Reflections on the Summit for Democracy

Been thinking about the Summit for Democracy II, or S4D2 if you want the astromechesque abbreviation, from end of March, and what it all might amount to after event is well in the rear view mirror.

Any sort of initiative like this is a heck of a lot of effort, and of course there’s always lots of haters who poo-poo the efforts or the results. I’m really glad the Biden administration made the investment. As I think about the Summit for Democracy in retrospect, I believe that both the at the largest global strategic level and with the smallest individual level the impacts are often much greater than the specific deliverables you can point to from these big circuses. It certainly ain’t just about the knowledge conveyed from the panels, though those were quite good - my favorite was John Scott Railton from Citizen Lab bringing some spicy civil society takes to his panel discussion with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and DHS Secretary Mayorkas.

For a long time, everyone working in the democracy space has been in a defensive crouch. The years highlighted by the election of Donald Trump were a relentless series of body blows from antidemocratic populists sweeping to power with a clear hunger for undermining any systems of checks and balances standing in their way. For those of us who’ve been working on technology for a long time, the horrible truth was that that the internet and communications tools we loved so much and which had created so much hope for building a better world were relentlessly weaponized by angry virtual mobs which served as the vanguard of these authoritarians. With the Summits for Democracy1, the Biden administration put a big marker down on the future of democracy – we have not given up, open societies have energy and enthusiasm, and will come back stronger than ever. We desperately need a shot in the arm to bring back some confidence and bring together those who care about these issues, and I think it was a needed rejection of the Trump administration’s authoritarianism. Then there’s the micro flip side: the small-scale connection points that a huge series of events and activities like this facilitates. Personally, I hadn’t seen as many humans in three dimensions since the start of the pandemic as I did in the Summit week, and it was inspiring then and now. I’ve reconnected with dozens of people and met more new ones which catalyzes new ideas in a way that a zoom call never will. Multiply that by a few thousand links and crazy ideas, and these gatherings can really make a difference.

Here in DC, the focus of the week’s event was Technology and Democracy – for me, the use of the D-word was a huge success on its own. I’ve been working on this topic for a long time, but those words haven’t often been combined. People have been (correctly) screaming about the horrible impacts of technology for a long time2, but the frame has usually been human rights - super important, but sometimes I think a bit myopic. Much of the work has been purely reactive or defensive - how to keep people safe online, how to route around censorship, how to stop hate speech online. All of that is critical, but one needs to think about the affirmative frame too. As I tend to say, cat and mouse games are fine but statistically will end badly for the mouse, not the cat. Building stronger, more resilient democracies is more than VPNs3 and defending against hackers4. Technology can change the game in support of open societies if we have the imagination to fight for it, bringing better legal frameworks, new international collaborations, safer digital spaces, and tools and infrastructure that are built from the ground up to support people, not despots or advertisers5.

I believe the Summits were a step in the right direction.

  1. I assume it’s pluralized like Attorneys General or Gins and Tonic 

  2. After we got past the equally flawed “the internet is magic fairy dust that will cause democracy to spring up like mushrooms!” rhetoric6 

  3. But you should use one. I personally like (this one)[]. 

  4. But you should do that too. Here’s some good guidance for organizations 

  5. I find mastodon very inspiring for this. If you’re not on there, try it out! If you too work on/care about democracy and technology issues, you’ve got a welcome home on my server

  6. Also i hate mushrooms.