Wed. Apr 24th, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Session On “Advancing Democracy and Internet Freedom in a Digital Age” Summit for Democracy

MS MESERVE:  Thank you, Secretary Blinken.  To build a more rights-respecting future, it’s clear that democracies need to define an affirmative vision for how technology can promote democracy.  Our first session, Advancing Democracy and Internet Freedom in a Digital Age, will help us think through how we might craft a world in which technology and democracy are mutually reinforcing.

We’re joined today by three speakers; let me introduce them now.  Jorge Argüello is ambassador of Argentina to the United States.  Nighat Dad – (applause) – Nighat Dad is executive director of Digital Rights Foundation.  And Funke Opeke is CEO and founder of Main One.  And I will now give the floor – (applause) – back to our moderator for this session, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Jeanne.  So this is what I really like, because I actually get to ask the questions for once.  And we have a great group of colleagues to hear from, to listen to, and to learn from.  So I’m really thrilled to be able to join each of you today and to, I think, focus on a few things.  I think we all recognize that democracies have to make an affirmative case for how societies can leverage technology to actually advance, to make progress, and, as we were talking about just few minutes ago, to actually try to deliver positive results for our people.  And I think we also recognize that the same human rights that we are so engaged in defending offline have to be also respected online, and this is one of the big challenges of our time.  We have to have an internet, we have to have a digital ecosystem that respects and protects those rights, and each of you in different ways is engaged in that.

So a few things that I wanted to try to put on the table and invite our colleagues to talk about.  First of all, my friend Ambassador Argüello – Argentina is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition.  We’re very proud to chair this effort, and many in this room are members.  As you’re looking at it from Argentina’s perspective, tell us a little bit about how you see Argentina working to advance internet freedom and to protect the space that we all have to share.

AMBASSADOR Argüello:  Perfect.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary, Antony.  Good morning to everyone here.  First and foremost, I would like to stress that our country’s highly honored to be part of this important event, as well as to be part of the second Summit for Democracy and endorse its final declaration.  As you all know – and you probably know or you may know – our President Alberto Fernández, the president of Argentina, was in Washington, D.C., yesterday in order to have a bilateral meeting with President Biden, which was held yesterday at the White House.  Our Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero was part of the presidential delegation.  He received the invitation to participate in this panel as a speaker.  Unfortunately, he was called away for last-minute business and he is now in Buenos Aires for what he asked me to convey: his deepest apologies to you all.

But let me now turn to the topic that gathers us today.  Information and communication technologies are in process of constant progress and have become fundamental tools that improve productivity for development, both economically and socially, fostering greater participation of societies and allowing better access to knowledge while promoting the strengthening of education in our countries.  Likewise, and from the point of view of government interaction with citizens within the framework of truly democratic societies, these technologies have enhanced the capacity to provide quality, agile services with greater transparency, open communications, and greater participation.  In this sense, increasing access to these technologies while strengthening connectivity and achieving the universalization of ICT services is a clear priority that allows us to avoid digital exclusion and reduce inequality – and reduce inequality.

Therefore, aspiring to a knowledge society cannot be dissociated from the achievement of the highest possible levels of social inclusion.  The achievement of one will not be fair or democratic if it is not built on the basis of the other.  The adoption and implementation of technologies are still a challenge for many countries because, while some technologies make leaps of great magnitudes, certain technologies, groups, industries, sectors, workers go at a different pace and require a different policy approach.  We must look closely at the different divides – gender, rural, industrial systems, security systems – and analyze together, with the private sector and civil society, which are the best policies to address those gaps.

In Argentina, ARSAT, the state-owned telecommunications company which operates the federal fiber optic network, plays a key role in connecting the unconnected, reaching the demand of small- and medium-sized companies, cooperatives, and rural areas.  ARSAT, the company, was present some weeks ago here in D.C. for the SATELLITE Conference and had many meetings with U.S. Government and companies to enhance cooperation in telecommunication and data centers.  Also, it is important to highlight that in Argentina, fundamental human rights are protected by a solid legal framework guaranteed by our national constitution and in international treaties that have a constitutional hierarchy.  The exercise of the rights of freedom of expression and association and the right to privacy is protected and guaranteed in the virtual and real world by the three branches of government.

Bearing this in mind, I would like to share with you some important milestones of our laws and policies regarding the ICTs.

Argentina has a law which states that – and I’m going to read – the search, reception, and dissemination of information and ideas of all kinds through the internet service is considered to be included within the constitutional guarantee that protects freedom of expression.  Another law guarantees the complete neutrality of networks in all telecommunications services and ICT developments.

Now, due to the boost we provide to the ICT sector, knowledge-based services represent the fourth – the fourth largest export complex in Argentina, and the development of Argentine technology companies with high levels of competitiveness is on the rise.  We have also adopted a new knowledge economy law which broadens and deepens incentives into the sector.  Likewise, under the firm conviction that certain vulnerable groups deserve special protection, in 2020 we sanctioned a law which creates a national program for the prevention and awareness of grooming or cyber bullying against children and adolescents, a crime that was also incorporated to our national criminal code.

On the other hand, regarding hate speech and its dissemination, it is worth mentioning that such crime is contemplated.  As an open, multicultural, and multireligious society, in Argentina we strongly believe in our duty to work for an internet free of hate speech.  Our rejection of online terrorism is clear and resounding.  Argentina adhered to the Christchurch Call in September 2019.  The call focuses on the delicate and sensitive balance between security considerations and freedom of expression and data privacy.  Argentina has participated in many areas regarding the right of freedom of expression in digital context.  We have adhered to a number of international instances, such as the Information and Democracy Forum or the Declaration for the Future of the Internet.  Likewise, since June 2016, Argentina has been a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, and we are very proud to work in that sense.

In that regard, we wish the U.S. every success in its new chairmanship and reiterate our willingness to work together constructively.  The Argentine Republic plays an active role in international and regional forums on issues related to human rights in the digital environment.

Finally, Antony, and before giving back the floor to you, I would like to reaffirm our country’s deep commitment to the development of information and communication technologies as fundamental tools for the empowerment of our peoples, with free access, without exclusion, which allows a true strengthening of societies, helping education and culture and access to information, as well as a better economic development.  We – government along with the private sector along with the civil society – must tirelessly work together to make this happen.

Thank you very much, Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Ambassador, thank you very much.  (Applause.)  Thank you for sharing that with all of us.

Let’s talk a little bit about digital inclusion.  So, Ms. Dad, you are working to do exactly that: to try to make sure that women and girls, other marginalized communities are able to access technology and use it to thrive.  So what I want to focus on here is your own experience through civil society in advancing rights and inclusion in the digital ecosystem.

MS DAD:  Firstly, it’s a pleasure to share this panel with esteemed panelists.  As a civil society in past few years, we have had a front-row seat in seeing the role of digital technologies and internet in both advancing democracies and undermining institutions integral to a free democratic space.  And holding these two realities together is important as we truly want to present a holistic picture of the role that technologies play in our democracies.

These two binaries also come as no surprise to me, having worked with young women and girls in Pakistan regarding their access to technologies and internet, which can be both as a liberating space in their lives but also abuse and violence not only online but offline as well.  So it’s really important that when we all are talking about digital rights, we center the experiences of marginalized groups – young women and girls, female journalists, women human rights defenders, activists – when we talk about democracy in the digital age, because these experiences have a lot to teach us.  And when it comes to technologies and digital spaces, there are two very main stakeholders who are dominating this space.  One is governments around the world and the second is tech companies, platforms.

On one hand we have governments scrambling to acquire technologies and pass laws that would allow them to control the internet and dominate the pervasive narratives in these spaces.  The loss of control over the information we consume and who gets to speak has been troubling for governments with long histories of interrupted and weak democratic rule.  Even in countries where rule of law is strong, we – what we have seen is that they also struggle to come up with really good regulations, the regulations that respect international human rights framework.

And on the other hand, we have powerful platforms dominating this space with so much space, profit margins, power to control content and our data, and often we have seen that – in my experience, the decade-long work, that we have seen that they are mostly unaccountable towards their – towards the governments but also mainly towards the users who should be the center of the conversation in these spaces.

