Administrator Power at the Summit for Democracy Event: Countering Digital Authoritarianism and Affirming Democratic Values

Speeches Shim

Friday, December 10, 2021

Washington Convention Center
Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Tom. And thank you for your decades of leadership, really, as a thought driver on democracy and human rights and a canary in the coal mine on many of the threats that were coming -- that unfortunately, too many of us, perhaps, didn't do enough about early. But we now have a chance to remedy that. I think this Summit has brought to the fore a number of those challenges facing democracy. And I'm really excited, seeing the faces of our colleagues, who will be joining us on this first panel, where we will address one of the most pervasive, and that's the misuse of digital technology to repress populations and expand government power.

Ten years ago, if we flash back, if we were to gather together on this topic, it might have been a cause for celebration. Social media helped bring down dictators in the Arab Spring, and the Internet, at that time, was still seen as fostering openness and transparency. It seemed that access to information and the ability for people to connect in their own societies across borders would shake authoritarian regimes to their core and accelerate progress toward democracy.

Today, it seems the opposite has happened. The rise of new technologies over the past two decades parallels the democratic recession that we are discussing at this Summit, and in fact, arguably, has helped fuel it.

While it's true that digital technology has enabled immense scientific and economic progress that we benefit from every day, including at this Summit, it has also given governments the ability to surveil, to censor, and to repress their people as never before. Authoritarians learned that Big Data, social media control the Internet, and artificial intelligence could make them even more powerful.

Tech companies too often favored profit over principle, and many democratic governments, including our own here in the United States, were too slow to realize or act upon the severity of the problem. Too many stood by as digital repression spread around the globe.

Of the 3.8 billion people around the world who have access to the Internet, the vast majority -- some three quarters -- live in countries where governments, last year, arrested and jailed people for expressing non-violent political or social views online.

Here, we must acknowledge that the United States is not a bystander to these developments, but something of a trendsetter. While America has made great advances in digital technology, of which we're really proud, we haven't worked with other countries to set global norms around democratic values and human rights in a way that would shape digital innovation. As a result, as we've heard, the abuse of technology and personal data to spread disinformation, to surveil citizens, and violate their rights, and to pit citizens against one another, are problems that can start at our shores and spread abroad rather than the reverse.

Yet, as with so many topics we've discussed throughout this Summit, authoritarians only own the future if we let them. Just as vast majorities around the world prefer democracy to repression, or free speech to censorship, the vast majority want to see technology used to improve our health, raise our standards of living, and make our voices heard. Our task is to work together to infuse democratic principles -- transparency, accountability, privacy, and equity -- across all digital technologies.

The Summit for Democracy gives us this opportunity to build a global consensus on an affirmative global vision of digital democracy. I would like, now, to announce several new initiatives that the United States intends to undertake over the coming year as part of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal that President Biden announced yesterday.

First, here at USAID, we will dramatically expand our digital democracy work, investing up to $20 million annually. 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. We'll also encourage civil society to push for similar reforms and work with local companies and developers to advance these values in the digital tools that they create.

And with our democratic allies, we will build a global charter for digital public goods in which governments, civil society, software engineers, and tech companies declare principles for open-source tech products that respect human rights.

Second, the United States will take greater responsibility for the digital tools we export. All too often, a technology originates in a hub of innovation -- like the United States -- and is exported to countries that use that technology to enable human rights abuses.

As we apply more scrutiny over the export of these technologies, it is clear that we need to coordinate these efforts with other like-minded countries so we are not undermining each other's efforts. That's why we are launching a new Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative. Together, with Denmark, Norway, and Australia, the United States will work together on export control policies to prevent technologies from falling into hands that would misuse them.

Over the coming year, we will consult widely with industry and academia and establish a voluntary written code of conduct to contain technologies that can enable human rights abuses. This initiative will amplify work we are already doing in other multilateral fora such as the Trade and Technology Council, which the United States and European Union established earlier this year to coordinate policy on tech issues, including on export controls.

Third, we are launching a Surveillance Principles Initiative with Canada and Denmark to lay out how governments should use surveillance technology in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rule of law.

We will seek to lay out guidelines for, among other things, the oversight of new and emerging surveillance technologies: how to adequately protect user data, the need for governments to consult with civil society and the business community in establishing these principles, and fighting discrimination in the use of surveillance technologies -- which we know is a big issue.

The United States is already taking action against companies developing and supplying the most irresponsible surveillance tools. Last month, we banned four flagrant offenders from doing business with U.S. companies. These included Israel's NSO Group and Candiru, which sold spyware to repressive regimes for use against activists, journalists, academics; as well as Russia's Positive Technologies and Singapore's Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, which both developed dangerous cyber-intrusion tools.

Fourth, we are launching a series of International Grand Challenges on Democracy-Affirming Technologies, providing up to $3.75 million to incentivize innovation and help build our democratic values into the next generation of technologies, like privacy-preserving artificial intelligence.

Fifth, to help closed societies access an open Internet, the U.S. will establish and seed a Multilateral Surge and Sustain Fund for anti-censorship technology. This should enable the connection of more users to the uncensored Internet. It should also sustain those connections in times of greatest need.

Finally, as part of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, we will work with our partners to strengthen the multi-stakeholder system of Internet governance, including by expanding the membership of the Freedom Online Coalition. Through bodies like this, we can advance a global vision of an Internet that is open, interoperable, reliable, and secure.

This is an ambitious agenda, to be sure, but honestly, we can't tackle it soon enough. In the tech world, "Move fast and break things," has been the prevailing mantra. A lot has been broken. And now, it is incumbent on all of us to move fast too, faster than we ever have before, to repair our democracies.

I look forward to hearing from our panelists on what governments, developers, the private sector, civil society, and multilateral groups can do, working together, to protect and respect human rights in the digital age. Thank you so much, and back to you, Tom.

Last updated: November 14, 2022

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