Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken on Advancing Technology for Democracy

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  Jeanne, thank you so much for the introduction and for helping to move us along today.

And I really want to first extend a very warm welcome to everyone who is here as well as to the many who are joining us online.

Not long after its invention, Thomas Edison said of electricity: “It holds the secrets that will reorganize the life of the world.”

Today, we are again living through a time when technology is reorganizing the life of the world, the world that we all share.  Every country – no matter its form of government, no matter its geography, no matter its size or power – is being transformed by new and evolving tools from biotechnology altering the building blocks of life, to artificial intelligence changing the production of knowledge, to the devices that we’ve all got in our pockets redefining how we relate to each other as human beings.

The test we face as democracies is how we can shape this transformation in a way that maximizes its promise, that minimizes its dangers, and reinforces our core values.

So, today, what I wanted to do kick us off is to set out a few of the ways that we’re working to try to meet this test, working together in government, with partners in the private sector and civil society – a test that as we meet it today, I think will do much to shape many, many years to come.

President Biden likes to say that in many ways we’re at an inflection point where the decisions that we’re making now in the next few years are likely to shape the next decades.  It’s one of those moments that comes along every few generations where we’re really at a point of inflection and our actions are going to make a big difference.

So first, we are focused on using technology to try to make our democracies a little bit healthier, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more inclusive.  We’re building on democracy’s core strengths – our openness, our transparency, our adaptability, and the faith that we place in our citizens to make the system work better, to actually deliver results.

Just a few examples of how governments here are using technology to shore up the foundations of democracy, to strengthen its institutions in ways that actually deliver results for people.

In the Maldives recently they introduced video technology that allows people to participate virtually in court hearings, freeing up time for judges, reducing costs for citizens.

In Estonia, as many of you know, citizens can go online to do everything from registering a new business, to paying their taxes, to requesting refills of medical prescriptions all within minutes.

After Malaysia adopted legislation lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, the government was able to automatically register people online who were newly eligible to vote.  Participation in elections shot up 25 percent, giving voice to more than 3 million additional voters.

And of course, it’s not just governments that are using digital tools to improve people’s lives.  Transparency advocates are creating open databases that allow members of the public to identify corruption in public works projects.  Epidemiologists and researchers are sharing data to accelerate our understanding of deadly viruses and the creation of safe, effective vaccines.  Climate scientists are using predictive models to help farmers make better decisions about when and where to plant, increasing agricultural productivity, reducing hunger.

Across these efforts, we’re working to make sure that all people have access to digital tools and their benefits because one of the things that history teaches us is that leaps in technology too often deepen instead of diminishing inequities in our societies.  And we have to have that constantly in mind as we look at how we’re adapting and shaping the technologies of our time.

That’s why we’re making investments at home and around the world to try to close some of the digital divides – whether on gender, nationality, race, disability, geography, income, or any other factor – that perpetuate a lack of access to opportunity for underserved groups and underserved communities.

Here in the United States to take one example, as many of you know, we passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that dedicates $65 billion to ensuring that everyone in our country has access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet – rural, suburban, urban; low, middle, high-income.  We’ve already helped millions of lower-income Americans and their households pay their internet bills, because as President Biden says, high-speed connectivity is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity.

And we’re helping partners around the world broaden access too, like the more than $260 million in financing the United States is providing to help upgrade infrastructure in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Rio is in the process of installing 5,000 public Wi-Fi access points, as well as public lighting systems that cut electricity consumption by up to 60 percent, while also lowering costs and cutting their emissions.  And three-quarters of these investments will be made in neighborhoods where people live below the city’s average income level.

Second, we’re working with partners to update and establish as necessary rules and norms, so that technology is developed and used in ways that reflect our democratic values and interests.

That includes for old technologies, like the internet.  We’ve long promoted an open, interoperable, secure, reliable internet – principles that created the conditions for the internet to grow into a dynamic force for learning, for connection, for economic opportunity.

But everyone in this room knows, and colleagues who are joining us online know, that the internet is also growing more closed, more insecure, more siloed by the day.  More countries are putting up firewalls and shutting down access, using the internet to try to control speech, quash dissent, spread misinformation and disinformation.

