Jan. 12, 2022
A welcome signal for those working at the intersection of democracy and technology in the year ahead, the technology portion of the U.S.-hosted Summit for Democracy held December 9-10 was more visionary, prescriptive, and inclusive than anticipated. With much work needed to unite domestic and international efforts, it remains to be seen whether the high-level rhetoric spotlighting the challenges to democracy will translate into concrete results.
Discussions throughout the Summit sounded alarms that our digital systems are faltering and may be exacerbating growing social and economic inequality. But there was also a demonstrable pivot to a rallying cry to better effect change together. For the growing community of governments, civil society organizations and multilateral bodies that have been advocating potential solutions in this space, this is a belated but refreshing message–and one that renews the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative’s (DIGI) coalition building activities in the year ahead.
The Summit highlighted several encouraging priorities in the field of tech and democracy:
- Most importantly, there was an overwhelming call for a positive vision for the internet going forward, both to defend against digital authoritarianism and to improve outcomes for development. The message was clear: if democracies don’t unite on a common vision and prove they can deliver for their citizens, we run the risk that authoritarian solutions may shape how technology is deployed globally. Much still needs to be fleshed out to define and test that positive vision, but the Summit drew an unmistakable link between the future of democratic, open societies, and how the internet evolves. The Summit also underscored that while many governments have been slow to act on this front–with some notable exceptions–they now have a clear duty to do so, starting with the U.S. government.
- Many leaders, heads of state, agencies and civil society voices called for transparency and openness via coalitions exploring multistakeholder governance of digital solutions–in stark contrast to the systems that exist today. The coordinating node for these efforts is yet to be determined, but there was a strong emphasis on a multi-sector approach, including a clear call on the private sector.
- The Summit featured announcements of various commitments to address pieces of what this positive vision will require. While these initiatives would be even more impactful if connected to an overarching global strategy, they address important elements of the problem – such as principles for responsible state behavior through a possible Alliance for the Future of the Internet, expanding the membership of multistakeholder governance organizations, launching an Export Control Initiative for dual use tech, a fund for anti-censorship technology, the Danish-led Tech for Democracy Initiative, etc. Of particular interest to DIGI, President Biden’s Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal will include funding to expand USAID’s digital democracy programming, including the pursuit of a charter for digital public goods to declare principles for open-source tech products, as well as for joint U.S.-UK led challenges to explore privacy enhancing technology.
Together, these highlights could be a catalyzing force to strengthen the field for digital public infrastructure (DPI). DPI was cited at the Summit as a leading approach to a positive future of the internet, as long as citizen users are included in design and deployment. With the conversation on DPI rapidly maturing, 2022 provides an inflection point both in the United States and beyond to advance a more equitable post-pandemic recovery by defining and investing in the DPI of the future–the rails underpinning our digital economy with the potential to narrow digital divides, modernize and improve the provision of public services, and strengthen and safeguard communities.
One month into the Year of Action, there is still a lack of clarity around the official organizing mechanisms, priorities, and concrete actions to advance the intentions voiced at last month’s event. Regardless, the Summit underscored the political will and momentum to set the ground rules to define the next chapter of tech and democracy–reinforcing New America’s coalition building efforts in 2022. DIGI looks forward to continuing ongoing collaborations with a broad community of civic technologists in the Year of Action and beyond.