“Democracy does not happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it ”. It is the motto of the Summit for Democracy called by US President Joe Biden for these December 9 and 10.
What does it mean to defend democracy in the 21st century? Renew it, how? Much of our life, of our day to day, passes online, although we have it so naturalized that we are often not aware of it. Few plots are disconnected from the network. In digital spaces, our fears, divisions and gaps are delved into. At its core, misinformation, fragmentation and social polarization are reinforced, which make mutual understanding, agreement and coexistence difficult. That is why it is imperative to speak of democracy on the internet, until now a wild West devoid of government.
Biden has called on democratic governments, civil society and the private sector to come together online “to set an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.” It has defined three key themes: defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
They seem themes that a priori anyone in the western world would defend, but there are many nuances. The devil is in the details. Without minding the problem of corruption, I will focus on the other two big issues. First, in respect for human rights, which is something we take for granted. However, we allow – or assume – that our fundamental rights are systematically and daily violated on the internet and in digital environments.
Censorship, repression, exploitation of our privacy, digital precariousness of work, harassment, child abuse and cyber-theft add to the difficulty of a life free of addictions (to be connected, to mobile, to social networks …) and the resulting discrimination of the computer mediation of practically everything: from finding a job, requesting aid and subsidies or getting a loan to more or less banal activities.
Defense against authoritarianism is also essential. In the digital world, that authoritarianism is wielded by tech titans. Corporations larger and more powerful than many countries dictate the rules of the online game without public scrutiny or accountability. They decide what appears in each search, what is a trend; what is forgotten and what is remembered; what we hear, what we see and what we read.
They also decide who participates in the public sphere: a digital version of the town square which is key to public and political discourse, and where everything goes today. It legitimizes content with an informative aspect that is false; they are designed to confuse and damage trust in democratic institutions. Knowledge production tools are perverted. Data gaps and the functioning of digital platforms are exploited to position extreme or biased content at the top of searches.
As a result, conspiracy and misinformation are easier to access than empirical facts. It is also easier to stay in our own bubble or echo chamber. At the same time, we involuntarily expose ourselves to content that is more opposed to our opinions, more polarized, which reinforces our perception and ends up radicalizing it. This prevents us from accessing plural views. It fragments access to knowledge and makes understanding difficult. It undermines trust, informed dialogue, and the shaping of a shared sense of reality.
The consequences of authoritarianism online do not end here. At the geopolitical level, the opposing visions collide with increasing force. China long ago built its Digital great wall, and is attracting into its orbit other countries whom it “helps” to build their digital infrastructure, within the framework of the project of the Digital Silk Road. Russia is testing disconnection from the global internet to run on its own network. There is talk, with greater or lesser success, of the Cold War digital, and the cyber wars that are already being fought online. What if these countries ended up setting the rules of the game?
Against that vision we need a coalition of democracies whose shared values are sufficient and strong enough to make real change possible. I call this the Democratic Alliance for Digital Governance. And I make an explicit call to history: One of the foundational challenges of the Alliance of Nations after World War I was that the United States did not join. This time, the United States and the European Union must be the promoters of this effort.
It is time to create that common democratic front that establishes a general Internet governance framework. That neutralize the negative effects of the digital revolution in the face of the threat of an undemocratic online present. To design and implement new institutions, laws and processes. Stop relegating people and society to mere online consumers, mere numbers. That we return the status of citizens against the label of “users”.
As with the Industrial Revolution, we have reached a point that is unsustainable. Defending, strengthening and renewing democracy today goes through digital governance. It is also through it to prevent us from continuing to reproduce human miseries in the metaverse. Yes, we need a supranational entity to do it, but to get to that point what we first need is for civil society to demand it.
Under the 3.5% rule, only that percentage of the population needs to be actively mobilized to ensure serious political change. Let’s raise our voices and say it loud and clear: “We are citizens, not users.” Let us demand that Biden and world leaders set their sights on ensuring the democratic development of the digital present and future, and shared prosperity. So it was with the Industrial Revolution, and so it must be with the Digital Revolution. We are on time.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.