Author : Samir Saran

Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Dec 10, 2021
Open societies have always defended their borders stoutly and they must also safeguard the new digital frontlines
Digital democracies and virtual frontiers: How do we safeguard democracy in the 4IR?

Thank you Tom, and thank you Amb. Power for inviting me to speak on this important issue. Let me congratulate her and the US government for really beginning to respond to the challenges of intrusive tech. That has to be one of the issues that global civic actors, thinkers, and even political leaders must devote time and energy on. I think intrusive tech will take away the gains of the past.

Let me start with something Amb. Power mentioned. The Arab Spring powered by social media levelled the divide—even if briefly—between the palace and the street. The ‘Age of Digital Democracy’ possibly began then. Technology has become the mainstay of civic activism since. Not only are more voices heard in our parts of the world, even elected governments are also more responsive to them. Intrusive tech can undo the gains and I think Amb. Power was absolutely right in stressing on some of the issues that need to be addressed.

The past year also has made us aware of the threats and weaknesses to digital democracies. First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom-lines. However, acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy too well. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. Hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground, and this is one area where we must intervene.

We must also ask: Are digital infrastructure and services proprietary products or are they public goods? The answer is obvious. To make technology serve democracy, tech regulations must be rethought. I think this debate needs to be joined. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to persuade and influence. The framework must be geography neutral. Rules that govern Big Tech in the North can’t be dismissed with a wink and a nudge in the South and this is again something civic actors must emphasise  on.

Second – and this is important, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the US. Understandably, it pushes American—or perhaps Californian—free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies—including in the US after the 6 January Capitol attack. While protecting free speech, societies seek safeguards to prevent undesirable consequences, especially violence. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as global Tech, it must adhere to democratic norms globally. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. Absent such understanding, a clash of norms is visible and already upon us. It is going to erode our gains.

Finally, a key threat emanates from authoritarian regimes with technological capabilities. They seek to perversely influence open societies by weaponising the very freedoms they deny their own people. In their virtual world, Peng Shuai is free and happy; in their real world, she is under house arrest—a new meaning to the term ‘virtual reality’. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter.

Open societies have always defended their borders stoutly and they must also safeguard the new digital frontlines. In 2024, the two most vibrant democracies will go to elections in the same year, the first time in our digital age, we must not allow authoritarian states or their agents to manipulate public participation at the hustings.

As I conclude let me leave you with a thought: It’s not darkness alone that kills democracy; runaway technology, steeped in nihilism, could strangulate it. Just scroll down your social media feed this evening…

Updated based on actual remarks made at the Summit for Democracy.

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Samir Saran

Samir Saran

Samir Saran is the President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s premier think tank, headquartered in New Delhi with affiliates in North America and ...

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