Technology Takes Center Stage at the Summit for Democracy

April 6, 2023



By Peter Chapman

Last week in Washington DC, Article One participated in the second Summit for Democracy with representation from a wide range of governments, companies, and activists. The summit highlighted important advancements when it comes to ensuring technology respects and furthers human rights, while also raising questions about misuse and potential unintended consequences.  

As part of the Summit, the United States Government convened discussion on the role of technology in advancing human rights and democracy. The high-level event featured a diverse array of senior political and technical officials from across the United States government, private sector, and civil society, including the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the USAID Administrator Samantha Power, the US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the CEO of YouTube Neal Mohan, and Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, to name a few.

It was refreshing to listen to US Government officials outline new steps and commitments to advance human rights and democracy in technology. USAID announced steps to expand the Advancing Digital Democracy Initiative. The State Department pointed to the US 2023 chairship of the Freedom Online Coalition. The National Institute of Standards and Technology discussed its new Trustworthy and Responsible AI Resource Center. President Biden released an Executive Order Prohibiting the Use of Commercial Spyware that Poses Risks to National Security. These are all important steps to continue to strengthen digital rights and combat the misuse of technology that underpins digital authoritarianism. The executive order prohibiting federal use of commercial spyware was particularly heralded by participants, civil society, and government alike.  

But one common theme of discussion at the summit was largely absent from the bevy of announcements made by the United States Government and other summit participants: expanding democratic regulation of the technology industry.  

For a discussion of regulation, participants largely turned their gaze beyond Washington, towards Brussels. Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age at the European Commission joined a panel on emerging technologies. I had the privilege of asking the panel how the EU’s agenda for human rights legislation—from horizontal due diligence such as the proposed EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, proposed AI-focused regulation including the EU Artificial Intelligence Act, and platform regulation like the EU Digital Services Act—were likely to impact technology and human rights moving forward and what risks regulation may pose. Executive Vice President Vestager had a fascinating response on the potential risks of the current approach to technology regulation, stating: “regulation isn’t about technology, it’s about society. We need to say it’s 100% legitimate for the legislature to legislate. This is the direction we want. We are elected to serve the people.” 

The state duty to protect human rights, including through human rights regulation, is a foundational component of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Increasing human rights regulation, led out of Europe but impacting the technology industry globally, raises expectations and creates new opportunities to advance human rights. But it will also raise new risks of unintended consequences. Non-democratic and autocratic governments will—in bad faith—leverage human rights regulation as templates for their own strategies to limit expression and stifle opposition. Companies will face their own challenges in transitioning from soft human rights norms to a world where human rights compliance is assured through compliance teams, external audits, and assessment. Multistakeholder initiatives and civil society, who have been vital in advancing human rights in the technology space, will face an evolving environment where regulators might occupy a greater degree of attention.

As we collectively navigate this transition towards technology and human rights regulation, three themes from the Advancing Technology for Democracy event particularly resonate:  

  1. A commitment to multistakeholderism. We need proactive effort to include all voices at the table, not just technology companies or regulators. Civil society and human rights defenders have a critical role to play.  
  2. A commitment to transparency. Open societies are premised on informed debate and transparency should underpin how companies, regulators and civil society grapple with tradeoffs associated with human rights advancing technology.  
  3. A commitment to accountability.  In the words of Executive Vice President Vestager, “when you legislate you change perception, but when you enforce you change behavior.” 

We at Article One are working with a range of companies and multistakeholder initiatives to effectively navigate rapidly evolving human rights and technology expectations. To learn more and explore what steps you and your company can take, please reach out at hello@articleoneadvisors.com.