And this sort of throws up fundamental question about democracy:  Do we want powerful tech companies to decide our democratic future?  And while we are looking into these questions about governments and powerful companies, I think it’s important to talk about solutions also, and there is this one solution which is self-regulatory model.  It’s an independent – Meta’s Oversight Board that the company came up with a solution to hold itself accountable.

But the question is:  Are they holding themself accountable independently and transparently?  And the answer is that just this model that came up three years ago, where the people who are actually making decisions around content moderation of this platform are from diverse background.  I sit on the board.  I am from global majority.  English is not my first language.  I bring experiences of the marginalized groups not only from Pakistan but South Asia.  But then telling companies sitting on this board that the decision that you are making are not truly democratic, are not following international human rights framework, and then come up with solution to tell them what they can do in these situations.  And how we are making ourselves transparent is that – actually releasing our reports, the progress that we have made, the progress that the company has made so far.  So I think these are the regulatory models I feel are so important to hold these companies accountable.

And if I talk about my own personal experience as Digital Rights Foundation head in Pakistan, I feel that the global majority is actually at the end of – at the receiving end the decisions that the Global North, not only governments but the tech platforms, make.  And there is very little say of the users, especially from Global South or global majority.  There are such initiatives, local initiatives – if you look around, there are so many civil society organizations around the world who have been working on digital rights for such a long time.  They have come up with local solutions.  They have been part of international debates.  But I think – and we’ll speak about this later in the panel conversation as well – that these local solutions need to be taken into account in the global conversations.  We cannot really come up with a top-down approach.  I think we really need to see what people are locally doing, how they are contextualizing this issue, how they are holding their governments accountable who are coming up with bad regulations and laws while preserving speech in the online space, at the same time holding people in the Global North accountable, that what they are deciding can set bad precedents for the authoritarian regimes as well.

Thank you so much.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  I think particularly the last point that you were making about the need to look to local solutions, to look to local ideas, to do this from the bottom up and the middle out not just the top down, is going to be vital to success and ultimately to having sustainable ways of doing things, because if people are not bought in, they will opt out one way or the other.  So appreciate that very much.

Accessibility.  Ms. Opeke, tell us about how you are looking at this in the work that you’re doing in Africa, and particularly operationalizing accessibility.  We talked about this a little bit earlier, but we always run the risk with new technologies of having totally bifurcated worlds and those who have access to them, those who don’t.  And this is a vital part of your mission.  Tell us how you’re seeing it.

MS OPEKE:  Thank you, Secretary Blinken, and truly is an honor to be part of this distinguished panel.  As you mentioned, Main One, which is a company that I run, was founded in 2008 to address the digital divide in Africa.  It was informed – the vision was informed at that time with the reality that internet access was only a 10 percent penetration rate when the rest of the world was at 50 percent.  Today we have 70 percent global internet penetration, but most of the African continent is at 50 percent or below.

And so we set out to try to close that gap with a focus on West Africa.  Now, how were we able to do that?  Nigeria, which is the company that – country that I am from, had returned to democratic rule in 1999, and coming in 2001 on the heels of that was a liberalization of the telecommunications sector, which enabled private sector companies to deploy telecoms infrastructure for the first time to deliver to citizens.  And so coming on the heels of that, we were able to obtain licenses in Nigeria and Ghana, the first private licenses for open access submarine cables to connect West Africa to the rest of the world through Europe.  Doing that, building that 7,000 kilometer cable, which initially served two countries in West Africa but is delivering a mix of services to 11 countries today, is part of what has enabled that growth in access to 50 percent.

So what really are the building blocks on which we did that, first, was the liberalization.  And it is worth noting that not all African countries today have liberalized their telecommunications laws, which says in the – that the shortage of resources and the large infrastructure deficits that a lot of these countries face, they’re not able to accelerate digital transformation of the economies because they’re not enabling private capital to come in.  The next step of our journey, of course, was private capital.  And the African Development Bank was a key anchor, so having the kind of patient, more risk, higher-risk appetite capital to come into this market; obviously, skills; and then access to technology, where we had an American company with a depth of experience and capacity deploy the network for us.

