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The Biden Administration Embraces “Democracy Affirming Technologies”

President Biden delivers opening remarks at the Summit for Democracy on December 9, 2021

President Biden convened a “Democracy Summit” in mid-December. The aim was to bring together democratic nations in Washington, D.C. (virtually) and help reestablish the leading role of the United States as a global defender of democratic values in a world of Chinese emergence and Russian provocation.

The effort was not without controversy. With the January 6th insurrection and subsequent efforts in many U.S. states to suppress voting rights on the minds of many world leaders, some wondered whether the United States was best positioned to lead democratic nations. Other world leaders, however, fought to get on the guest list.

But amidst the ongoing struggle between declining democracies and emerging authoritarian governments, the Democracy Summit was notable for at least one new initiative – the support for democracy affirming technology. According to the White House, the initiative “aims to galvanize worldwide a new class of technologies” that can support democratic values.  The White House plan is to bring together innovators, investors, researchers, and entrepreneurs to “embed democratic values.”  The President’s top science advisor Eric Lander provided more detail. Democratic values, he said, include “privacy, freedom of expression, access to information, transparency, fairness, inclusion, and equity.”

In order to spur more rapid technological progress the White House Office of Science and Technology announced three Grand Challenges for Democracy-Affirming Technologies. They are:

  • A collaboration between U.S. and UK agencies to promote “privacy enhancing technologies” that “harness the power of data in a secure manner that protects privacy and intellectual property, enabling cross-border and cross-sector collaboration to solve shared challenges.”
  • Censorship circumvention tools, based on peer-to-peer techniques that enable content-sharing and communication without an Internet or cellular connection. The Open Technology Fund, an independent NGO, will invite international participants to compete on promising P2P technologies to counter Internet shutdowns.
  • A Global Entrepreneurship Challenge will seek to identify entrepreneurs who build and advance democracy-affirming technologies through a set of regional startup and scaleup competitions in countries spanning the democratic world. According to the White House, specific areas of innovation may include: data for policymaking, responsible AI and machine learning, fighting misinformation, and advancing government transparency and accessibility of government data and services.

USAID Administrator Samantha Powers said her agency would spend 20 million annually to expand digital democracy work. “We’ll use these funds to help partner nations align their rules governing the use of technology with democratic principles and respect for human rights,” said the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Notably, Powers also said the U.S. will take a closer look at export practices to “prevent technologies from falling into hands that would misuse them.” The U.S., along with Denmark, Norway, and Australia, will launch a new Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative. Powers also seeks to align surveillance practices of democratic nations with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

Many cross-currents are in play in this U.S. tech initiative. The United States notably lags much of the world on modern privacy laws. Even China lapped the U.S. this past year with the passage of its Personal Information Protection Law. The U.S. has in the past birthed contrary initiatives, including the post-911 Total Information Awareness program as well as the NSA’s “if you type it, we will find” global surveillance architecture, as documents revealed by Edward Snowden revealed.

But the U.S. also has strong Constitutional traditions, a mostly fit-for-purpose Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, and some of the most advanced privacy technologies in the world. American companies are leaders in many of the technologies now being celebrated by the White House. Apple continues to set high standards for the protection of personal data, promoting techniques for anonymity and limiting advertiser access to Internet browsing. Microsoft President Brad Smith now actively promotes the technologies of democracy, as he did at the Democracy Summit. And there is a growing alignment of a public desire for data protection and national security requirements, as U.S. lawmakers recognize that foreign adversaries increasingly target the personal data of American citizens.

The goals of the democracy affirming technologies initiative are ambitious. The grand challenges theme, and the prize fund concept, are taken from the Defense Department world. For many years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made big investments in applied technology, typically tied to the national security mission of the agency but often with valuable commercial spinoffs. Many people driving Teslas today can thank DARPA for encouraging researchers to send autonomous vehicles around a desert outside Barstow, California almost two decades ago, as part of a DARPA-sponsored competition.

Still, it is unclear whether grand challenges and prize funds will make a huge difference in the world’s growing democracy problem, as the U.S. and allies confront China on standards for 5G, commercial drones, and artificial intelligence, among other technologies. True democracy-enhancing technologies that stand apart from the commercial interests of U.S. tech companies and the surveillance ambitions of governments must be clearly defined.  For example, genuine privacy-enhancing technologies would limit or eliminate the collection of personal data. Such techniques minimize the risk of state surveillance as well as the consequences of data breaches. To be effective they must be widely deployed, easily accessible, scalable, provable, and robust. Independent auditing is also necessary to ensure trust. But countervailing forces are strong. Both Eric Schmidt and Kai-Fu Lee, two major tech policy influencers, back unbounded data collection to drive AI models and establish AI dominance. The new initiative must, at a minimum, offer an alternative to this Big Data imperative.

President Biden has called the defense of democracy “the defining challenge of our time.” With authoritarian governments doubling down on AI-enabled techniques for mass surveillance and social control,  putting out the call to citizen coders comes none too soon.

Marc Rotenberg is President and Founder of the Center for AI and Digital Policy (caidp.org)

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