At Summit for Democracy, US targets tech tools used by repressive governments

·6 min read

The United States wrapped up its second Summit for Democracy on Thursday by hosting a session on "advancing democracy through technology" - a key theme at an event broadly aimed at countering authoritarianism and promoting human rights.

The two-day summit yielded about a dozen new or expanded commitments from Washington that were focused on fighting the digital tactics that autocratic governments use as tools of repression at home and abroad.

"We are pushing back vigorously on authoritarian governments' increasing use of technology to abuse human rights and undermine democracy," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

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Blinken spoke at a five-hour hybrid session on combating the misuse of technologies and shaping emerging tech - one of five regional events held by each of the summit hosts - which saw the participation of civil society, the US Congress and private sector leaders like the CEOs of YouTube and artificial intelligence start-up Anthropic.

YouTube CEO Neal Mohan takes part in a session on "Countering the Misuse of Technology and the Rise of Digital Authoritarianism" on Thursday. Photo: AFP alt=YouTube CEO Neal Mohan takes part in a session on "Countering the Misuse of Technology and the Rise of Digital Authoritarianism" on Thursday. Photo: AFP>

The summit was part of a commitment US President Joe Biden made during the 2020 campaign to champion democracy at home and around the world. It also was part of his administration's efforts to change the environment in which countries like China operate instead of confronting them directly.

Though the US insisted that the 115 invitations to the event were not meant "to define which countries are and aren't democracies," Beijing has condemned the exercise as a Cold War tactic that undermines global security by sowing division between categorised countries.

To support Biden's view that the summits contribute to "turning the tide" towards greater freedom and democracy, the administration on Wednesday pledged an additional US$690 million for the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which was first announced at the previous summit in December 2021.

The initiative has five pillars: bolstering independent media, combating corruption, advancing technology for democracy, supporting democratic reformers and defending free and fair elections.

Biden signed an executive order on Monday that prohibits the federal use of commercial spyware that authoritarian governments have used for surveillance. At the summit on Thursday, the US joined 10 other countries in endorsing an effort to deepen cooperation on countering the misuse of such technology, and a group of 44 in drafting new guiding principles for government use of surveillance technology.

The US also announced it would join Britain in co-hosting a strategic dialogue with eight other countries to coordinate on strengthening the cybersecurity of civil society against transnational repression - defined as the targeting of diaspora by authoritarian states. It also said it would bolster domestic efforts to protect high-risk communities through the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

On Wednesday, Biden and President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea said the next summit, the date of which was not announced, would be hosted by Seoul to "reflect this effort's global leadership".

Unlike 2021, this year's event saw South Korea, Zambia, Costa Rica and the Netherlands joining the US in hosting. It also expanded the participants, including the number of government invitees. One hundred fifteen governments, excluding the five hosts, received invitations. Eight of those, mostly from Africa, were not invited to the inaugural summit.

US President Joe Biden speaks alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Summit for Democracy virtual session on Wednesday. Photo: AP alt=US President Joe Biden speaks alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Summit for Democracy virtual session on Wednesday. Photo: AP>

But not all countries confirmed their attendance, with Pakistan once again declining to take part. About 70 countries made verbal statements during the leaders-level plenary discussion on Wednesday, and 73 of 120 invited governments endorsed a joint summit declaration, many with reservations.

Nato allies Turkey and Hungary did not receive invitations.

In response to criticism that the summit included countries like India and Israel that have seen signs of democratic backsliding, the administration said the invitations were made on the basis of political will and not democratic performance.

"If you agree with another democracy on every single issue, then why do you need a summit?" National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday.

Just days before the forum began, a local court in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state sentenced the country's best-known opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to the maximum of two years in prison for criminal defamation.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sparked nationwide protests for trying to push through changes that would allow a simple parliamentary majority to override the country's Supreme Court.

Some critics said that summit's effectiveness was hampered by not confronting authoritarian states directly.

The various programmes can only go so far, said Jon Temin, a member of the State Department's policy planning staff from 2014-2017 and now a vice-president at the Truman National Security Project in Washington.

"They can bolster democratic activists and strengthen civil society organizations, but they can't impose costs on autocrats for malign behaviour," Temin wrote this week in Foreign Affairs.

Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, said the future of the summit was likely to mirror former US president Barack Obama's Nuclear Security Summit, which convened four times during his eight years in office.

That forum yielded the Nuclear Security Contact Group, which was meant to meet on a regular basis to implement commitments made during the security summit process. However, the group's website appears not to have been updated for years and lists a conference scheduled for February 2020 as an upcoming event. Its Facebook page has no posts since 2018.

Obama's initiative "showed the great convening power of the United States", Gupta said, "but really not much came out of it, and I would suggest the same is going to be the case with the democracy summit".

Even if the Summit for Democracy fails to reconvene for many years, Gupta said, the commitments reached in this year's edition on technology - such as banning the use of commercial spyware or protecting civil society groups from online attacks - will redouble efforts on these fronts.

This year's edition will also strengthen similar tech initiatives driven by the US-EU Trade and Technology Council and discussed on the G20 sidelines, he said.

Gupta added that the democracy forum was "a very useful platform from which to champion" agreements on technology usage, "regardless of whether or not this summit kind of peters out at the end of the Biden administration."

And its legacy might extend beyond the countries headlining the event. Annika Silva-Leander, head of North America at the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said it was "meaningful" to see the greater inclusion of civil society voices, including from authoritarian contexts, at this second summit.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.