Reflections on Democracy Summit Week
We're still not tackling the hard problems
A lot happened in the democracy world last week. It seemed like everyone felt that the week of June 6th was the time to hold their conference, make their speech or announce their new study. Between Summit of the Americas, Atlantic Council’s 360/OS Summit, the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, RightsCon, Knight Foundation/Gallup, Samantha Powers’ speech at Freedom House, the first January 6th hearing, and many, many other things it was a week with a lot of great content.
I chose first to go to Brussels for the Atlantic Council Summit and then Copenhagen. I’ve been to the Atlantic Council Summit before and if there were only one conference a year I could go to it would be this one. I find it to be the best mix of high-ranking officials across government, tech, and civil society as well as people who are on the ground actually doing the work. This year you got to hear a conversation between the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Maria Ressa to discussions about the issues Ukrainian activists are seeing on the ground. DFR Lab also does what they call a Digital Sherlocks training to build up the capacity for more people on how to do open-source research.
In Copenhagen, we saw the same dynamic. The conference opened up with remarks from Eric Schmidt and then a shark tank style pitching session from nine tech entrepreneurs working in places like Ukraine, Venezuela, and Georgia (the country). Major tech executives such as Brad Smith from Microsoft and Kent Walker from Google gave remarks as did high-level European officials. The day ended with remarks from President Obama and a conversation with some of the Obama fellows that were in town.
As much as I loved everything I also felt that we still weren’t getting to the heart of the problems we face when trying to make progress on the challenges for democracy - especially at the intersection of tech and democracy.
Now I know this is easier said than done. Trust is so shattered between these organizations that having discussions in public can be so hard. Even having them in private is hard. But I do think that it’s worth trying to find ways to do this.
In one panel at Copenhagen, two speakers said spicy things that could - and should - have warranted their own panels. One said that they didn’t think Europe should have banned RT and another said a discussion was needed as to if President Trump should be allowed back on the platforms.
In Kent Walker’s Q&A he was pressed on what Google’s roadmap was since so much more has to be done. He said all of the right things about needing to work with regulators, creating society-setting norms, better understanding how services are used, and improving as they go along, but was low on specifics. As nice as it was to hear from Kent I would have loved a discussion between some of the technologists who build these tools (say people from the Integrity Institute) and some of the activists on the ground facing these issues.
In Samantha Powers’ RightsCon discussion with Ann Marie Slaughter of New America she talked about how she had just traveled to Ukraine and heard from people there what they were experiencing online. Then she called senior tech executives and they had a totally different perspective on the impact their platforms and decisions were having. She talked about how heads of states in these small countries don’t even know how to get a hold of someone at these companies and the huge gap that remains between Silicon Valley, governments, and civil society.
This brings me to the biggest thing I think that was missing from these conferences - the engineers, data scientists, and researchers who work at platforms. I think we need them in addition to the senior execs who make many of the ultimate decisions. Multiple times during the week I wrote to my Integrity Institute colleagues about how much I wish they were there and that we need to prioritize doing so next year.
These are really hard problems and it’s extremely easy to both talk in platitudes or just jump on the let’s bash tech bandwagon. It’s very hard to actually grab the third rail and have the difficult, honest conversations on tradeoffs. But until we do so, we won’t see very much progress.
A quick programming note/reminder. This time next week I will be sitting in a boat on Smoothrock Lake in Canada fishing for walleye and northern pike. There’s absolutely no cell coverage and the last time I was there the most I could get for online access was chatting with people through WhatsApp. So, there’s a high likelihood of no newsletter next weekend.
What I’m Reading
The Markup: Brazil on the Brink of a Disinformation Disaster
Wall Street Journal: Facebook rethinks news deals and publishers could lose millions
The Atlantic: Steve Bannon Is a Lit Bomb in the Mouth of Democracy
Sam Gerstenzang: Operating well – what I learned at Stripe
Atlantic Council 360/OS: Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Maria Ressa on Digital Diplomacy and Human Rights Online
360/Open Summit: Full Coverage of Summit Programming
National Association of Election Officials: Election Center Journal
James Kanter: RT France is trying to overturn EU sanctions
The University of Chicago Law Review Online: First Amendment Politics Gets Weird: Public and Private Platform Reform and the Breakdown of the Laissez-Faire Free Speech Consensus
Electoral Integrity Project: Electoral Integrity Global Report 2019-2021
Latana/Alliance of Democracies: Democracy Perception Index
TechCongress: Applications are open for our 2023 January Fellowships!
Silicon Valley Business Journal: Meta Platforms appoints Guy Rosen as its new chief information security officer
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 13 - 27: UN General Assembly
Sept 20 - High level general debate begins
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms