The United States plans to host a Summit for Democracy to advance President Biden’s stated national security priority of revitalizing democracies worldwide. Digital technology must be a focal point of the Summit. The future of democracy depends, in large part, on the ability of democracies to confront the digital transformation of society – – to address the challenges and capitalize on its opportunities. Over the past decade, democracies have struggled to meet this test, while authoritarians have used technology to deepen repression and extend global influence. To combat the digital authoritarian threat, democracies must be rallied around a shared values-based vision of digital society and a joint strategic technology agenda.

The Summit tech agenda should revolve around five core themes: 1) Democracies must get their own tech policy “houses” in order; 2) To win the normative battle, democracies must compete and win the technology battle; 3) Technological transformation necessitates governance innovation; 4) To win the geopolitical battle for the soul of 21st century digital society, democracies must band together; 5) Technology must be reclaimed for citizens and humanity.

I. Understanding the Digital Governance Challenges Facing Democracies

Summit participants must start by grasping how dramatically the digital revolution has altered the context for democratic governance. As more of our daily lives, communications, personal information, and physical infrastructure have been connected and digitized, democracies have not kept pace in adapting the norms and values of liberal democracy to our new digital environment. “The internet” has become the infrastructure of our society, extending well beyond its early core function of facilitating global communication. Its basic transborder mode of operation has made instantaneous extraterritorial reach the default, even for malign actors, testing the ability of democratic governments to protect the liberty and security of citizens within their borders. Digitization touches every aspect of public and private life, and “internet governance” and “digital policy” now bear on most sectors of connected societies.

Even our terminology and conceptual categories have morphed. “The internet,” “digital society” and “cyberspace” are interrelated policy realms that point to different dimensions of the new governance context. Democracies are now responsible for protecting the free flow of data and information, the digital rights of citizens, and international peace and security in the cyber context. The breathtaking pace of technological change must be met with governance innovations that embed and continue to reflect our enduring values. Democratic norms, built upon existing international human rights and humanitarian law, must be updated and applied to these new digital realities. But the task of articulating how to do so has not received adequate attention.

Three major factors have stalled democratic progress: unresolved security vulnerabilities associated with digitization; tensions between democratic allies over what protection of fundamental rights in a digital context actually entails; and growing competition from a rising digital authoritarian model.

Digital Technologies Can be Tools or Weapons

It has become painfully clear that digital technologies applied for beneficial purposes in one context can easily be weaponized in another.

At the most basic personal level, the combination of digitization and connectivity has substantially undermined the right to privacy, so essential for the exercise of liberty. Digital connectivity also has created myriad new society-wide security vulnerabilities, threatening everything from personal data to confidential communications and connected infrastructure. Malign actors, both foreign and domestic, have exploited digital platforms to spread propaganda and disinformation, wreaking havoc on democratic processes and eroding trust in the digital information realm. Democratic governments are struggling to meet their basic obligations to protect citizens in this radically changed context.

The Democratic Drift From Values and Tensions Between Allies

When it comes to their own use and regulation of data and technology, democracies themselves are adrift. Digitization of everything makes mass surveillance tempting and easy, so human rights norms are increasingly bent or ignored in the evolving digitized landscape.

Under international human rights law, infringements on civil liberties, such as privacy or free expression, must meet standards of necessity, proportionality, and legality. Generally speaking, this analysis is not being done.

Alarmed by rising digital security risks, many governments have enacted regulations or security measures that are both inconsistent with their human rights obligations and antithetical to principles of an open internet. A spate of national regulations has been enacted or proposed, often ostensibly to address security concerns, but with the secondary effect of walling-off and splintering different parts of the open internet. Even within democracies, blunt force internet shutdowns have become common practice, most notably in India, and overly broad platform regulations that undermine free expression, such as Germany’s NetzDG law, have become models for authoritarian governments, including Russia and Venezuela. India, Brazil, and Indonesia, among other, have advanced various forms of data localization, running counter to open internet principles. In sum, the original democratic vision of a global, open, interoperable internet has substantially eroded.

Furthermore, tensions have arisen between democratic allies, most notably in the transatlantic context, due to conflicting views on how to protect citizens fundamental rights to privacy and free expression. In a signal of how serious this rift has become, when Germany served as President of the Council of the European Union last year, it advocated for greater European digital sovereignty, particularly vis-a-vis the U.S. and American-based platforms – an effort the country has continued to spearhead. In 2020, the European Court of Justice struck down the US-EU “Privacy Shield” data sharing arrangement negotiated during the Obama administration on fundamental rights grounds, putting transatlantic digital trade at risk.

These divisions have not only harmed the transatlantic relationship but also eroded confidence in the feasibility of adhering to human rights in digitized society across the democratic world. It will be impossible to protect a democratic vision of connected society if democracies themselves cannot figure out how to simultaneously adhere to human rights principles and protect against the risks associated with digital technology. Reconciling these divisions must be a focal point at the Summit.

The Digital Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, digital technologies have become critical tools for authoritarian governments, particularly China and Russia, to solidify control at home and undermine democracy abroad. China is now modeling applications of digital technology for significantly enhanced forms of domestic repression:  ubiquitous surveillance, algorithmic filtering of information and promotion of propaganda, as well as AI-based evaluation of citizens’ economic and social reputations.

In contrast to many democracies, China recognized very early that dominance in technology translates into power of all kinds: economic, military, geopolitical, and normative. Massive investment in and export of emerging technologies, such as 5G, AI, and facial recognition, have yielded diplomatic leverage and global influence. In particular, China’s export of information infrastructure, which is embedded with the PRC’s authoritarian values, will provide leverage over governments around the world for decades to come.