So what do we see today is that the work is not done yet.  And of course, as you go further down the pyramid and try to enable access and more inclusion, it does get more challenging. The word is…what we have to do in these economics is to truly grow the market.  Because the value chain, in terms of realizing the return from investment in digital infrastructure, is simply not as mature as what you have in the advanced economies.  So there is a lot of partnering.  There is a need for patient capital to consider the affordability and also consider the provision of other elements in the value chain.  Which is places like Lagos, Nigeria or Cape Town, South Africa or Nairobi, Kenya on the African continent your starting to see today.  But there’s still a lot more to be done.

The obvious returns are, there are successful companies of scale delivering the services on the African continent, so it proves that it can be done; and that delivering such infrastructure is also providing dividends for democracy, because as you have greater shared prosperity, job creation, financial inclusion, access to services, people are able to drive better outcomes, they’re able to reduce unemployment rates for more people to work.

Africa, when you think of it, with 50 percent internet penetration of a population of 1.4 billion, that’s about 700 million people.  The average age on the continent is 19, who do not have access and constitute the workforce of tomorrow.  So getting the access to those who have currently been excluded so they can form part of this fabric we are building is really critical.  And that’s – building the partnership to enable that is, I think, going to be critical to get there.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I really want to underscore the point that you made about this not being a favor that one group of countries may be doing for another.  It’s profoundly in everyone’s interests.  And in the case of Africa, as you point out, the next 20 years we’ll have one in four people on this planet being from and of Africa, so bridging these divides is going to be hugely important.

I want to come back to one thing that you mentioned, then maybe we can go a little deeper on some of the things that people have already touched on.  You mentioned the importance of private capital.

MS OPEKE:  Yes.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And of course, that’s exactly right.  And most of our governments, most of our systems, can’t simply dedicate and direct state resources to some of these challenges.  What we can do, what our comparative advantage is, is in catalyzing and leveraging private sector investment.

Based on this experience, though, what do you see – and you’ve touched on it a little bit – as some of the impediments to that?  And then, are there any thoughts that you have about how that can be facilitated?  You mentioned the need to actually make markets.  I’m hopeful, for example, that as the free trade area in Africa actually emerges and we get beyond this abnormal situation where African countries trade more with countries outside of Africa than they do with themselves, that will also help create markets that attract investment in an easier way.  But are there other things that come to mind based on your experience?

MS OPEKE:  Yes, understood about governments not being able to write checks, open checks to drive private infrastructure investment in developing countries.  However, for the funds that have been identified, I believe helping to create the frameworks, a lot of these lesser developed economies do not have strong institutions.  One of the areas where progress can be made and impacts can be driven is helping to strengthen the frameworks, helping to strengthen the work of institutions that are set up to establish and guide those examples.  And I really think that’s where the most impact can be made.

As you mentioned also with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, implementation has not kept pace with expectations that were set a few years ago when the free trades agreement went into effect.  So what can be done and based on the U.S. experience in setting up and working with such agreements to actually facilitate implementation and impact?  I believe that’s probably where the most impact can be had for the kind of checks that can be written by the U.S. Government.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  So we have an expression:  “I’m from the federal government;  I’m here to help.”  (Laughter.)  So I’m from the federal government; I’m here to help.

From the perspective of civil society, what can governments be doing better, more effectively, to make sure that we’re advancing inclusion, that we’re making sure that in particularly underserved people, community groups, have the benefit of accessibility and also are not finding themselves in the situation where these tools and this technology is actually being used against them?

MS DAD:  I think for that, there has been a lot of conversation around including civil society in these conversations.  I think, first and foremost, is we need to really see who are the people from civil society in these conversations.  Are these only people from Western democracy and Global North?  And if civil society from global majority is not part of this conversation, then why not?  And I think that leads us to the conversation where civil society is being – the civic space has been eroded very slowly, very gradually, and no one even felt that.  And I think what Western democracies who are setting good precedents, they can also hold those governments accountable, that why this is happening, why these civil – civil society cannot participate in these conversations if they are not truly liberated.

And I think the second point is are they – do they have resources to do that?  I think empowering them, not only making them included in these conversations but also do they have money to do that.  And I think while I’m saying these resources, I have seen people doing a lot of labor in these countries for – labor towards these companies, telling them what are the gaps that they have so that they can make these online spaces safer for their own communities, and telling government that the laws that they are making are problematic.  So it’s free labor; it’s a thankless job.  And I think what governments like U.S. can do is actually help empowering civil society, not only in their own jurisdiction but around the world, and hold other governments accountable what exactly they are doing to keep these space safer and freer for civil society.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Ambassador, any thoughts from the perspective of your country, your government, both on these questions of inclusion and these questions of accessibility?

