No borders in cyberspace
G7 Summit

No borders in cyberspace

The digital realm presents a daunting array of threats to democracy. Starting with the G7, countries must take measures to address false information, market dominance and poor transparency in the online world, writes Fen Osler Hampson, chancellor’s professor, Carleton University

All democracies are now wrestling with the issue of foreign manipulation of internet-based platforms to distort the political conversation during elections and deceive voters through false information. This includes hacking and leaking, bot farms and trolls that are aided by the online equivalent of what Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called “useful idiots”, and ‘deep fake’ videos that are intended to confuse and deceive. Clearly, no single country or political jurisdiction can deal with these cyber challenges on its own because there are no real borders – or at least controllable ones – in cyberspace.

As the club of the world’s leading democracies, the G7 plays an important role in promoting greater cooperation to address a wide range of threats to democracy in the digital sphere.

Canada promoted the development of a rapid response mechanism at the 2018 Charlevoix Summit, and continued as chair of that initiative to ensure follow-through in coordination, information-sharing and collaborative development of best responses. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal more that must be done to defend democratic institutions and make citizens aware of the risks of manipulation, distortion and misinformation through social media and other online platforms. More must be done, too, to ensure greater levels of cooperation as national regulators struggle to address these and other challenges in the cyber realm.

However, unless countries – starting with the G7 – address the issue of the overwhelming market concentration and dominance of a small number of online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and, in the entertainment world, Netflix, they will be whistling past the proverbial graveyard in their efforts to develop new rules on privacy, hate speech, free speech and other online challenges. These tech giants enjoy oligopolistic, if not monopolistic, control in cyberspace. Furthermore, the algorithms that manage and curate online content on these platforms generally tend to be written by young, white males who have limited world experience and lack the kind of educational background that would expose them to different cultural viewpoints and processes of moral reasoning.

Closely kept secrets

The lack of transparency in the way big data is harvested and curated by major internet platforms also means that the general public and regulators have little knowledge of corporate business models and how data is manipulated and marketed. Algorithms are closely kept trade secrets, much like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

Some knowledgeable observers now question whether democracy can actually survive in a world of big data and artificial intelligence, where monopolies rule the internet and the online world. As Dirk Helbing and his colleagues in the prestigious journal Scientific American explained, “Today, algorithms know pretty well what we do, what we think and how we feel – possibly even better than our friends and family or even ourselves. … The more is known about us, the less likely our choices are to be free and not predetermined by others. But it won’t stop there. Some software platforms are moving towards ‘persuasive computing’. In the future, using sophisticated manipulation technologies, these platforms will be able to steer us through entire courses of action, be it for the execution of complex work processes or to generate free content for internet platforms, from which corporations earn billions. The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.”

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a big face gazed down from a wall with a caption that said “Big Brother Is Watching You”. In today’s world, Orwell’s Big Brother seems archaic and clumsy. Private firms have far more sophisticated tools at their disposal. Scientific American calls this the politics of “big nudging”, where on a massive scale, citizens are steered towards preferred kinds of behaviour.

Is there a role for the G7 in addressing these online challenges to democracy? You bet there is.