Using social innovation to combat the digital advantage of authoritarian states would decentralize technology and place more power in the hands of people and communities, writes Tarun Katapally. This article is in response to a recent piece written by his colleague Ken Coates.

By Tarun Katapally, December 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a pervasive, yet obvious fissure in the globalized world – the digital innovation gap between democratic and authoritarian states. In the West, we abide by rigorous privacy legislation, ethical restrictions, copyrights, and patents.  Yet countries like Russia and China play by their own rules, with little reverence for civil liberties and, indeed, a lack of concern for privacy.

A fundamental digital divide exists between authoritarian and democratic nations. The former are able to implement comprehensive and widespread digital surveillance systems to monitor and manage population behaviour. Democratic nations cannot do so.

Democratic states must stay true to their core values of individual freedoms, rule of law, and fair play in terms of intellectual property, while also being digitally competitive and relevant. This is a key to financial prosperity in the 21st century because of our service-based and digitally dependent economies.

Rethinking digital innovation is not just a matter of aspiration anymore.  Rather it is an imminent need, especially given our inability to effectively leverage cutting-edge innovation during this pandemic. For instance, the high market penetration of smartphones allows us to engage with a significant proportion of the population. We could, today, use artificial intelligence-powered applications to monitor, mitigate, and manage COVID-19 outbreaks. But, failing to do so, our governments developed and deployed unimaginative tracking applications that failed to facilitate let alone compel public compliance.

There is immense potential to incorporate real-time individual health data into health systems to rapidly respond to emerging outbreaks. Yet we choose to look the other way because we refuse to address the privacy issues posed by such data linkages.

There is an incredible amount of digital misinformation about COVID-19, not unlike climate change. Evidence indicates significant state-sponsored misinformation propagated by authoritarian nations like Russia on popular social media platforms owned by large multinational technology companies. Misinformation has created a dangerous divide among societies – a problem that goes well beyond COVID-19 and even threatens the very stability of liberal democracies.

Digital misinformation campaigns fuel different streams of social media, with new platforms such as Parler catering to right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists. This cacophony of unfettered misinformation demonstrates that digital technology is way ahead of democratic legal, ethical, and policy architecture. This is a political and governance “disadvantage” of democratic nations that authoritarian states do not share.

Competing with authoritarian states by rolling back our civil liberties and minimizing the importance of ethics, intellectual property, privacy and dignity of people is not a real solution.  Democratic states have a responsibility to lead by example. Winning the technological war would be irrelevant if we lose the purpose of ultimate success, which is to preserve our pluralistic values and economic freedom.

The answer may lie in reimagining social innovation by leveraging the power of digital technology and reach in ways that are compatible with democratic ideals. But for this to transpire, it is essential to accept a core fact: global problems such as climate change, pandemics, and right-wing populism require local solutions. Western societies should double down on our civil liberties and turn our “disadvantage” into an “advantage” by empowering societies and communities.

Reimaging social innovation requires doing the opposite of what many authoritarian states do, which is to normalize the violation of human rights in the name of conformity, penalize individuals for exercising freedom of speech, and bypass ethical constraints in order to facilitate material progress. As idealistic as this may sound, big data can be transformative with its reach, power, and monetary benefits.

If the oppression of Uyghur or Rohingya ethnic groups defines the intent of some authoritarian states, enabling big data sovereignty can pave the path for self-determination and governance of historically mistreated Indigenous communities in the west. This means the power to own, commercialize and reap the benefits of big data by developing localized digital platforms. For instance, localized digital platforms can connect citizens in remote Indigenous communities with their decision-makers in real-time to improve access to services and provide rapid response to emerging community crises and opportunities.

If sharply intrusive digital monitoring of Hong Kong citizens penalizes the expression of free speech, democratic states need to adopt digital citizen science, where citizens contribute digital data, collaborate with authorities, and co-conceptualize policies. Citizen science could overturn misinformation by bringing citizens closer to decision-making processes and by providing purpose to the marginalized populations who otherwise find solace in misinformation.

Democratic nations should incentivize citizen science and use current challenges as an opportunity to demonstrate the utility of this approach. For instance, incentivizing citizens, whether through tax breaks or direct payments, to download and contribute to COVID-19 tracking apps can prevent outbreaks and minimize misinformation.

However, we should distinguish ourselves from the type of surreptitious surveillance evident in authoritarian states, which is facilitated by weak ethical guidelines. Instead of ignoring difficult discussions, politicians in democratic nations must confront the digital disadvantage and invest in improving ethical guidelines. Ethical protocols have to keep up with digital innovations to ensure ethical surveillance. This is, after all, the path for big data-based social innovation.

Using social innovation to combat the digital advantage of authoritarian states would decentralize technology and place more power in the hands of people and communities. This approach would, likewise, balance the overarching influence of big technology companies. A major question remains: Are democratic nations ready to democratize technology?  At present, the answer is no. Persisting with the current approach will re-enforce authoritarian innovation and exacerbate the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of western democracies.

Tarun Katapally is an associate professor in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina.


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