AMBASSADOR Argüello:  Yeah.  Well, first of all, I would like to stress the importance of the battle we are facing, and allow me to congratulate you for calling for this gathering.  For me, it’s very important to share the floor with my Nigerian and Pakistani friend.  They do a very important work in their countries from the civil society.  And something – what we must having clear is that they there must be an alliance between the government, the civil society, and the private sector.  Otherwise we – it will not fly.  And what we are trying to do is precisely – is to have it flying.

In the case of our country, we are working with different international initiatives.  I wrote here the information for Democracy Forum – we have been working together in that sense – the Declaration for the Future of the Internet and the Freedom for – Online Coalition.  These are our main activities we develop in the international field.  And I would like to stress something that Funke just said:  The work is not done yet.  The battle is starting.  Our democracy – the national democracy, the international democracy, the freedom is at stake.  So we must take – be part of this discussion.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  I’m cognizant of time – I want to make sure that we get some other people in on this conversation.  So we have a number of – probably 600 experts in this audience today, but we can’t hear from everyone.  But there are a few people I’d like to call on just to get perspectives and also any questions that you have for our wonderful panelists.

So Amalia Toledo from the Wikimedia Foundation, who’s working on technology’s impacts on human rights.  Amalia, are you here?

QUESTION:  Thank you to the panel.  My question is (inaudible) digitalization happening across government – how can they ensure that tech companies are respecting the human rights of individuals?

AMBASSADOR Argüello:  Okay.  If I may, I think that’s a very important question because – and it needs a clear answer.  There is only one way to guarantee that, and it’s the development of a strong legal framework.  So I want to reiterate there is an alliance to be – to put on the table between the government, the civil society, and the private sector.  Otherwise, we won’t be able to protect the right of freedom of expression, both, as you said, Antony, online and offline.  So I think that that’s our main target to play.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Other thoughts on this?

MS DAD:  Yeah, I mean, yes, governments are powerful, and they are already bringing lot of regulations and laws to hold companies accountable.  But I think it’s important that we look into other mechanisms where these platforms find themselves accountable as well.  And one initiative I have already mentioned, like independent oversight body, which is truly independent, and which is also transparent.

But I would also like to be very cautious towards giving an only solution, like regulatory framework and laws, because it really doesn’t work for everyone around the world.  There are regulations and laws that we have seen that were made in the name of protecting young women and girls in the online space, cyber harassment, abuse, hate speech, disinformation, but those laws have been weaponized against the very same people.  So I think we really need to see how those laws are being made, whether the governments are following international human rights framework, whether civil society is part of those conversations while these laws are being drafted and then implemented, and whether the judges are actually trained to develop good jurisprudence.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Next from our audience, Frane Maroević from the International Press Institute, who’s working on advancing press freedoms around the world.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, excellencies and ladies and gentlemen.  I’ll be interested, as digitalization is happening across governments and different departments are working, how can you ensure that it’s all coordinated around the human rights agenda, that the human rights is at the focus of the work of each government department as they work on digitalization and promoting media freedom?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good question.  Anyone want to jump in?

MS DAD:  Well, maybe that’s for you, Secretary.  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I was afraid you were going to say that.  No, it’s a hugely important question, and it goes to the work that we’re trying to do to make sure that questions, obligations, responsibilities when it comes to human rights are infused in pretty much everything we do, including in places in our own department that might not naturally take that perspective into account when they’re trying to formulate policy or advance policy.

So one of the challenges, I think, for particularly our organizations in government is to make sure that we’re working horizontally as much as possible, because virtually everything we’re talking about today connects to the equities of seven, eight, 10, 12 different offices in my own department, and it’s the same, I’m sure, for the ambassador and other colleagues in government.

So one of the things that we’ve made a real effort to do is to make sure that in each of our bureaus, both from a geographic perspective but also a functional perspective – the human rights perspective and dimension is included in the deliberations.  At the same time, we’ve tried to bring together in the State Department, under one roof, all of these questions, to include the human rights dimension of technology in a new bureau that we stood up for Cyberspace and Digital Policy as well as for emerging technologies.

