Digital technologies and democracy: challenges ahead

Interview with Professor Barbara Prainsack

We cannot imagine a world without digital innovation and technology anymore. But what is its impact on our democracy, the corner stone of our civilisation? What challenges are we facing? The independent advisory body European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) recently published an Opinion on this topic.

We spoke with EGE Chair Prof. Barbara Prainsack. On 15 November 2023, she will deliver an online speech at a roundtable on AI and human values in the European Parliament.

The EGE group, which you chair, has handed its Opinion, “Democracy in the digital age”, over to the European Commission’s Vice-President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica. How was this document written, what sources did you use?

Barbara Prainsack profile © Johanna Schwaiger Barbara Prainsack: We are a multidisciplinary group of 15 members with backgrounds in natural and social sciences, humanities, philosophy, ethics, and law. New topics for the EGE are identified and defined in collaboration with the European Commission (EC). The President or a Member of the College can also formulate requests for advice.

The EGE then works on the issue over a series of months. We review available knowledge, hear experts (also in the context of our open Public Roundtable and of the International Dialogues on Bioethics and Ethics in Science and Technologies), receive input from EC services and liaise with sister committees in other international organisations.

Based on this, the EGE develops its Opinion and recommendations, and hands over the final report to the President or the respective Commissioner(s). It is then transmitted to the European Parliament and Council and further disseminated to relevant stakeholders.

What are, in short, the major challenges you have witnessed when it comes to digital technologies?

Barbara Prainsack: Digital technologies are often blamed for all sorts of societal ills, from increasing polarisation to social isolation to the rise of autocracies. We argue in the Opinion that it would be a mistake to blame digital transformations alone for these problems. Digital practices do make these problems more visible, and they can also exacerbate them.

Basically, digital platforms make it easier for nefarious actors to reach people. Part of the problem is that a large part of our public debates has moved to digital spaces and platforms. The public spaces of the past were by no means perfect – but at least they were not dominated by the quest to maximise commercial gains.

The digital platforms that shape public debates today, in contrast, are driven by the quest for commercial profit. Shocking images, the fuelling of hatred, and the spreading of outrageous claims all serve that purpose.

The reason for this is that we, the people – or the demos from the word democracy – have left these public spaces to commercial companies. The more public life and public service provision relies on privately owned technological solutions by companies that are not accountable to the public, the more we are giving up democratic control.

In the Opinion we argue that the loss of democratic control over so many processes and decisions that affect people’s lives is one of the most important problems that we need to solve. We are losing this space to private actors who are not accountable to European publics.

Another problem is that our changing societies require a new approach to protect the rights, needs, and interests of people. These rights and interests – which are an inseparable part of our democracies – are still the same, but the way they need to be protected in a rapidly changing world has evolved.

The EU already has been legislating a lot in the field in order to protect its citizens, such as the Digital Services Act (Regulation (EU) 2022/2065, DSA) and Digital Markets Act (Regulation (EU) 2022/1925). And the AI Act is also on its way. Is this enough? What more do you think the European Union can still do to tackle these issues?

Barbara Prainsack: The European Commission, as we note in our Opinion, has taken very important steps in the right direction. It is not an exaggeration to say that the European Union is a world leader in regulating digital technologies in an ethical and responsible manner. European institutions have often received criticism for taking a firm stance – and still they have stayed the course.

When President von der Leyen requested this Opinion from the EGE, she highlighted three areas of particular importance: the role of online platforms, the creation of better civic spaces and citizen participation, and measures to curb misinformation while protecting fundamental rights.

Regarding all three issues, and being mindful of the European Democracy Action Plan and the Democracy Defence Package, our Opinion tries to identify ways for Europe to go beyond what has already been done to protect and strengthen democracies. We start by emphasising the importance of a deep understanding of democracy in this context.

