Empowering parliaments to address threats to democracy from emerging technology

This week’s blog was written by GPG’s Associate Alex Read, who has over a decade’s international democratic governance experience, specialising in institution building during democratic transitions and in post-conflict settings. To mark the beginning of the 2021 Global Summit for Democracy, he reflects on the impact and threats posed by emerging technologies to the democratic process and citizen’s engagement and representation, with particular reference to Myanmar, where he lived for five years.

On 9-10 December 2021, the Global Summit for Democracy will be held, representing an inflection point for democratic governance worldwide. Recent reports indicate the deepening of authoritarianism in non-democratic regimes, more countries moving in an authoritarian than democratic direction, and backsliding in established democracies.

The military coup in Myanmar last February saw the eruption of pro-democracy movements across the country. I had lived in the country for five years until 2020, supporting the development of new parliamentary institutions during the democratic transition that began in the late 2000s. It turned out that this was an interlude between periods of military rule. However, when the military returned to power the methods used to control and surveille the population were different. Alongside the networks of informants and brute force in the military playbook were surveillance drones, facial recognition cameras, and phone cracking, social media scanning, hacking and data extraction software. These technologies are not only used against pro-democracy protestors but also to control their own troops.

For repressive regimes, advanced digital technology can provide new means of monitoring dissent, tracking political opponents, censoring communications and manipulating public discourse. In Myanmar, technology was acquired from Russian and Chinese sources but also from companies from democratic countries in the West, highlighting a trend of export of digital surveillance technologies from technologically advanced countries. The use of Pegasus spyware illustrates how this technology can undermine civil society and target journalists and activists. For these individuals and many in repressive regimes or weak democracies, surveillance is a fact of life where such technology is employed.

It is not only in repressive regimes where digital technology has disrupted democracy. In more advanced democracies, a corporate surveillance business model has enabled the mass exploitation of personal data, compromising privacy and anonymity and expanding an epidemic of targeted disinformation. Digital surveillance has eroded traditional notions of privacy which are fundamental to a well-functioning democracy and which reinforce freedoms of expression, information and association. It is clear that to deal with threats of digital repression, democracies need to get their house in order first.

Left unchecked globally, the future could herald something darker. Developments in artificial intelligence may provide the means of ubiquitous surveillance through censors in public and private spaces and predictive analytics powered by algorithms drawing on mass public data. These powers in the hands of authoritarian and illiberal regimes has the potential to transform how the state can track political opponents, monitor potential dissent, quash protest movements, target disinformation and repress marginalised populations.

In the midst of the rapid pace of technological development, we are likely facing geopolitical differences around the values and governance model that will dominate digital societies. We trust our representative institutions to protect us from public harm, and democratically elected parliaments, representing the diversity of society, should be at the front and centre of promoting a values-based vision for the future.

Parliamentarians can take action across their lawmaking, oversight and representation roles. Law usually lags behind technological innovation and there are critical domestic regulatory priorities – reforming democracies’ own surveillance practices, protecting citizens’ privacy and security, and enforcing standards anchored in human rights for tech firms and the commercial surveillance sector. Protecting democracies worldwide will necessitate multilateral export controls on surveillance and dual-use technologies.  Oversight of the private sector and government must empower citizens to exercise their rights where lives are impacted by new technology and strengthen accountability around digital surveillance at home and abroad.  In their representation role, MPs can support civic engagement and public education on the impact of emerging technologies. Well-informed MPs can articulate the wishes of the public and provide a voice to standards around technology, informing regulations and ethics around its use.

What will it take to empower parliaments to play this role? A first and critical priority is to address the knowledge and comprehension gap that undermines the ability of democratic institutions to address technological change. MPs worldwide will require the means to stay up to date with developments in digital technology and how it works. In Myanmar, military-controlled Ministries were purchasing ‘dual use’ surveillance technology during the period of democratic rule, far before the military coup. A civilian MP on the parliament’s budget committee at the time has said that “we did suspect that they were using the technological devices for bad purposes, like surveillance of the people [but] we don’t know what kind of technological devices these would be because we lack knowledge of the technology”.

In a fast-moving environment, response times for our democratic institutions will likely become shorter. A second priority is to assess how parliamentary practices and procedures may need to adapt to keep pace with changes in technology. The increasing complexity of science and technology policy creates a challenge to MPs in explaining changes and seeking public input on how lives are being impacted. Parliaments will require access to expertise across disciplines from data scientists, lawyers, sociologists and economists, with new means to engage various actors and the public in parliamentary processes. Parliamentary committees and specialised sub-committees may need to take on a greater and more prominent role, with MPs increasingly specialising in different fields of science and technology and committees provided more powers to examine legislation within their remit.  

A third priority is ensuring that our democratic institutions are at the heart of adapting democracy for the digital era and are innovative and resilient. Democratic innovations have flourished during the pandemic and parliaments should also be able to tap into examples of how digital technology can reinvigorate democracies, such as digital public squares or forums for public interaction and collaboration outside big tech platforms.

Finally, and underpinning the above, democratic allies should seek to articulate a set of principles that define democratic use of technology.  Running alongside the upcoming summits for democracy should be an effort to revitalise partnerships across parliaments on technology and democracy. Parliamentary diplomacy can go to areas where governments cannot, helping strengthen dialogue between countries and root standards and regulation in emerging technologies around inclusive processes and democratic values. Increasing understanding and collaboration across parliaments in the Global North and South can help to develop shared understanding and solidarity. Organisations supporting democracy promotion can support this agenda, with new platforms for learning, exchange of ideas and information helping MPs across countries to act on issues of mutual concern.

The summit for democracy will address defense against authoritarianism and respect for human rights in a world in which the potential for digital technology to undermine fundamental freedoms is increasingly clear. Our democratically-elected parliaments can offer an alternative that requires technological developments to meet human rights standards, protect privacy and foster public interest and civic participation, thereby helping to reclaim technology for citizens and humanity. The risks of not acting soon are that by the time the fight for privacy in a digital world has begun, changes may be hard to roll back. In this scenario, future generations would have to get used to a society in which surveillance was automatic and constant. For the citizens of Myanmar resisting military rule, this future that seems far away to many of us may feel very close to home.