So partly this is a question of making sure that the direction, the responsibility to do that is clearly communicated, but it’s also about setting up the mechanisms within government to make sure that that voice, that perspective is being included – and we’ve tried to organize ourselves to do that.

I don’t know if you’ve had a similar experience.

AMBASSADOR ARGÜELLO:  Yes, I do.  I agree with what you have said.  I would add that our target, what we are pursuing when we talk about human rights, is a key word.  We are trying to guarantee access.  We are – for everybody, for everyone all over the world.  We are trying to guarantee a true democratization of knowledge.  That’s human rights.

And allow me to celebrate a decision made by the Biden administration.  Argentina has a very firm stand in the human rights field, probably because of our own terrible experience during the last dictatorships in the ‘70s, but I said the international community is still celebrating the return of the U.S. to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.  We are working together.  We are coordinating every action, not only between us but with all the members of the committee – the commission.  But I think that is very important, and that will allow us to contribute to guarantee that everybody in – can engage in this public discussion.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Please.

MS OPEKE:  I would like to speak from the standpoint of weaker democracies who – which governments are not necessarily inclined to protect human rights.  And in such economies or such countries, what we’re finding is access in and of itself starts providing citizens with a voice and a means of easier, faster information dissemination to call attention to the issues and actually push for their rights to be protected.  So taking another – yes, there are governments that are working actively to promote human rights, but there are also governments who want to silence those dissenting voices, and the more access is enabled and is free and affordable, the more we’re able to have those dissenting voices speak up.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, it’s a very powerful point.  I’ll give you one other example, Frane, because you’re working on press freedom every single day.  One of the things we see from autocratic governance is an effort basically to use lawfare to silence journalists who are just doing their jobs.  At this very summit a year ago, one of the initiatives that came out of it was standing up a fund to – that journalists, media enterprises, particularly small, independent media that usually doesn’t have the resources – a fund that they can tap into if they’re on the receiving end of bogus legal proceedings that are trying in effect to drive them out of business.  That’s just one initiative among many as we look at what is being done and how technology is being used or misused to try to silence voices, whether it’s from media or from civil society or human rights defenders.  We’re also looking at what tools can we provide to help them more effectively defend themselves, and that’s just one example.

John Morris from the Internet Society, working on expanding internet access and freedom.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  At the Internet Society, we believe that the internet, the globally – the open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy internet is a tremendous enabler of democracy, but increasingly decisions in government – by governments in democratic countries and non-democratic countries are threatening the internet’s operations and its global nature.  So my question is:  How can we ensure that governments proactively assess the potential harmful impact on the internet from their policy proposals so that we don’t inadvertently undermine both global speech, global internet access, and democracy worldwide?

AMBASSADOR ARGÜELLO:  I think we should stress the importance of the civil society.  You have invited three of us; two of them come from the civil society, NGOs.  And that’s very important, because it’s true that not every government works in this direction.  Some governments do exactly the contrary.  So the multilateral fora, the civil – the organizations from the civil society are called to play a key role in this issue.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with that.  I think it’s imperative on us in government in particular to make sure that we have all of the different stakeholders in on the takeoff, not just on the landing, precisely because we need to make sure that we’re factoring in these different perspectives, precisely because there are inevitably – to your point – second- and third-order consequences that we may not see because we’re coming at it from one perspective that we need to be able to identify upfront before it’s too late, and we actually have an effect that is not the one that we wanted to have.

And it goes to a point I was making earlier when I was speaking, and I’ve found this over 30 years in government, particularly when it comes to technology.  The pace with which it’s moving is so fast and the relative lack of expertise in government is such that we’re constantly playing catch-up, and just understanding – never mind trying to figure out what is the appropriate rule, norm, regulation that actually makes sense, doesn’t have second- and third-order consequences that we don’t like, that somehow balances the different equities that are in play.

I think one of the answers to this for me, besides making sure that the stakeholders are at the table from the takeoff, is actually to make sure that in government itself we have more of this expertise and that it’s not only, as important as that is, so-called outside stakeholders that are involved, but within our own institutions we have people who have come up in these disciplines, who bring that perspective to bear, and can make a huge difference in making – helping us to make policy.