Let me explain what we mean by this. As the historian and political scientist David Runciman put it, in the 21st century, the greatest risk is that we still keep trusting democracies when they no longer function. It is dangerous to limit our understanding of democracy to the rule of the majority, or even only to free elections.

If we do this, we may end up with what some scholars call “phantom democracies” that still have all the formal elements of democracies in place, but they have lost the soul and spirit.

To protect democracies in the digital age, we need to treat democracy not just as a political regime but also to include the fundamental rights and values, which underpin it, and that democracy sets out to protect. Justice, equality, and freedom are such rights and values – and of course privacy.

The importance of privacy has all but disappeared in the digital era. But in the last decades, we have collectively subscribed to a very narrow understanding of privacy. This unduly narrow definition of privacy has done, at times, more harm than good.

Privacy is valuable not just because personal data in the wrong hands can be used in ways that negatively impact a person’s life chances. Instead, privacy is, as the legal scholar Julie Cohen put it, the “breathing room we need to engage in the process of self-development”. It is a buffer that gives us the space to develop an identity, as people and as communities. A space that is separate from the constant gaze and the judgement of others.

Protecting privacy in this wider sense requires that citizens – both individually and collectively – have a say in how data is used, for whose benefit and at whose cost. We urgently need regulatory frameworks that treat those digital practices that create public value differently from those that do not.

Another important point is that we need public spaces that are characterised by respectful and pluralistic exchange, rather than by polarisation and the quest for commercial profit.

To reach this goal, strengthening digital literacy and closing the digital divide are important, as is support for independent journalism and the strengthening of civil society organisations. The political theorist John Keane calls these important institutions “monitory democracy”.

But this is not enough: We need public investment into digital technologies and infrastructures that are owned by the people and governed by the people. Technologies and infrastructures that are subject to democratic control. We in the EGE are conscious of the efforts of the European Commission and other institutions in this regard, and we express our support – and make recommendations as to where and how to go further.

However, digital technology also has benefits, for example it can also help democracy you say, how?

Barbara Prainsack: Digital practices have enormous benefits. The problem is that these benefits – and the risks – are not distributed equitably, and that there is little democratic control over how they are distributed.

Digital technologies are strongly controlled by Big Tech corporations. Their expansionism from their original sphere of activity to new sectors threatens public control and citizens’ sovereignty and deepens dependencies on private technology corporations for the provision of basic public goods.

As noted, democratic governments are losing their grip on basic public functions. The provision of public goods – such as healthcare, education, or housing – must be protected from market rationales. They need to be available to all, independent of their ability to pay.

Strengthening democracies in the digital era requires understanding fairness not just as fair competition within our markets but as fairness in and across all domains, and ensuring that people’s basic needs do not need to be met on market terms. This is an important way to insulate people – in Europe and further afield – from harms emerging from digital practices such as consumer scoring or microtargeting, and to help repair and maintain public trust in democracies.

What will happen now with this document?

Barbara Prainsack: We delivered the Opinion to Vice President Šuica on 20 June. It was widely disseminated and particularly well received, both within the European Commission and beyond. The Vice-President, together with the President, have been extremely supportive in bringing the Opinion to the places where it can add value and make a difference.

What are the plans for the EGE in the future? Is it here to stay?

Barbara Prainsack: The EGE has grown and developed remarkably since it was established by President Jacques Delors 33 years ago. It has gone through eight incarnations since then. President von der Leyen appointed the current group in 2022. As regards the more distant future of the EGE, it will be for the future Commissions to determine how best to shape it. One thing is sure: amidst the multiple crises of the present, the need for a European Group on Ethics is more acute now than ever.

More information on the Opinion and the EGE in the press release of the European Commission.

On 15 November 2023, Barbara Prainsack will deliver an online speech at a roundtable on AI and human values in the European Parliament. The roundtable is organised by the EPRS and Article17TFEU Secretariat – Dialogue with religious and non-confessional organisations. Webstreaming will be available, as will be a recording under the same link after the event.

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