Stop regulating tech only when it’s too late. Make values mandatory from the start.

A values-based approach to new technologies

Defending democracy from technological threats is a key pillar of our work. At Defend Democracy, we are very concerned about the myriad of — often unintended — side-effects of new and emerging technologies to our freedoms and fundamental rights. The pandemic has only accelerated these worrying developments, with our lives becoming even more digitalised and with many governments trying to find easy technological “fixes” for complex social problems.

Uniting rights and security

Defend Democracy tries to have a 360° view and a coherent approach that unites the fundamental rights approach of democracy with the national security approach of democracy. That is why we don’t limit our technological scope to single issues like protecting data privacy, holding digital platforms to account, tackling disinformation, or increasing election security.

This means we aim to follow and shape relevant developments and debates in the domains of: AI, algorithms, big tech and big data, cyber security, digital surveillance, hybrid threats, internet of things, online platforms, quantum computing… We keep our eyes open to any technological developments that might threaten liberal democracies and open societies. Unfortunately, there are many.

Digital threats to democracy

Defend Democracy provided input for a recent study (May 2021) that identifies nine trends that are likely to pose digital threats to democracy in the near future: digitally impaired cognition, reality apathy, weaponised information environment, fragile complex infrastructure, compromised privacy and data, weakened media institutions, increased digital authoritarianism, fractured ideologies and identities, intensifying monetisation of attention.

A very concerning element of these digital threats to democracy that’s already manifesting itself, is polarisation. A recent overview of empirical research shows that digital platforms are key facilitators of polarisation. This of course affects democracy. Think about it: if there is one thing that and foreign interference and domestic populism and tech platform business models have in common, it is polarisation. So as long as tech platforms have polarisation as their business model, it can and will be abused by authoritarian adversaries to further polarise our societies. Which means that our public debate, our shared reality and therefore our democracy remain at risk until we change that business model.

Co-designing technology

Defend Democracy’s broad approach of technology has its roots in ‘Science, technology and society studies’: the study of how society, politics, and culture affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture. The central premise of Defend Democracy’s technology approach is that for technology to strengthen, not weaken democracy, it needs to be co-designed.

What does that mean? Co-design (or participatory design) is an approach to design attempting to actively involve more stakeholders (for example anthropologists, citizens, end users…) in the design process to help ensure the result meets users’ needs and is… usable. It’s not a design style, but an approach which is focused on the processes and procedures of design. It is used in a variety of fields as a way of creating environments that are more responsive and appropriate to their users’ cultural, emotional, spiritual and practical needs.

A values-based approach to technology

This approach can also be used for technologies to better respect our fundamental freedoms and rights. How? By involving experts and practitioners of technology ethics, human rights, digital rights, data privacy, cyber security, digital surveillance, etc as stakeholders in the design process. That way, you can design technologies that have ‘privacy-by-design’ or have more ‘operational security-by-design’. Having technology with these features by-design is of course critical to those at risk in authoritarian states, but also in backsliding democracies and in our increasingly polarised societies: journalists, judges, scientists, human rights activists, democracy defenders…

Had digital platforms been co-designed, it is very likely that the trend of polarisation in our societies would have been less steep. A participatory process in which technology ethicists, behavioural psychologists and national security experts would from the start have had an equal say in the design of Facebook’s algorithms, might perhaps have prevented Brexit and Trump in 2016, Yellow Vests protests going violent in 2018, the storming of German Parliament in 2020, anti-vax extremism in 2021, or the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6th. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure, since Facebook doesn’t give meaningful access to its data.

Summit for Democracy and Trade & Technology Council

Given technology’s existential threats to democracy, peace and security, we are relieved to see democracies are finally getting serious about regulating digital platforms and other disruptive technologies. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy highlights the role of technology in undermining democracies: ‘Hostile actors exacerbate these trends by increasingly manipulating digital information and spreading disinformation to weaken democratic cohesion.’ And the U.S. – EU Trade and Technology Council intends to ‘cooperate on the development and deployment of new technologies in ways that reinforce our shared democratic values’.

The growing momentum for democratic oversight, accountability, and transparency of old and new technologies is hopeful. However, once a new technology is deployed in society, it is hard to “get the cat back in the bag.” Big Tech is behaving much like Big Tobacco and Big Oil: they deny, delay and obstruct regulation. With increasing polarisation, we cannot afford to waste any more time. If we want democracy to survive, democracies should stop regulating technologies only when it’s already too late. Make values mandatory from the start: build them in by design. The cost of not acting now is too high.

Check out the People’s Declaration, which Defend Democracy co-signed.