Digital World

Democracy Needs Tech Support

Technological development offers seemingly endless benefits and convenience. Internet connectivity was critical for personal and professional interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more broadly, everyday emerging technology is saving lives, whether from 3D printed organs or automatic brakes in vehicles. At the same time, the rise of technology creates new issues that threaten social and democratic stability.

Disinformation, especially during election cycles, is rampant on social media, cyberattacks are common practice in transnational conflict, and some governments struggle to protect consumers’ online privacy in an age when personal data is worth billions of dollars. Other governments, however, exploit technology to deprive people of fundamental rights. China uses artificial intelligence for mass surveillance of its citizens, and Iran exercises strict internet censorship policies that have forced 80% of its citizens to rely on tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs).

More than ever before, the transatlantic partners must address these issues by determining ways to promote responsible development and use of technology. Fortunately, this process has already begun. The EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC) was founded to strengthen transatlantic technological cooperation, boost innovation, and ensure development and deployment of new technologies based on shared democratic values and respect for human rights.

The TTC is one of the most significant transatlantic initiatives on technology issues, but it meets only twice per year. Between TTC sessions, other institutions and civil society organizations are furthering global dialogue aimed at cementing the digital world’s democratic principles. One such effort from the Danish government is worthy of special attention.

Copenhagen leads the way

Denmark prioritizes proactive policymaking that ensures alignment with, if not anticipation of, technological developments. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the country is among the EU’s most digitalized member states. The 2022 Digital Economy and Society Index ranks it first in connectivity and second in integrating digital technologies. Denmark became, in 2017, the first country to appoint a technology ambassador.

As part of its TechPlomacy concept, the Danish foreign ministry launched in November 2021 an initiative that brings together representatives from governments, multilateral organizations, the technology industry and civil society to explore ways of using technology to promote democracy and human rights. This initiative, Tech for Democracy, is based on the Copenhagen Pledge, a commitment from stakeholders to make digital technologies work for, not against, democracy and human rights.

In an interview with the Transponder, Denmark’s current technology ambassador, Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen, summarized the rationale for the government’s initiative:

“Tech for Democracy started as a Danish initiative. It has now truly become a global, multi-stakeholder initiative that involves many governments and tech companies ultimately trying to come up with a solution to the dire truth we are facing, which is that democracy is shrinking. There are less people living in democracies today than there were 10 years ago. Democratic values are under intense pressure. … [A]s a European, [I am] seeing this on European soil, how the fundamental values that people gave their life for fighting in the 20th century are under attack again in the 21st century. But it's [also in] countries around the world. At the same time, we recognize, not least prompted by COVID, that everything in our world is digital. Technology is omnipresent. It is with us from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. If we don't find a way to safeguard, to protect, and even to promote and further develop democracy in a digital age, we will simply go into a technological future where democracy and human rights are not going to be the values that our society, our institutions and our communities are built around. Tech for Democracy is an attempt to say, ‘If we are to make sure that democracy prevails in a digital future, so far, we can't regulate that entirely.’

“There's a lot of regulation and legislation that needs to be done, in terms of making technology work for democracy. Some of it comes from fundamentally believing in the same values, whether you are developing tech products, whether you are a citizen using them, or whether you are government whose jurisdiction and markets [tech companies] are operating in. …

“I think what the Tech for Democracy Copenhagen Pledge has is quite strong language on not only election integrity, not only supporting human rights, but thinking about that slow undermining of democracy between elections, when we lose trust in one another, when we lose trust in our institutions. The positive aspects of technology giving everyone a voice are outweighed by how [technology] is also making us numb. In that vein, it's a pretty strong commitment. The 150 signatories now, including the largest tech companies in the world, U.N. agencies, a lot of the really big and influential civil society partners, a number of countries, from Ghana to the U.S. to Australia, [are] coming together to say, ‘What is it that we need to solve together that's not an easy fix?’"

“If we don't find a way to safeguard and further develop democracy in a digital age, we will simply go into a technological future where democracy and human rights are not going to be the values that our society is built around.”

Among Tech for Democracy’s accomplishments, Ambassador Engtoft Larsen notes, are “Action Coalitions” that target relevant issues.

“On twelve different issues, we've seen partners come together, and try to solve them. [For] transparency in algorithms, we have a collaboration with think tanks and a few tech companies. There's a collaboration on gender-based harassment and violence online. How are we actually going to tackle this huge issue that is keeping half of the planet's population away from using digital platforms? We have [another collaboration] on trustworthy information online, a collaboration between Wikimedia [and] Salesforce, among others, that is looking at countering the mis- and disinformation that is slowly eroding trust in society, how we actually make trustworthy information more available.”

Ambassador Engtoft Larsen also provided two examples of the initiative’s work to promote democracy worldwide. In August 2022, Tech for Democracy worked with the Kenyan government, ahead of a national general election, to protect women during campaigning. Few women were involved in the election, but misogyny on social media was rampant. Tech for Democracy responded by launching consultations with parliamentarians, candidates and technology companies.

Tech for Democracy also worked with Ukrainian civil society at the start of the Russian invasion to counter Kremlin mis- and disinformation.

“While steps have been taken, such as [Russian state broadcaster RT’s] being closed on Google and YouTube, we still see a lot of state-affiliated media and individuals really undermining trust in what's happening [in Ukraine] by spreading mis- and disinformation. We've set up a closed-door roundtable group with representatives from the largest tech platforms and Ukrainian civil society and, over a number of meetings, established direct links at an operational level. As soon as something appears online, it can be taken down directly by engaging [with companies’ headquarters] in California. Saying there's disinformation and flagging it via traditional channels doesn't necessarily mean that it will be taken down. You need to act much more swiftly on this.”

Ambassador Engtoft Larsen hopes that Tech for Democracy elevates the collective commitment of the all stakeholders.

“This is the time for all of us to recognize we have this problem and figure out what we each have to do to solve it. [I hope] that [Tech for Democracy] keeps that ambition and momentum. Secondly, [it is time] that we [collaborate with] other initiatives, whether it is working with the Christchurch Call on how to address issues of terrorism online, the Freedom Online Coalition or the new U.N. Tech Envoy. It's important that we are not siloed and not doing this work in competition, but in close collaboration. Thirdly, it's our hope that, by the Biden Summit for Democracy next year, [we can] actually show we can solve aspects of systemic challenges and figure out how might we scale those. The example from Ukraine … Can that actually change the behavior[of] government [and] tech companies, and [spur] engagement with civil society? …

“As an EU member state, Denmark has been leading efforts to [launch] tech diplomacy for the EU and digital foreign policy. That has now been ratified and is a new strand of work. Simply regulating technology for the good of the 350 million plus Europeans can be seen as selfish if we don't think about how to elevate human rights protections, human-centric inclusion, transparency, accountability, how to use those values and approaches, and our experience studying global norms and standards, particularly on global governance of technology.

“The work that we've been leading on — tech diplomacy — means that the EU can actually play a more proactive role, whether it's in U.N. processes, global governance forums, like the [Internet Governance Forum, or] working with digital partnerships. Closing the digital divide, and supporting that much more people come online, and have meaningful participation, [is key]. At the same time [we are] saying, as we're building out critical digital infrastructure, you can do [all this] with the right type of governance that is privacy enforcing, empowering for individuals, transparent and accountable."

The Transatlantic Role

Technological threats to democracy, and the geopolitical challenges that arise from technological competition, have forced governments, civil society and even tech companies themselves to recognize the need for collaboration and transnational dialogue to confront these potentially existential dangers. The next step is bringing stakeholders together and ensuring they share an understanding of the sources of these dangers and the needed elements of a solution in which, as Ambassador Engtoft Larsen acknowledged, they must be invested.

Close global cooperation is crucial if such an effort is to succeed. Greater technology policy coordination between Washington and Brussels can set a precedent for others to emulate.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue #3: Resilience
Dec 8, 2022

Daniela Rojas Medina

Research Analyst
Bertelsmann Foundation