One of the things that struck me some years ago in government was so much of what we do actually has a technological or innovative solution as part, at least, of the answer, what we’re doing.  But so many of us again are not coming up in these disciplines, and we need technologists, innovators, civil society, and others in the room, sometimes even just to tell us whether we need technologists, innovators, and civil societies in the room because, again, it’s identifying a problem from the outset that we may not see.

So I think it just goes to this point that both of us are making, that unless everyone with an equity, a perspective, an experience on these questions is in on the takeoff, we’re probably not going to have a smooth landing.

So we have a few minutes left.  One of the things that I know bedevils all of us in different ways is how we think about dealing with disinformation and misinformation that’s in our ecosystems, and to do it in a way that is protective of speech, not destructive of it, and to do it in a way, again, that uses – truth has now become a subjective word so I hate to use it – but that brings truth to bear.

I’m just wondering, from each of your perspectives, if this is something that you’ve had to grapple with, to think about, and whether there are any ideas that you want to surface today in helping us think about it.  Just throwing that out there.

AMBASSADOR ARGÜELLO:  We need a growing, transparent public discussion.  This is the way we should follow to pursue the target.  I want to share something with you.  In Argentina, we are doing an experiment, an electoral experiment.  We have called – I have mentioned government, civil society, private sector.  We have called Facebook and Twitter.  And there is a public agreement between the government, the political parties, and these two companies related to the electoral debate in Argentina, for example.  That’s – what is the idea?

The idea is to guarantee transparency in the discussion, the possibility of having everyone on board, every sector on board, and particularly, I would like to stress, to guarantee a real public debate where everyone has the chance to participate.  I think that’s a – might be a new – in my country it’s going to be a new tool that will provide a better solution – situation, sorry.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

MS DAD:  Yeah.  I think that more conversation is needed.  Education, awareness raising among stakeholders, government officials, judiciary.  But at the same time, I think keeping an eye that there’s always this tendency from the powerful actors to criminalize this kind of speech, and I think we have to be very, very careful, if governments are making these decisions, how civil society can be part of those conversation.

And I believe that more speech is an answer and not banning the speech.  And just want to mention one initiative that I’m also part of is, because misinformation and disinformation has harmed women and girls online, female journalists.  It has increased gender – online gender-based violence.  And this global partnership on – to address tech-facilitated violence which, again, U.S. Government is taking the leading role and other governments are part of it – I think these are the kind of initiatives that we need more.

And also like-minded governments are part of such kind of partnerships.  We need to see how we can bring those governments which are not like-minded and how they are becoming part of these conversation.  I think that that’s much needed.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

MR OPEKE:  Well, I think what you have are that the most powerful and motivated and the authoritarian voices then try to crowd people out and feed a lot of this misinformation.  So I also agree that more conversation is required, but more – the broadening of access so that the advantage some of these people have in weaponizing, in being the loudest and the – sometimes the only voices or the strongest voices in the room, can be crowded out by broader sections of society.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good.  Please.

MS DAD:  Secretary, can I just – like just one last thing.  I really want to commend the executive order that has been issued by the President Biden to ban spyware which violates human rights.  And I would like to acknowledge that civil society has been doing a lot of work for years around this issue.  And I think you guys have set a really good precedent for other governments, and we would like to see this kind of decision coming from other Western democracies and then hopefully from other regimes as well.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, you just heard it, so thank you.  (Applause.)

We are predictably out of time.  I just want to see if anyone has any last things that they want to say, put on the table, that they didn’t get a chance to say.  Ambassador, anything?

AMBASSADOR ARGÜELLO:  I just want to thank you again.  This is the way.  This is the direction we should work on.  So I want you to know that we will try to reproduce this scenario in our country following what you’re doing here today.  Thank you very much.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Anything?

MS DAD:  I just want to say empower civil society.  Give them resources.  Make them part of these conversations in proper spirit.  And I think that’s it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good way to conclude.  Thank you all very much.  Thank you. (Applause.)

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-session-on-advancing-democracy-and-internet-freedom-in-a-digital-age-summit-for-democracy/

originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS