Tech for democracy gains traction but may pay lip service

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The Copenhagen Pledge on Tech for Democracy is building awareness for more responsible technology with a call for action: Tech should empower, not erode, democracy. However, some experts question whether the pledge goes far enough.

The pledge, an initiative led by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a commitment by representatives from governments, multilateral organizations, the tech industry and civil society to make digital technologies work for democracy and human rights.

Pledgors can sign commitments, such as applying a human rights approach in the design of digital technologies or developing digital public goods, to promote safe and tolerant civic participation in democratic processes online. Representatives from more than 150 organizations and enterprises have signed the pledge, including Twitter, Google, and Microsoft.

GitHub, which joined the initiative last month, advocates for policies that champion developer interests, such as those that call for digital technologies to narrow the digital divide, said Shelley McKinley, chief legal officer at GitHub, referring to the gap between those who have access to modern technology and those who don’t.

“Being able to participate in the global developer community enables anyone, anywhere to shape the future of software,” she said.

Denmark’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jeppe Kofod.

But while the Copenhagen Pledge on Tech for Democracy is laudable, it won’t have much of an effect on democracy or human rights, said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research. Companies are not required to prove they’re following through on their commitment to the pledge. Instead, what’s needed is visible action, he said, giving the following example.

“A direct tech contribution, like Musk opening up Starlink in Ukraine, has an impact,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov’s successful post-invasion social media appeal in March for Elon Musk to boost internet access in Ukraine by providing Starlink satellite internet service.

Vagueness of pledge is problematic

A potential for the pledge to net little action isn’t the only problem. Its vague wording could be manipulated by nefarious pledgors to mean almost anything, said Vernon Keenan, an analyst at SalesforceDevops.net, an independent news and analysis company.

“It uses phrases like ‘applying our shared democratic values and a human rights-based approach’ without saying exactly what those values are,” he said. This could lead to entities employing different oversight mechanisms, depending on how they define democracy or human rights.

In addition, the pledge’s ambiguous wording makes it unclear who should sign it and who should not, said Leonid Ivankin, an Android developer at MTS group, a mobile telesystems company.

“For example, a developer can develop technology for military drones,” he said. “On the one hand, he strengthens the security of [the] country. On the other hand, its technology damages the population of the country against which the drone will be used. Does such a developer have the right to sign the Copenhagen pledge?”

Violations may occur

Instead of signing a pledge, technology companies should be promoting basic human rights and democracy through their data policies by default, such as ensuring user privacy and not selling data, said Art Shaikh, CEO of digital generational platform CircleIt and proponent of using technology for good.

“We have seen time and time again big tech companies speaking publicly in favor of these measures, and then privately violating them,” he said.

A direct tech contribution, like Musk opening up Starlink in Ukraine, has an impact.
Holger MuellerAnalyst, Constellation Research

Recent years have seen multiple pledge violations by big tech. For example, Facebook came under fire in 2019 for breaking its promise to users to protect their privacy, and it may have also broken the law, which netted the company a historic $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission. In the same year, the European commission said that Google, Facebook and Twitter had fallen short of their pledge to combat fake news. In 2022, a Tech Oversight Project report accused big tech of backtracking on a commitment to an open internet.

It’s not just big tech that breaks promises. In a twist of irony, Denmark — which spearheaded the pledge movement — recently backtracked on its pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2025.

Irony of government pledges

To date, 20 other national governments have supported the pledge, which reveals another irony, Mueller said. “It’s ironic as governments are the biggest blockers of technology for democracy.”

As an example, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported this year that governments worldwide continue to use internet shutdowns and firewalls to control citizens and quash democracy. And those actions aren’t confined to non-democratic countries such as Myanmar, where the junta shut down the internet, or China, where the government controls access via the Great Firewall of China. Governments that have already signed the Copenhagen Pledge on Tech have also been accused of chipping away at democracy.

For example, Austria came under fire in 2019 for proposing internet censorship laws, and Tunisia has taken steps to block the free press, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But the pledge has potential

But overall, pledgors have good intentions, and a human rights-based approach to software development will make a positive difference, especially when it comes to closing the digital divide, said Morshed Alam, founder and editor at Savvy Programmer, a programming learning site.

“When people use digital technologies to their advantage, they’re taking unfair advantage of those who don’t have access to the same tools or knowledge,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of using steroids in sports or cheating on a test. It’s not fair and it undermines the integrity of the competition.”

Sheikh also sees the pledge’s potential to contribute to industrywide change.

“I’ve signed it,” Shaikh said. “I’ve seen how good starts with a vision,” he said, referring to Salesforce’s 1-1-1 model, which has provided $240 million in grants, 3.5 million hours of community service, and product donations to more than 39,000 nonprofits and educational institutions.

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