In addition, China has dramatically ramped up its representation in multilateral and multistakeholder arenas where technology standards or applications are addressed. China holds the Secretary General role at the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has inserted itself much more actively in the UN processes related to ICT and international security (such as the GGE and OWEG,) and has flooded multistakeholder processes (like the IEEE initiative on ethically aligned design of autonomous and intelligent systems). China also has become a force at the UN Human Rights Council, where it has garnered rhetorical support for its use of technology against endangered Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang and democratic activists in Hong Kong.

At a more conceptual level, China has advanced its version of “cyber sovereignty,” a notion antithetical to the open, global internet. This concept has been used to support lack of reciprocity in access to the Chinese consumer-facing market and to justify bans on non-Chinese information platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Cyber sovereignty also serves as an updated version of the basic authoritarian stance rejecting external human rights criticisms of what happens within sovereign borders. This comprehensive “techno or digital authoritarian” model, with its promise of control through data and technology and its rejection of external normative critique, could quickly become the preferred global model.

II. The Summit Technology Agenda

A primary aspiration for Summit participants should be to rally the world around a compelling democratic approach to governance of digitized society and a shared strategy to combat the digital authoritarian model. To do this, progress must be made on five fronts:

Democracies Must Get their Own Tech Policy “Houses” in Order

Building a stronger model of democratic governance of digitized society must start at home. Governments should be expected to come to the Summit prepared to discuss how their own use and regulation of technology is consistent with core democratic values and human rights. Democratic policies related to technology need not be homogeneous, but they do need to be aligned and consistent with international human rights law and principles. Crafting harmonious, values-driven technology governance regimes should be the goal.

Three priority areas for domestic policy progress:

1. Enacting national regulation to protect privacy and personal data.
2. Enacting national regulation mandating transparency and accountability mechanisms for private sector information platforms.
3. Establishing government-wide due-diligence processes to assess human rights- impacts of government use and regulation of data and technology.

To Win the Values Battle, Democracies Must Win the Technology Battle

Second, democracies need to recognize that leadership on democratic values is inextricably linked to leadership on technology. In digitized society, global normative and diplomatic influence will stem, in substantial part, from dominance in technology. Simply put, values are embedded in technologies. The ability to shape evolving norms on legitimate applications of emerging technologies will rest with those who lead in development of the technologies themselves. To meet the challenge posed by China, democracies need to band together in developing a strategic technology investment plan.

Priority areas for joint strategic planning and investment in critical technologies include semiconductor design and manufacturing, 5G, AI and quantum computing.

Technological Transformation Necessitates Governance Innovation

Third, creative governance innovations are needed to meet the digital context in which we now live. The inherently global, transborder nature of the internet and digital technology requires new thinking about the role of sovereign states, legal interoperability, democratic accountability, and private sector responsibility for extraterritorial effects of data and technology. Private sector technology companies already play “governance” roles with respect to their own platforms, with substantial effects on privacy, security, and free expression. Part of the Summit should be dedicated to the evolving roles and responsibilities of the technology sector in protecting democracy and human rights.

Priority should be placed on governance innovation at three levels:

1. Multilateral mechanisms: that facilitate more strategic coordination in cyber diplomacy, to coordinate technology investments, as well as to resolve differences over protection of fundamental rights in the digital context;
2. Multistakeholder processes: that empower civil society actors to engage with governments and the private sector and build new forms of “democratic accountability” for a global digital governance context; and
3. Private Sector independent oversight mechanism: that provide transparency and accountability to users and to citizens in the societies in which they operate.

Democracies Must Band Together To Win the Battle for the Soul of 21st Century Digital Society

Summit participants must recognize that we are in a geopolitical battle over the values and governance model that will dominate in digitized societies. Competition from China’s digital authoritarian model constitutes an existential threat, not just to the economic and national security of democracies, but to our open societies and values-based vision for the internet. Without more concerted leadership anchored in democratic values, digital technologies will increasingly become a means for authoritarians to assert greater control over their citizens and to undermine freedom worldwide.

Priority should be placed on international diplomacy with respect to:

1. Tech standards and interoperability protocols;
2. Cyber norms related to international peace and security;
3. Human rights assessment of technology applications; and
4. Export control regimes for repressive applications of technology.

Democracies Need to Reclaim Digital Technology for Citizens and Humanity

If democracies hope to win the narrative battle with authoritarians over whether certain forms of digital technology and democracy go together, they will need to demonstrate an ability to deploy technology to solve societal problems, not just protect against downside risks. Now is the time to restore a positive vision of what digital technology can do to serve humanity.

The Summit should showcase and seek investment in tech innovations and applications that:

1. Make governments more efficient, fair, transparent and responsive;
2. Enhance citizens’ digital security and support civic engagement;
3. Promote digital inclusion and reduce economic inequality;
4. Secure the rights to equal protection and non-discrimination; and
5. Support the Sustainable Development Goals and solve the world’s most intractable problems.

III. Solidifying a Vision of Democratic Digital Society

The future of democracy depends on the ability of democratic governments to overcome the challenges of the digital age. The Summit technology agenda must provide a compelling vision of how to win the technology battle, the security battle, the normative battle, and the economic battle, all simultaneously. Democracies can win this fight only if they rally together and recognize what is at stake for their citizens and the global order. The strategic threat we face should provide motivation for democracies to transcend their differences, to recognize their shared interests and to step up to their responsibility to bring democratic, human rights-based governance into the 21st century.

Image: Getty