The distributed denial of democracy: Threats to democratic processes online

21 Dec 2017 10:45h - 11:45h

Event report

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This session opened with remarks by Mr Daniel O’Maley, Digital Policy Specialist at the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), who introduced the session and its co-organisers: CIMA, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). He also provided an overview of the session, and introduced the speakers. In his opening remarks, O’Maley explained that the session aimed to address threats to democracy caused by the weaponisation of information and manipulation of access on the Internet. He also stressed why it is important to have the discussion at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in order to address multistakeholder collaboration and solutions to “The distributed denial of democracy,” which is “the online use of multiple actors or channels to deny citizens access to or interrupt the flow of legitimate political discourse, thereby undermining democratic culture and practice.”

Ms Hanane Boujemi, a senior technology policy expert and Co-chair of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition (IRPC), spoke about the IRPC’s work using “soft norms” and a common framework to address digital rights abuses, such as Internet shutdowns, rather than just relying on policy and regulation. She also stressed the importance of incorporating the media sector as well as media development organisations in Internet governance conversations.

Ms Martha Roldos, an Ecuadorian journalist and activist, provided an overview of her experience in Ecuador, specifically the situation of journalists and publishers vis-à-vis addressing censorship and government actions to curb free expression. She also spoke about disinformation campaigns and attempts to delegitimise activists, and how activists, end users, and journalists fight back.

Mr Chris Doten, Chief Innovation Officer at NDI, spoke about existing and historical instances of misinformation, propaganda, and fake news. He also addressed “manufactured consensus,” which underscores the influence of the media on actualising public opinion through repetition and exposure on media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. He said moving to more private, person-to-person messaging platforms may be able to fight what is being pushed or propagated on mass media platforms.

Ms Jehan Ara, the President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for Information Technology & Information Technology Infrastructure Services (P@SHA), stressed that the information technology (IT) sector in Pakistan used to be very insular. Now, however, they use the multistakeholder model to network with actors across multiple stakeholder groups in the country including the government. She also addressed various government laws and decisions to interrupt Internet communications, such as Internet shutdowns, and how her organisation and other groups in Pakistan are working to prevent such interruptions. Ara emphasised that intermediaries/platforms sometimes enable the government, but now the private sector is “waking up” to the dangers of blocking access and the success of a unified voice.

Ms Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), spoke about the negative affects of Internet shutdowns on communities in India, specifically in Jammu and Kashmir. She also expressed the importance of working with the government and other authorities, such as law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and the police, to assist them with their work without infringing human rights. Choudhary added, “Mass surveillance has become the political economy of the Net,” highlighting how user data is being used to exploit groups such as women and other vulnerable groups, as well as to discourage users from engaging online.

Mr Matt Chessen, a diplomat and technologist, provided information about how bots, fake social media accounts, and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) propagate on media platforms and impact public opinion. He underscored how his organisation believes that “people have the same rights online as they do offline,” and that tbots and AI are not inherently bad, but can be misused. Chessen provided various examples of how AI is being used or could be used, and mapped what the potential impacts may be on platforms and users in the future.

By Michael J. Oghia