[OPINION] What governments must do beyond Declaration on Democracy

Yochai Benkler
Nations must develop a strong policy agenda to turn the principles of the Declaration on Information and Democracy into a reality

The internet brought freedom of expression to millions, allowing democracy activists around the world to call attention to their causes and break through censorship and apathy. 

But in the last few years the internet has come under attack from faithless state actors, unscrupulous clickback fabricators, and ruthless politicians spreading disinformation and propaganda. We must now win back that space of freedom through sustained action and cooperation among the nations who commit to these principles, undertaken through a concrete plan of action aimed to assure accountability, transparency, and responsibility.

The technical means of today’s global information space are in large part provisioned and controlled by a handful of large global firms, each with substantial market power and only weakly constrained by market dynamics.

Accountability in this space means genuine, democratic accountability.

Transparency

The process of accountability must be designed and implemented in a genuinely participatory process, bringing together states, civil society, experts and firms. And the more powerful and influential the platforms are, the greater the need for accountability and the greater their capacity to absorb its requirements.

Accountability is predicated on transparency.

Without knowing who is doing what and to what effect, accountability is an empty word. While transparency requires due care for the privacy rights of individuals, it is necessary for cooperating nations, working with firms, social stakeholders, and independent experts to develop standards and obligations for platforms to provide information sufficient to provide accountability.  

Responsibility

Moreover, for accountability to be meaningful, there must be a principle of responsibility, what some might call a duty of care or a fiduciary duty, as may be appropriate from case to case, but always consistent with international standards on the protection of free speech.    

To achieve these goals in a fast-moving, technologically-complex, and global context, the Declaration calls for “continuous expert participation that adequately balances global representation with rigorous evidence-based assessment of practices and conditions of knowledge production.” (READ: Democratic leaders give historic commitment based on Declaration on Information and Democracy)

From governments, this will require both funding and a willingness to require firms to provide the data necessary for exercising accountability.

In sum, to sustain the global commons in information and knowledge as a common good for humankind, it is imperative that cooperating nations develop a strong policy agenda to turn the principles of the Declaration into a reality. 

We need institutions robust enough to assure democratic accountability, nimble enough to learn and re-learn how to do so over time, and respectful enough of human rights to expression and privacy to assure that their role in stewardship of this global common good supports, rather than hinders, the values expressed in the Declaration. – Rappler.com

 

(Editor’s note: These comments were made at the Paris Peace Forum on November 11, 2018, by the author, Yochai Benkler. He is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.)