As technologies evolve faster than laws, discrepancies between private agency and public oversight grow. Take, for example, “smart city” businesses, which promise that local governments will be able to calm congestion by monitoring cars in real time and adjusting traffic light time. Unlike, say, a road built by a construction company, this digital infrastructure is not necessarily in the public domain. The companies that build it acquire intuitions and values that they cannot return to the public.
This disparity between the public and private sectors is spiraling out of control. There is an information gap, a talent gap, and a calculation gap. Together, these add a gap of power and responsibility. An entire layer of control over our daily lives therefore exists without democratic legitimacy and with little oversight.
Why should we care? Because the decisions that companies make about digital systems cannot adhere to essential democratic principles such as freedom of choice, fair competition, non-discrimination, fairness and accountability. Unwanted consequences of technological processes, wrong decisions, or business-driven designs can create serious risks to public safety and national security. And power that is not subject to systematic checks and balances is in conflict with the founding principles of most democracies.
Today, technological regulation is often characterized as a three-way competition between state-led systems in China and Russia, that of the market in the United States, and a vision based on values in Europe. The reality, however, is that there are only two dominant systems of technological governance: the privatized one described above, which applies throughout the democratic world, and the authoritarian one.
The laissez-faire approach of democratic governments, and their reluctance to control private companies at home, also plays on the international stage. While democratic governments have largely allowed societies to govern, authoritarian governments have taken the formation of norms through international forums. This unfortunate change coincides with a trend of democratic decline around the world, as major democracies such as India, Turkey and Brazil have become more authoritarian. Without deliberate and immediate efforts by democratic governments to reclaim the agency, models of corporate and authoritarian governance will erode democracy everywhere.
Does this mean that democratic governments should build their own social media platforms, data centers and mobile phones instead? No. But they urgently need to reclaim their role in creating rules and restrictions that uphold the fundamental principles of democracy in the technological sphere. Until now, these governments have slowly begun to do so with laws at the national level or, in the case of Europe, at the regional level. But to launch the technology companies that embrace the globe, we need something new: a global alliance that puts democracy first.
Making a team
World institutions born after World War II, such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have created an international order based on rules. But they fail to take full account of the digital world in their mandates and agendas, even though many are finally beginning to focus on digital cooperation, e-commerce and cybersecurity. And while digital commerce (which requires its own regulations, such as the rules for electronic commerce and the criteria for data exchange) is of growing importance, WTO members have not agreed on the rules. global rules covering services for smart manufacturing, digital supply chains, and other digitally enabled transactions.
What we need now, then, is a grand democratic coalition that can offer a meaningful alternative to the two existing models of technological governance, privatization and authoritarianism. It should be a global coalition, welcoming countries that meet democratic criteria.
The Community of Democracies, a coalition of states that was created in 2000 to advance democracy but has never had much impact, could be renewed and updated to include an ambitious mandate for technology governance. Alternatively, a “D7” or “D20” could be established – a coalition similar to the G7 or G20 but made up of the world’s largest democracies.
Such a group would agree on regulations and standards for technology in line with fundamental democratic principles. So each member country implements them in its own way, as EU member states do today with EU directives.
What problems would such a coalition solve? The coalition could, for example, adopt a common definition of freedom of expression for social media companies to follow. Perhaps that definition would be similar to the widely shared European approach, where expression is free but there are clearly exceptions to hate speech and incitement to violence.
Or the coalition could limit the practice of microtargeting policy announcements on social media: it could, for example, prohibit companies from allowing advertisers to tailor and target ads based on someone’s religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or personal data collected. At the very least, the coalition could foster greater transparency regarding microtargeting to create a more informed debate on data collection practices that should be kept out of bounds.
The Democratic coalition could also adopt rules and methods of oversight for the numerical election operations and campaigns. This can mean agreeing on security requirements for voting machines, plus standards of anonymity, stress testing, and verification methods as they require a paper backup for each vote. And the whole coalition could agree to impose sanctions on any country or non-state actor that interferes with elections or referendums in one of the member states.