How democracies can declare again energy within the digital world


Since technologies evolve faster than laws, discrepancies between private agency and public oversight are growing. Take, for example, “smart city” companies, which promise that local governments will be able to ease congestion by monitoring cars in real time and adjusting the timing of traffic lights. 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 insights and value that may not flow back to the public.

This disparity between the public and private sectors is spiraling out of control. There’s an information gap, a talent gap, and a compute gap. Together, these add up to a power and accountability gap. An entire layer of control of our daily lives thus exists without democratic legitimacy and with little oversight.

Why should we care? Because decisions that companies make about digital systems may not adhere to essential democratic principles such as freedom of choice, fair competition, nondiscrimination, justice, and accountability. Unintended consequences of technological processes, wrong decisions, or business-driven designs could create serious risks for public safety and national security. And power that is not subject to systematic checks and balances is at odds with the founding principles of most democracies.

Today, technology regulation is often characterized as a three-way contest between the state-led systems in China and Russia, the market-driven one in the United States, and a values-based vision in Europe. The reality, however, is that there are only two dominant systems of technology governance: the privatized one described above, which applies in the entire democratic world, and an authoritarian one.

To bring globe-spanning technology firms to heel, we need something new: a global alliance that puts democracy first.

The laissez-faire approach of democratic governments, and their reluctance to rein in private companies at home, also plays out on the international stage. While democratic governments have largely allowed companies to govern, authoritarian governments have taken to shaping norms through international fora. This unfortunate shift coincides with a trend of democratic decline worldwide, as large democracies like India, Turkey, and Brazil have become more authoritarian. Without deliberate and immediate efforts by democratic governments to win back agency, corporate and authoritarian governance models will erode democracy everywhere.

Does that mean democratic governments should build their own social-media platforms, data centers, and mobile phones instead? No. But they do need to urgently reclaim their role in creating rules and restrictions that uphold democracy’s core principles in the technology sphere. Up to now, these governments have slowly begun to do that with laws at the national level or, in Europe’s case, at the regional level. But to bring globe-spanning technology firms to heel, we need something new: a global alliance that puts democracy first.

Teaming up

Global institutions born in the aftermath of World War II, like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created a rules-based international order. But they fail to take the digital world fully into account in their mandates and agendas, even if many are finally starting to focus on digital cooperation, e-commerce, and cybersecurity. And while digital trade (which requires its own regulations, such as rules for e-commerce and criteria for the exchange of data) is of growing importance, WTO members have not agreed on global rules covering services for smart manufacturing, digital supply chains, and other digitally enabled transactions.

What we need now, therefore, is a large democratic coalition that can offer a meaningful alternative to the two existing models of technology governance, the privatized and the authoritarian. 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 never had much impact, could be revamped and upgraded to include an ambitious mandate for the governance of technology. Alternatively, a “D7” or “D20” could be established—a coalition akin to the G7 or G20 but composed of the largest democracies in the world.

Such a group would agree on regulations and standards for technology in line with core democratic principles. Then each member country would implement them in its own way, much as EU member states do today with EU directives.

What problems would such a coalition resolve? The coalition might, for instance, adopt a shared definition of freedom of expression for social-media companies to follow. Perhaps that definition would be similar to the broadly shared European approach, where expression is free but there are clear exceptions for hate speech and incitements to violence.

Or the coalition might limit the practice of microtargeting political ads on social media: it could, for example, forbid companies from allowing advertisers to tailor and target ads on the basis of someone’s religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or collected personal data. At the very least, the coalition could advocate for more transparency about microtargeting to create more informed debate about which data collection practices ought to be off limits.

The democratic coalition could also adopt standards and methods of oversight for the digital operations of elections and campaigns. This might mean agreeing on security requirements for voting machines, plus anonymity standards, stress tests, and verification methods such as requiring a paper backup for every vote. And the entire coalition could agree to impose sanctions on any country or non-state actor that interferes with an election or referendum in any of the member states.


Steven Gregory