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President Biden remarked after the Cyber Summit he hosted last summer in the White House that most critical infrastructure is now in the hands of private companies. He is right, and as if that was not enough of a dramatic conclusion, what’s more is that almost all digitised processes and products today are also made and operated by private companies. Whether we look at infrastructure or national (cyber)security tools, identity verification or digital currencies, data governance or intelligence gathering, core functions that until recently were the exclusive domain of governments no longer are.
Tech companies know more about citizens and their preferences than governments do. Without reclaiming their roles, democracies risk losing the capacity to govern effectively—both online and offline.
The narrative from Silicon Valley is that through digitisation and with the help of corporate services, more efficiency and innovation are delivered. Cities become smart, intelligence is programmable, and processes become less bureaucratic. And who does not want that? Yet as technologies are adopted and decision-making processes outsourced, vital principles are lost in the process. Through digitisation, democratic governments lose access to information, agency to govern and the ability to hold liable or accountable critical actors in geopolitics. Tech companies know more about citizens and their preferences than governments do. Without reclaiming their roles, democracies risk losing the capacity to govern effectively—both online and offline.
Access to information
With every algorithm designed, datacentre built or surveillance tool deployed, companies gain valuable insights while the public remains in the dark. After all, most digital and technological systems are protected by trade secrets and other intellectual property protections. Few people are skilled to understand specific technologies and on top of that the opaque decisions made by and through them. Access to information is critical in and of itself, but also empowers individuals to exercise their agency to make decisions. Without transparency, accountability is impossible.
Without the right prerequisites and knowledge, a public debate, journalistic investigation or parliamentary inquiries are difficult and incomplete. The screening of tax databases, national security capabilities or rights protections are increasingly harder to conduct in the digital realm. While companies learn from the bulk data they collect and process, meaningful details or insights do not inform the public. As a result, the ability to translate the outcomes of a public debate into a public policy process are obstructed. Meanwhile de facto norms are often set by companies through technological standards and business models. As we speak, social media giants decide whether politicians have access to online audiences, software sellers choose whether to invest in better security or in marketing, and shady brokers mint digital currencies that evade monetary policies. The uptake of artificial intelligence risks exponentially accelerating these disruptions further. Agency is a precondition for democratic participation, so it is vital that citizens and states regain it vis-à-vis the technologies that now govern so many parts of our lives.
The consequence of the lack of public awareness and dearth of public policies is a growing accountability gap. Too often, there are no consequences for perpetrators of harmful behaviour involving technologies: hacking, holding of data for ransom, acting anticompetitively or violating anti-discrimination legislation happens too often, and with impunity.
So while it may be tempting to look to private companies to double down on investing in cybersecurity—or to offer solutions for the very problems that are created elsewhere in the market—the net result is a further erosion of knowledge, agency and democratic accountability.
Like banks in the previous decade, tech companies have become “too big to scrutinise”, even benefitting from the pandemic to grow their already outsized power. Leaders and public authorities in democratic societies need to wake up and change this course before it is too late.
To learn more about how policy makers can develop appropriate policies to help shape a positive digital future, check out also the OECD's work on Digitalisation and the Going Digital Project
Also on the Forum Network: Artificial Intelligence and Health Care in Light of COVID-19: Ensuring a human-rights perspective by Selin Sayek Böke, Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey