To celebrate the International Day of Democracy, together with International IDEA, the European Partnership for Democracy, the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Network of Political Foundations and Carnegie Europe, we organised a series of online events marked as International Democracy Week – Overcoming Adversity, Innovating Democracy. The events took place between 14 to 17 September and featured more than 30 speakers, including high-level EU and UN representatives, prominent politicians, experts from international NGOs, local activists and academics. EPD lead the organisation of a session focusing on tech policy and its impacts on democracy.
The session focused on the intersection of autocratisation and tech policy, and the implications this has for European policy processes, in view of the COVID-19 crisis, which has accelerated and intensified the widespread adoption and development of digital technologies, as well as the trend of autocratisation in Europe and around the world.
Panelist Eliska Pirkova, Europe Policy Analyst from Access Now, noted that many of the extraordinary measures to limit the spread of disinformation around COVID-19 had infringed on human rights, partic- ularly laws that overcriminalise speech, under the guise of combating “fake news”. Krzysztof Izdebski, Policy Director for ePanstwo, stressed that we cannot expect undemocratic regimes to regulate digital technologies with a human rights-based approach. Ultimately the trends of digital technology and auto- cratisation are intimately intertwined. Marietje Schaake, former Member of the European Parliament and current International Director of Policy of the Stanford Cyber Policy Centre, stressed that regulation over tech giants is nonetheless absolutely essential for safeguarding democracy, and needs to be put in place sooner rather than later. Breaking down common private sector arguments that regulation would stifle innovation, she argued that we are not talking about regulating the internet, but about safeguarding democracy. Former President of Slovenia and President of the Club de Madrid World Leadership Alliance, Danilo Türk, echoed the need for holding platforms accountable, addressing current market flaws and articulating a new social contract for the digital era, as detailed in the call to action by the World Leadership Alliance. In order to ensure regulation is rooted in democratic principles, civil society needs to continue advocating to ensure the minimal safeguards for fundamental rights are maintained in future regulation on social media and tech platforms. To this end, organisations like Access Now and ePanstwo Foundation continue to demand a user-centric regulation of online platforms, that puts human rights at the core and establishes due diligence requirements for those platforms with an impact on democracy.
The session concluded that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated ongoing trends in autocratisation and increased the power imbalance between major tech companies, citizens and governments. Questions of power and regulation need to be dealt with now to safeguard our democratic societies for the future.