The Futures Forum
On November 3, 2022, Germany hosted the inaugural Futures Forum in Muenster. The U.S. took part in the forum as part of a joint effort agreed upon in July 2021 by President Biden and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring together an international, expert group focused on addressing future issues that would challenge both democracies. The forum was joined by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and featured over 140 participants from both the United States and Germany. Members of the forum discussed a variety of issues related to the use of technology in democracies such improving the functionality of government through technology, slowing the spread of disinformation in public policy, how to safeguard human rights online, and how to improve the use of technology in developmental policy.
The participants were organized into four discussion groups and developed proposals for specific political measures. The four groups each focused on a different topic:
‘Reinforcing Democracy at Home‘ : Participants in this group recommended that new public procurement institutions should be set up to help public servants at all levels of government when making decisions on technological investments.
‘Advancing Democracy and Human Rights Online‘ : Members of this workshop agreed that the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) should be expanded in its functionality and reach. They suggested that the FOC expand its capacities to offer pro-democracy advocacy groups financial resources toward the development of democracy-affirming technologies. Participants believed that the development of global normative frameworks would help to dramatically increase and incentivize the accountability and responsible behavior of corporations to address human rights online.
‘Defending Democracy: Countering Digital Authoritarianism and the Misuse of Technology’ : Participants proposed new measures to enhance platform accountability and argued for changes to the current business model of internet platforms, which would mandate interoperability and reduce algorithmic amplification. Similarly, they also suggested that democracies could push back against information controls instituted by authoritarian governments by creating multilateral funding sources for open technology systems and increasing support for developing local circumvention tools.
‘Extending Democracy: Integrating Technology for Democracy in Development Efforts’ : This group identified numerous recommendations for policymakers, such as the setting of norms and standards and the protection of accessible digital infrastructure. Participants suggested that governments might incentivize or subsidize technology models and platforms that are rights-respecting, and work with technology providers to improve VPN access globally.
Some Concerns Over the Proposals
For those living in a democratic country, all these proposals sound like excellent steps towards securing the future of democracy in an era where technology is rapidly evolving and we are constantly faced with new challenges presented by said technology. It is important for world leaders to incorporate technology into their governments as quickly as possible in order to provide benefits to their citizens. Along with that incorporation comes the need for legislation to act on that technology to ensure that it does not taken advantage. Such situations present the possibility of a legal catastrophe that may take years to come to a conclusion on.
Despite the benefits that are sure to come as a result of the Futures Forum, there are some questions posed by the proposals initiated by the participants which pertain to the infringement upon the rights of established regimes. For instance, some participants proposed pushing back against the information controls of authoritarian governments by funding open technology systems and supporting the development of local circumvention tools.
There seems to be a bit of a gray area in this regard, or more accurately, a very fine line to be wary of crossing. It is hard to argue that a democracy is the most-fitting system of government that is representative of the wants and needs of its citizens. Because of this, democratic countries are quick to try and encourage others to adopt a democratic system. However, is it not also the right of non-democratic countries to pursue a system of government that they see fit? Why should democratic countries try and impose their values on others if they have no interest in them?
For instance, what happens to the citizens of China, a country which many Western societies consider to an authoritarian dictatorship. What if the majority of Chinese citizens favor a more democratic government, but are unable to effectively make those changes due to the power held by the authoritarian government? Do democratic countries have a moral obligation to help those citizens achieve their wishes?
In developing these policies to accompany the rise of technology in democracies, countries such as Germany and the United States should take caution when supporting the advancement of technology systems that undermine the authority of authoritarian regimes. The funding and support of access to global VPN’s is an excellent way to help encourage the spread of democracy without directly interfering or worse, inciting conflict with, authoritarian countries.
The Uncertainty of Technology
Because of the ever-changing nature of technology, it is difficult for people to predict how it might evolve and what threats it might pose to democracy. That being said, the participants of the Futures Forum have begun to examine the current state of the relationship between democracy and technology and have proposed policies that not only address the current issues but those that might become more prevalent in the near future.
In this regard, Germany and the United States have taken an approach to countering threats to democracy that is similar to the ideas presented by Levitsky and Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die”. The authors note that a highly effective way of preventing populist leaders from gaining power is to identify would-be authoritarians and to take measures that will render their efforts to take power ineffective. This principle seems to also be applied to the Futures Forum and how Germany and the U.S. have been proactive in solving democratic issues related to democracy.
Democratic countries can surely benefit from being proactive in their integration of technology and democracy, but should also be wary of the implications that their preemptive actions might have on the relationships between democratic and non-democratic countries.