PETs’ potential: How tech can bolster democracy


In the years since the Internet first took off, the techno-triumphalism of the 1990s gave way to the sober realization in the 2010s that authoritarian governments can easily use digital technologies for repressive ends, note analysts Democracies today have the opportunity to chart a different course with emerging technologies, unburdened by false hopes that they are inherently liberalizing or the false choice that data privacy and data analysis are implacable foes.

The operating system of the digital economy needs an upgrade. The question is whether democracies will install the base software for digital societies or whether they will cede that task to others less interested in trust, openness, integrity, and privacy, they write in Privacy Is Power: How Tech Policy Can Bolster Democracy, an article for Foreign Affairs:

  • Democracies should identify shared priorities and promote basic research to mature the technological foundations of privacy-enhancing technologies, or PETs (above) – a collection of technologies with applications ranging from improved medical diagnostics to secure voting systems and messaging platforms…..
  • Second, science-funding agencies in democracies should host competitions to incentivize new PETs protocols and standards—the collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom announced in early December is a good example. …
  • Third, democratic policymakers must write legislation that facilitates the responsible adoption of these technologies and encourages the development of appropriate safeguards…. To test open protocols and demonstrate data security, democratic governments could work together under the auspices of the UN, the G-7, or the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (an initiative hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)….
  • Fourth, democracies will need to develop new processes for reviewing the ethics of data sharing….
  • Finally, democracies must have frank and open conversations with their citizens about the appropriate uses of PETs and the stakes for their democratic development. RTWT

Following December’s Summit for Democracy, democracies must build awareness to the dangers of a shrinking civic space and advocate for further protections for free expression, data privacy, and independent journalism, wrote Ryan Arick, Assistant Program Officer at the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

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