Developing credible local voices, entrepreneurs and innovators who can use emerging technologies to counter the authoritarian threats posed to their countries just may represent the best way to reach our desired outcomes.
When it comes to technology, we are in a competition for influence between democratic values and the authoritarian-imposed way of life. This year’s summit paves the way for meaningful democratic resurgence. But as we move into a year of action and consultation, it is public-private-civic partnerships that will enable the scaling and implementation necessary for a technological agenda in service of democracy.