On October 6, 2017, GDPi held our public launch event under the rubric of Democracy & Digital Technology, where we focused on urgent governance challenges in the global digital Information ecosystem. The program featured three panels, seventeen panelists, and a Keynote conversation with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Over six hundred participants from academia, government, nonprofits, and the private sector attended all or part of the launch, in addition to the hundreds of online viewers that tuned in to the livestream of the day’s events.
GDPi’s mission is to function as a global, multi-stakeholder collaboration hub for development of norms and policies for our global, digital ecosystem. As such, we decided to record the lessons learned and challenges ahead in the form of a conference report. It is our hope that our conference panelists, our launch participants, and the greater community of thought leaders and practitioners in this field will review this report and reflect on the challenges and opportunities presented during this event.
The report opens with an introduction by GDPi’s Executive Director, Eileen Donahoe. Eileen reflects on the current state of democracy in the digital era and the mission of the Global Digital Policy Incubator, while also providing a summary of the event. The remainder of the report is a humble effort to capture the essence of what was shared by the expert participants throughout the day, divided into summaries of each of the conference segments.
Overall, our program highlighted the reality that this is a peculiarly challenging juncture for policy-makers, specifically because of the growing perception that information and communication technology poses a threat to democracy. When conceptual confusion about how to govern, combines with fear about cyber threats running throughout society, even democratically inclined governments and well-intentioned private sector companies may get their policies wrong. This is the very real risk in our global digital information ecosystem.
The key message we hope panelists and participants took away from this conference is that we all bear responsibility for helping craft policy to protect against digital threats to democracy. But as we engage is this urgent task, we must take care not to undermine universal human rights or democratic values in the name of protecting democracy.
The opening panel, entitled, When Freedom of Expression Conflicts with Democracy, addressed tensions between our enduring value of free expression and the quality of discourse necessary to sustain democracy. An important foundation for this discussion was laid down by Timothy Garton Ash, one of our panelists, as he shared insights from his book entitled, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. The speed, scale, and extraterritorial reach of information in the digital realm means the effects of speech can be very different from speech in the pre-digital realm. Bots, troll farms, micro-targeting tools make “bad speech” different in kind – not just scale - from propaganda and hate speech of old. This panel focused on the need to figure out the implications of these different effects of digital information for our existing rules, and particularly on how we now must think about legitimate restrictions on speech in democracy, without undermining free expression.
The second panel, entitled, When Information Becomes the Weapon, addressed the growing national security threat from information operations and weaponization of information by foreign powers seeking to undermine democratic processes and discourse. This segment highlighted how difficult it has been for national security and cybersecurity experts to recognize the threats posed by information – which is supposed to be the lifeblood of democracy. Panelists discussed how to effectively combat the threat of information operations without eroding core values.
The third panel, entitled, Digital Platforms & Democratic Responsibility, focused on emerging roles and responsibilities for private sector technology companies in “governing” and securing the digital information ecosystem. The panel addressed how difficult it has been to get a conceptual handle on how these platforms themselves should be governed, as their algorithms, terms of service and community guidelines shape public discourse in democracies.
The fourth and final segment of this event started with a keynote speech by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Digital Technology, Diplomacy & Democratic Values. Secretary Clinton described the cybersecurity threat landscape faced by democracies, and laid out her vision of the policy moves that will be necessary to protect democracies against digital disinformation. This speech was followed by conversation with GDPI Executive Director Eileen Donahoe, who served with Secretary Clinton during the Obama administration as former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.
In the report annex, you will find a number of auxiliary documents that add insight and context to the many topics and debates that surfaced throughout the report. We asked our conference panelists to send their thoughts on the topics their panel discussed during the event, and we received a number of responses, which we added to the report. We even included a very long twitter thread! Transcripts of the keynote event with former Secretary Clinton and Timothy Garton Ash’s discussion of the challenges facing democracy online are also available in the annex.