The following is adapted from remarks delivered by Kent Walker, President of Global Affairs, at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit on June 10, 2022.
On February 24, the world watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine. While the tension had been building for weeks, that didn’t make the invasion any less shocking.
Tanks once again rumbled through European streets, and the world held its breath. People wondered whether this marked a return to the law of the jungle — a return to machtpolitik over cooperation in solving shared problems.
And we were reminded once again that democratic progress is not inevitable; that democracy and the rules-based international order are by no means guaranteed.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, there had been worrying signs that democracy was under assault.
Freedom House found that the defining features of democracy — free expression and open debate, free association, and the rule of law — have retreated in nearly fifty countries.
I’d like to speak today about the debt technology owes democracy, and how technology can work with democracy to repay that debt.
But first, let’s talk about why that partnership is so critically important.
Democracy has always been fertile soil for innovation and basic research.
Inventors flourish when they can exchange ideas, take risks, test hypotheses, and explore new avenues for inquiry and collective innovation.
Democratic values of openness and pluralism allow cooperation and scientific inquiry to flourish.
It would be hard to argue that the advances made possible by democratic innovation — advances that have doubled life expectancies and lifted billions of people out of poverty — would have been possible under any other system of government.
But technology can also benefit democracy itself, by proving that democracies can deliver for citizens, expanding choice and raising living standards.
Future generations of technology will help us combat climate change, pioneer personalized medicine, and improve agricultural productivity.
But even beyond improving living standards — delivering on the substantive promises of democracy — technology and innovation can also be a force for democratic procedural legitimacy: Supporting democratic institutions, increasing transparency and accountability in governance, and protecting and promoting human rights.
When developed and used responsibly, technology can foster the essential exchange of ideas and broaden civic engagement in the democratic process.
After all, democracies need at least three elements to flourish:
- A robust public square, where people can express ideas openly;
- An active and vibrant press; and
- Free and fair elections that create accountability, letting citizens check and balance power.
While there is no question that the misuse and abuse of technology has created challenges in each of these areas — from within and without — conversations over the last few months, with defense leaders in Munich, business leaders in Davos, and security experts in Eastern Europe, have made it clear that we need the responsible use of technology to support these essential elements.
So, first, how can technology defend the public square, safeguarding speech and debate?
Tech can promote and protect the marketplace of ideas by playing both offense and defense: Facilitating free and open discourse while combating disinformation.
The early days of Silicon Valley fostered a faith that more communication would be better for the world. And in many ways it has been, connecting people in remarkable new ways.
That said, we have come to recognize abuses of our platforms, harmful efforts to spread malicious or patently false information. We have responded by removing content that violates our policies; raising authoritative voices at critical times; rewarding trusted creators; and reducing borderline content.
That requires tough calls — millions of them every day. And we’re working on ways to provide more transparency into this critical process.
The latest and most dramatic chapter in the battle against disinformation came with the invasion of Ukraine where we all are witnessing not just a military and economic war, but also a cyber war and an information war.
An extraordinary situation called for an extraordinary response.
YouTube took the unprecedented step of globally blocking disinformation channels like RT and Sputnik, removing more than 8,000 channels and more than 70,000 videos for violating our content policies – content that minimized the war’s toll or spread harmful lies about what was happening on the ground. Meanwhile Google Search, Google News, and YouTube are some of the last independent sources of news about the war that remain available in Russia.
On the cybersecurity front, when we saw a spike of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Ukrainian websites, we protected access to information and kept sites online by bringing publishers and government websites under Google's security umbrella, Project Shield.
As a result of these efforts, we were proud to be the first company to receive the Ukrainian government’s special "peace prize,” showing how important tech’s role can be when the stakes are high.
Which brings me to the second cornerstone of a functioning democracy: A free and vibrant press – and how technology can help it adapt to a digital world.
Google was founded with the mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. Over the years our ad networks have provided billions of dollars to news publishers, and we have sponsored programs like the Google News Initiative, partnering with publishers to create innovative tools and approaches to reporting.
Of course, technology has had a significant impact on newspaper business models, unbundling different categories and making news more competitive and more freely available.
But technology will also be the key to the evolution of news business models for a digital era. As Herbert Simon said fifty years ago, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
That means a growing role for editors and publishers, curators and analysts, who can help us all allocate our limited attention wisely.
It means there’s a growing need for us to support content creators and a thriving global press.
Third, technology has a vital role to play when it comes to the integrity of our elections.
At Google, we've long created tools and resources to make it easier for people to vote. Our services connect voters with up-to-date, authoritative information about polling locations, remote voting, and election times.
During election cycles, campaigns face increased security threats.
Our teams equip campaigns and election workers with best-in-class security tools. We collaborate with partners in Europe to give political campaigns access to free Titan Security Keys — the strongest form of two-factor authentication.
That’s part of our Advanced Protection Program, which protects high-risk individuals – election officials, campaigns, journalists, and human rights activists – with access to high-visibility and sensitive information.
Finally, our Threat Analysis Group works to thwart cyber attacks, monitoring and exposing espionage, hacks, and phishing campaigns and taking steps to disrupt the threats. In recent months, we stopped coordinated attacks by government-backed actors from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. And we stopped attempts by various unattributed groups to sow disinformation.
Our role is clear — we help protect people and prevent future attacks by identifying bad actors and sharing relevant information.
These are all examples of ways tech is helping today — across the public square, the free press, and elections themselves. But defending democracy and the rules-based international order is a task that requires tech, civil society, and governments to work together.
An Edelman survey found that people often think of governments and NGOs as well intentioned but ineffective; and often think of companies as effective but maybe not always well intentioned. But when the two worked together, they went to the upper right-hand quadrant — both well intentioned and effective.
It’s why we support The Copenhagen Pledge on Tech for Democracy and similar multilateral commitments by governments, organizations, industry, and civil society to make technology work for democracy and human rights.
Democracy is at a watershed moment. There’s a risk that democracies turn inward, focusing strictly on domestic challenges rather than defending the liberal democratic international order.
Tech, too, is at a crossroads — with a risk that concerns about abuses of technology obscure its many benefits.
In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, wrote "A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” arguing that the internet was beyond any government’s laws.
Well, perhaps it's now time for a “Declaration of Interdependence of Cyberspace.”
Our growing technological connections have become so important to our daily lives that technologists need to work ever more closely with governments on new and agile rules to promote progress, national security, and the defense of the public square.
International frameworks — from the UN to the WTO to the OECD — can be useful starting places as we work to promote international alignment. And only governments can drive this crucial work.
We need governments committed to open, democratic processes to step up and work together to reaffirm international norms of access to information and the free and open exchange of ideas.
At Google, we’re eager to roll up our sleeves and help.
We leave the politics to the politicians, but that doesn’t mean we leave it to others to defend the public square. Nor does it mean we dismiss the experience and ideas of government leaders in the cause of protecting democracy.
We hear the summons to defend democracy’s essential components – the open exchange of views, an independent press, and free and fair elections.
In moments of uncertainty and crisis, responsible tech companies feel a duty to do what our engineers do best: Unlock solutions to the most pressing problems.
We undertake that task with appreciation that those solutions will be – must be – the product of collaboration, building on the kind of collective innovation that has always made democracies stronger than their adversaries.