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Free Expression, Government Surveillance, Privacy & Data

Moving Forward On Our Shared Democratic Values

It is a time of uncertainty and anxiety around the world. The new President in the United States has moved swiftly, and has already implemented policies that upend what many of us believe are fundamental values and structures of our democracy.

The feeling of disorder is true even for those who celebrated the recent inauguration and those who marched to promote women’s rights or other important issues; I did the latter, proudly marching alongside my daughter on the National Mall. With all this uncertainty, I felt it was important to reflect on the core principles that ground our advocacy work at the Center for Democracy & Technology to help inform our course of action as we face new challenges.

First, we believe technology and innovation are forces for good. For those of us in the tech world, this may seem obvious to some, but for many across the nation and the world, technological disruption has not always improved their lives. Whether this is a result of a lack of access to core technologies necessary to participate in a digital economy or displacement from work because of new business models, we must increase our efforts to leverage technology to eradicate inequality, not exacerbate it. This will require honest conversations about technology’s impact on society, institutions, communities, and individuals.  And it will include work that we are already doing, including research and analysis on the algorithms that drive the decisions made about us each day, whether this is our creditworthiness, work performance assessment, or even the news we receive. By embedding fairness, ethics, and equality into these digital decisions, we can get far closer to a world where technology meets its democratizing potential.

For many across the nation and the world, technological disruption has not always improved their lives.

Second, we believe an essential part of human dignity is the right to a private life. The traditional notions of privacy have certainly been blurred by technology, as most of us walk around each day with a personal computer and beacon in our pockets. We have connected our homes, our cars, and our bodies. But embracing technology cannot mean that we have ceded our right to privacy to companies or institutions. With an Administration that appears unlikely to embrace broader privacy policies and regulations, it is imperative that not only individuals act to protect their own privacy, but also that companies – through policy choices and technology development – do more to protect the privacy of their customers.

Third, we believe freedom of expression is an underpinning of a vibrant and open democracy.  A strong fourth estate and civil society are important checks on government power, as are individual voices. Citizens must have not only access to accurate information – from inside and outside the government – they must also have an unfettered right to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. The internet has certainly enabled more people to share their voice, but it has also given a platform to bullies and created silos of information. To move forward, we must work together to improve online communities so all of us have a place. We recognize the role of the internet in shaping our shared truths. And we must fight back any attempts by the government to use technology to silence individual voices.

We must fight back any attempts by the government to use technology to silence individual voices.

Finally, we believe ubiquitous government surveillance is harmful to individual autonomy and human advancement. Simply because the government can collect and monitor information about us does not mean it should. We have made some progress in defining clear boundaries on mass government surveillance in the U.S., but the lure of surveillance technologies too often appears to be the easy fix to life-threatening issues of national security; an easy answer to difficult questions. For creativity, individual thought, and, yes, resistance to take place, there must be truly private spaces, even in the digital world.  We cannot allow governments to create a world where they are always listening and watching. Yes, there are legitimate national security concerns that warrant targeted surveillance, but these must not be abused in ways that profoundly – and permanently – erode our civil liberties.

While some might disagree with how we should go about protecting and advancing the above principles, I believe most Americans agree that these principles are essential to a free and open democracy in the United States, just as they are essential to a free and open internet around the world. CDT will stand up for these core principles each day and every day, and as we face uncertain times, we will remain grounded in these values. We look forward to engaging new partners, helping bridge divides, and advancing and protecting human rights and individual dignity, both online and off.