So we are using all the tools in our kit – from software to hardware, from trade to diplomacy – to defend our longstanding vision and stand against these and other threats.  A year ago, we launched the Declaration for the Future of the Internet.  It reaffirms our commitment to a single, open “network of networks” that respects democratic principles and human rights.  To date, more than 65 partners and counting have joined us in making this pledge – and taking action to make that pledge real.

We also recognize that we have to do better at addressing some of the risks that come with the open internet.  People have important concerns about how platforms collect, exploit, and share our personal data, fan the flames of polarization and extremism, endanger women and girls, children, LGBTQI+ people, and other vulnerable groups.

Tackling these and other issues requires a delicate balance of the principles at the heart of our vision – such as between openness and security, between protecting speech and preventing incitement, between fostering innovation and limiting the power of Big Tech.  And I think it’s more than obvious to say we do not yet have all the answers.  We’re all working on them, thinking about them, struggling with them.  But we have to engage this.

Our people and increasingly our companies are looking to democratic governments to help establish limits for how platforms can collect, use, and share citizens’ personal data.  We have heard that message.

That’s why, in addition to using his authority to address these issues, President Biden has been urging Congress to pass strong bipartisan legislation to protect Americans’ privacy.  The President has also made clear that we need to be able to hold platforms accountable when they fail to address the harms caused by their technology, from the content they spread to the algorithms that they use.

It’s also why we’re stepping up to shape the rules and guidelines around emerging digital tools, like artificial intelligence.

The rollout of AI chatbots in recent months has demonstrated how quickly this technology is evolving, how big of an impact it’s going to have on each of our lives.  In October, we put out a Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights – five principles to try to guide the way we design, use, deploy automated systems in ways that protect our people and defend our democratic values.

These include the principle that people should be protected from unsafe or ineffective AI; that people should know when an automated system is being used and understand how it affects them.

We’ve also developed a risk management framework to give individuals, organizations, and societies practical guidance on how to measure and manage the risks of automated systems, and make AI that’s safe, that’s accountable, that’s fair, that protects privacy.

These principles and guidelines aren’t meant to be the final word in navigating the extraordinary complexities around AI and other emerging tools.  We know the technology is changing too fast for that.  And speaking as someone who’s in government – and again, you all know this, many from experience – government is constantly playing catch-up when it comes to technology.  And at a time when things seem to be evolving more quickly than ever before, that game of catch-up is even more intense than ever before.  But we have to find ways to create guardrails that will continue to strengthen and improve – that we’ll continue to strengthen and improve on together with partners.

Third big piece:  We’re doubling down on investing in democracies’ ability to lead on technological innovation. Our ability to shape the digital landscape depends in significant part on maintaining our competitive edge in innovation.  Democracies’ free flow of ideas and information gives us a built-in advantage, but we can’t take our own dynamism for granted.  We have to continue to find ways to foster it, to catalyze it, to support it, to encourage it.

And that’s the basic idea behind the historic investment that President Biden and Congress have made through the CHIPS and Science Act, through the Inflation Reduction Act, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  It’s the biggest investment America has made in generations in revitalizing key industries, recharging our manufacturing base, leading the global energy transition, and boosting basic research – something we’ve gotten away from in recent decades – while also bolstering the resilience and security of the supply chains that underpin every single one of these efforts.

And we’re not just investing here at home.  We’re laying the foundation for innovation in democracies around the world, because leaps in rights-affirming and privacy-respecting technologies don’t just benefit the countries where they’re invented; they are good for people everywhere.

That’s the idea behind the pledge we made at the recent Africa Leaders Summit right here in this Convention Center to dedicate more than $350 million toward digital transformation in African countries, which will unlock catalytic investments from the private sector on the continent.

We’re urging allies and partners to make these investments too, because our collective competitiveness depends on it.  And democracies are answering the call, such as the G7’s unprecedented commitment to spend tens of billions of dollars on tech infrastructure around the globe in the coming years.

Fourth, we are pushing back vigorously on authoritarian governments’ increasing use of technology to abuse human rights and undermine democracy.

That starts with shoring up our resilience against efforts by autocratic governments to sow distrust in democracy, to weaken our institutions, to reach across borders to target people in our countries.

A key part of that is countering the disinformation and misinformation that authoritarian governments spread to polarize our societies.  We’re doing that not only by exposing lies and manipulations, but by disseminating the truth through individuals, networks, independent media that local communities trust.

We’re taking steps to protect the security of our citizens’ data from authoritarian governments, particularly those with a track record of gathering such information to profile our people, to target those that they see as critics, to steal intellectual property.  Protecting this information is also vital to preventing these governments from exploiting platforms to shape what our citizens see online.

We’re working to thwart the efforts of autocrats to use technology to repress people within as well as beyond their borders.

Together with 35 fellow governments in the Freedom Online Coalition, we led an effort to develop a set of guiding principles to encourage the responsible use of surveillance technology, to prevent its misuse by bad actors, such as targeting people based solely on their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, political views, or any other classification that is protected by international law.

We’re taking immediate steps to translate these principles into practice.  Just this week, President Biden issued an executive order that bans the U.S. Government’s use of commercial spyware that poses a risk to our national security or that has been misused by foreign actors to abuse human rights.

And we’re working to help people living under repressive regimes get access to digital tools, including the uncensored internet.  Last September, when the killing of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s security forces sparked months of massive protests, the regime cracked down viciously – killing hundreds of people, imprisoning tens of thousands more, and routinely shutting down the internet.

In response, we teamed up with companies and civil society groups to help provide the Iranian people with ongoing access to the internet and other vital communications tools so they could continue to communicate with one another and with the outside world and shine a spotlight on the regime’s abuses.

New reforms that we rolled out this week will make it easier for our government to provide similar support for people who are facing digital crackdowns in other countries.

It’s not just Iran where the private sector and civil society are working with democratic governments to push back against digital authoritarianism.  Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, businesses and citizens from the United States and other democracies have been on the front lines helping Ukraine defend its independence, its right to exist, its very democracy.  These volunteers have helped maintain connectivity for Ukrainian Government institutions and citizens, despite the relentless attacks, providing the Ukrainian Government with free access to a secure cloud to store sensitive national databases, helping to counter Moscow’s disinformation campaigns on social media.

Companies and citizens from democracies have come forward because they believe technology should be used to affirm people’s rights, not abuse them; and that it should empower people to define their own path, not allow others to use coercion and violence to choose that path for them.

This brings me to a final point that I want to leave you with, and it’s the reason that ultimately we feel optimistic about democracies’ ability to deliver in a period where technology is once again – as during Thomas Edison’s lifetime – reorganizing the life of the world.

For all of the challenges that these disruptive technologies present, no system of government is better equipped to drive the forces that they represent in improving our people’s lives than democracy.

We excel at innovation.  We’re nimble.

We encourage a multiplicity of voices and perspectives to find solutions.

We let the best ideas rise to the top, rather than assuming that the best ideas come from the top.

We believe our people have a vital role to play in the ongoing process of making our system better, of fixing its flaws.

We embrace vigorous and open debate within and across our democracies.

And while we democracies may not be perfectly aligned – we may not agree on everything, on how to proceed, we don’t try to be.  Our willingness to try out different approaches – openly,  transparently – lets us learn from one another, lets us adapt, lets us improve.

Indeed, on all four of the priorities that I’ve set out today – using technology to improve our people’s lives in tangible ways, establishing rights-respecting rules for emerging technologies, investing in our innovation, and countering authoritarian governments’ use of digital tools to abuse people and weaken democracies – on every single one of those lines of effort, our success ultimately depends on working effectively together.

To pass the test, we have to continue to build and broaden coalitions of allies and partners who share our democratic values, who are committed to putting them at the heart of our shared technological future.  Whether they’re in government or civil society, whether they’re innovators or regulators, academics or activists, or simply citizens – we’re counting on them, we’re counting on you, to be part of this collective effort.

And in fact, that’s exactly what we see in the group gathered at the Summit for Democracy.  And that’s what gives us confidence that our democracies will not only survive a truly unprecedented period of technological transformation, but – but – shape it to the benefit of our people and to people around the world.

Thanks so much for being here.  Thanks so much for taking part in the summit, and I’m now looking forward to a conversation with some colleagues.  Thanks very much, everyone.  (Applause.)  Thank you.

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS