The incoming Biden-Harris administration will face many urgent and competing priorities as it seeks to signal a distinct shift from the Trump presidency. In the technology policy realm alone, there are many challenges to confront. Chief among them is the urgent need to solidify international support for a values-based vision of “the internet” and a compelling democratic approach to governance of digital society.
Solidifying an open democratic vision of digital society will require robust diplomacy in three areas. First, we must rebuild global commitment to an open, interoperable, secure and reliable internet and to international norms in the cyber realm. Second, we must lead the development of a shared understanding of what democratic, human rights-based governance of digital society entails. Third, we must bring our democratic allies together around a shared strategic technology agenda.
As context for these efforts, we must start by acknowledging that the original U.S. vision of a global, open, interoperable, internet has been clouded by two big trends: first, heightened anxiety within democracies about the myriad risks associated with connectivity and digitization, and second, perhaps more importantly, competition from a much darker vision of digital authoritarianism.
The digital transformation of society has brought profound change to every aspect of connected society and dramatically altered the context for democratic governance. “The internet” has become the infrastructure of society, moving well beyond its early core function of facilitating instantaneous global communication. The wide array of advanced technologies that are now intertwined with all sectors of society have created new vulnerabilities for many aspects of public and private life.
While digitization obviously has yielded substantial benefits, democratic governments are struggling to meet their basic obligations to protect the liberty and security of citizens in this radically changed context. Digitization has created security risks for personal data, confidential communications, and connected infrastructure. Democratic governments are now seized with the fact that digital information platforms have been exploited by malign actors to spread propaganda and disinformation, wreaking havoc on democratic elections and eroding trust in the digital information realm. These threats are testing the ability of democratic governments to protect fundamental freedoms like privacy, free expression, freedom of assembly and association and the right to democratic participation in digitized society. At the same time, the malign actors who have capitalized on these vulnerabilities to attack democracy generally have escaped consequences.
All of this is eroding confidence in democratic governance in the digital realm. The sense of radical insecurity has led some democratic governments to undertake security measures or enact regulations that are inconsistent with their human rights commitments, such as unchecked collection of data in violation of privacy or restrictions for online content that undercut free expression. Furthermore, trust between democratic allies has been eroded by competing assessments of what human rights principles and democratic values actually require in the digital context. In particular, a transatlantic rift has emerged over a broad portfolio of digital policy challenges, ranging from cross-border data transfers; unchecked digital surveillance by governments; private sector “surveillance capitalism;” monopoly power of U.S. platforms; and tech regulations that fail to conform with democratic values. These digital policy tensions between democratic allies have had the unintended effect of undermining global confidence in the feasibility of adhering to international human rights norms and democratic values in digitized societies.
While democratic governments have been inwardly focused and preoccupied with their own tensions, a digital-authoritarian model of control through data and technology has gained traction globally. This digital authoritarian model, which rests on a concept of “cyber sovereignty,” now competes with the open democratic vision of the internet and society. Authoritarian governments, most notably China, have become increasingly adept at using digital technology for repressive purposes at home, role-modeling these practices to the world. They also have capitalized on the growing export-market for surveillance and censorship technologies, spreading these capacities for others to follow their repressive lead.
Unfortunately, China’s leadership also recognized earlier than most that dominance in technology brings significant geopolitical, diplomatic and normative influence. Their massive strategic investments in technology already have translated into the ability to embed and spread China’s authoritarian values globally, particularly within tech standard and protocol setting bodies like the International Telecommunications Union. Sadly, China’s digital authoritarian influence has also shown up in more traditional norm setting arenas, such as the UN Human Rights Council, where absurd declarations of support for China’s repressive use of technology in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong have succeeded. Finally, the digital authoritarian concept of “cyber sovereignty,” which is antithetical to a global open interoperable internet and justifies its fragmentation, also serves as support for a more conventional authoritarian stance – rejection of external criticism based on internationally recognized human rights – now applied in the digital realm.
Democracies must recognize that we are in a geopolitical battle over the governance model that will dominate in the 21st century digital context. This presents an existential threat not just to U.S. economic and national security, but also to our values-based vision for the internet and open democratic digital society. Strong U.S. leadership is needed to develop a compelling democratic conception of digitized society and to rebuild the democratic alliance around a shared strategic technology agenda.
To achieve these aims, the incoming administration should focus on five practical priorities.
First, we must “get our own house in order” by ensuring that U.S. digital technology policy is consistent with human rights and democratic values. The level of attention to the normative dimensions of technology policy, as well as to investment in emerging technology, must adequately reflect its strategic importance to our security.
Second, the digital policy rift with our transatlantic partners must be healed: without U.S.-EU alignment, other democratic partners will lose confidence that a democratic model for digital society is a realistic goal.
Third, the democratic alliance must be rallied around a shared model for democratic governance of digital society and a strategic technology agenda. This democratic model must incorporate institutional constraints on both public and private sector use of data. It also will require further articulation of how government and technology companies apply and adhere to international human rights law and norms in the digital context.
Fourth, we must compete with the digital authoritarian model of governance and develop a comprehensive strategy to combat it. Robust diplomacy in the international normative arena will be essential, both with respect to technical standards and protocols, and with respect to norms on use of data and technology.
Fifth, the U.S. must reclaim the internet for citizens and humanity by investing in innovation and entrepreneurship in regions that have not been included in the digital revolution, both domestically and internationally. Investment in “E-Government” capacities to provide secure and efficient public services should be uncontroversial, as should investments in digital security tools for citizens, consumers and civil society actors. Expanding access to internet connectivity domestically and abroad should also be an early, uncontroversial priority.
This is a full plate. But early attention to these aspects of the democracy and technology portfolio will pay huge dividends for the Biden-Harris team, the U.S. and the democratic world.
Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration:
Building a democratic approach to digitized society must start at home. U.S. domestic digital technology policy must not undermine our vision of an open internet or our commitment to core human rights principles. “To get our own house in order,” we need to assess the use and regulation of data and digital technology by the U.S. government, with reference to fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and other basic liberties. Accordingly, U.S. policies, applications and regulations related to data, digital platforms, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies must be evaluated for consistency with human rights principles. Furthermore, the strategic importance of technology policy to democracy should be reflected through higher-level coordination across agencies and greater coherence between domestic and foreign policy. The most basic point is that the normative dimensions of technology policy must be seen as a strategic issue and be adequately reflected in both domestic and foreign policy.
The administration should start by strengthening mechanisms for values-based technology policy development and coordination with the USG.
Any prospect of building a shared democratic technology agenda will require resolution of current tensions between the U.S. and the EU over technology and data. Without U.S.-EU alignment, other democratic partners will lose confidence that a democratic model for digital society is a realistic goal.
Among the most urgent issues to be address are substantial divisions over cross-border data transfer arrangements, digital surveillance by both governments and the private sector, and regulation of digital platforms consistent with democratic values. These disagreements have already placed $7 trillion in transatlantic digital trade at risk and led some members of the EU toward a vision of digital sovereignty that could undermine any potential for a shared democratic approach to digital society.
The first step in healing the transatlantic digital policy divide must be an early concerted dialogue with the EU on three priority issues:
The U.S. should lead a process of renewal for the democratic alliance that inspires optimism and confidence in the superiority of a democratic approach to governance of digital society, as well as commitment to an open internet.
To start the process, the administration should:
Many different configurations are possible. This cohort could be comprised of the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, South Korea, Japan, plus Taiwan perhaps as an observer-participant. Its primary aim would be to advance a plan to secure supply-chains for critical tech and joint strategic investments in emerging tech.
This group could be comprised of the G7, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Brazil. Its aim would be to resolve tensions between democratic allies over appropriate checks on government and private sector used of data, as well as harmonious regulatory approaches to private sector platforms.
This group should include all FOC members (Australia, Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, the Republic of Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, UK, U.S.), and be open to other democratic allies. The focal point will be to reinforce commitment to freedom in the digital context and development of a democratic human-rights based approach to governance of digital society.
As the U.S. and our democratic allies struggle to address tensions between ourselves and to reconcile our conflicting digital technology policies, we must not lose sight of the threat posed by authoritarian export of technology and norms. A top priority for the U.S. and our democratic allies must be to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat the rise of digital authoritarianism. To this end, the U.S. must:
Build stronger transnational information sharing mechanisms between democratic allies, to counter foreign malign information operations and share best practices in building civic resilience.;
Advocate for new norms for professional reporting on hacked material and disinformation, as proposed in the Stanford Guidelines for reporting on disinformation and hacked material.
Increase Investments in building civic resilience to digital disinformation, including public education on norms of civic discourse, media literacy and digital literacy.
Advocate for the Transatlantic Commission on Election integrity Election Pledge to strengthen norms and expectations for political candidates and parties to reject and denounce propagation of disinformation around elections should be a normal practice expected of elected officials.
To rally the democratic world around a democratic vision of digital society, the U.S. must help restore a positive vision of how technology can support democracy activity, civic engagement and the enjoyment of human rights. The new administration should invest in innovation and access to technology to empower citizens. To this end, the U.S. should: