How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
In late March, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte rammed a bill through his country’s parliament that granted him vastly expanded emergency powers, ostensibly to fight the novel coronavirus. The bill authorized Duterte to reallocate the national budget as he saw fit and to personally direct hospitals. “Do not challenge the government,” he bellowed in a menacing televised address. “You will lose.” Six days later, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed even more expansive emergency legislation through his rubber-stamp parliament, enabling him to suspend existing laws, decree new ones, and arrest individuals deemed to be peddling “falsehoods” about the pandemic or “obstructing” the government’s efforts to fight it.
Duterte’s and Orban’s COVID-19 power grabs were especially brazen, but they were far from the only attempts by authoritarian leaders or parties to use the current health crisis as an excuse to curtail civil liberties or undermine the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic. Democracies that have lately come under assault, meanwhile, such as Brazil, India, and Poland, have seen populist leaders or ruling parties seize on the crisis to remove checks on their power or weaken the opposition.
It will be some time, probably years, before the pandemic’s full impact on democracy around the world can be judged. The extent of the damage will depend on how long the health crisis lasts and how badly it harms economies and societies. It will also depend on how democracies fare compared with autocracies in containing the health and economic effects of the virus, on who wins the race to a vaccine, and more broadly, on who—China, the United States, or democratic countries collectively—is seen as the most generous and effective provider of global public goods to fight the pandemic. How carefully democracies monitor and circumscribe the enormous increases in governmental power that come with national emergencies will also factor into the equation, as will the ability of established democracies to summon the collective resolve to defend freedom globally in a time of rising danger.
So far, there is little reason to be reassured about the global outlook for democracy and plenty of reason to worry. The pandemic hit during the hardest period for democracy since the end of the Cold War, and authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes wasted no time in exploiting it to enlarge and harden their power. More danger could lie on the horizon as democratic governments weigh the dilemmas of using new surveillance technologies to fight the virus and holding regular elections in the midst of a pandemic. The downward democratic spiral can still be reversed, but it will require mobilized civil societies, effective democratic management of the health crisis, and a renewal of American leadership on the global stage.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic. For each of the past 14 years, according to Freedom House, more countries experienced an erosion of political rights and civil liberties than strengthened political rights and civil liberties, reversing the pattern of the preceding 15 post-Cold War years. While blunt military and executive coups have become rarer, more and more elected leaders have gradually eviscerated democracies from within. Politicians who initially came to power via democratic elections—such as Orban in Hungary, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh—have packed courts; co-opted other independent institutions; squeezed the press, political opposition, and civil society; and sought to subvert or prevent the elections that might otherwise remove them. As a result, the rate of democratic breakdown worldwide has risen sharply in the last decade to nearly twice that of the preceding two decades. At the same time, fewer countries have transitioned to democracy.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic.
The democratic downturn has been particularly steep in the last five years (2015 through 2019), the first five-year period since 1975 in which more countries transitioned to autocracy than to democracy—twice as many, in fact. In January 2020, the proportion of countries with populations over one million that qualified as democracies fell below 50 percent for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Just as worrying has been the significant decay of democratic institutions and norms in democracies that were thought to be consolidated, such as India, and also liberal, such as Israel and Poland; the more subtle and little-noticed degradation of democracy in South Korea; the steady decline in the quality of democracy in the United States; and the rise of xenophobic populism and political polarization in Europe’s liberal democracies. According to Freedom House, democracy has declined in 25 of the 41 established democracies since 2006.
In short, COVID-19 attacked a world in which democracy was already under threat. The resulting public health crises enabled some leaders (such as Erdogan and Orban) to consolidate authoritarian powers they had already been accumulating and others (such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India) to intensify their illiberal campaigns against critics, independent news media, and opposition parties. In other words, the pandemic has mostly reinforced existing negative democratic trends, supplying illiberal governments with an incentive and an excuse for repressive tactics. Human rights defenders have paid the price in arrests, killings, and extended jail terms. The virus has cut a particularly deadly swath through prisons, furnishing cynical and murderous autocrats with a perfect weapon to use against indefatigable activists who try to hold them to account.
Still more damage may lie in store for democracy before the pandemic is done. In the name of managing the disease, governments are already implementing surveillance and tracking systems that could result in permanent losses of privacy. The apps generally work by gaining access to a phone’s GPS location and its range of Bluetooth communication. When someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 comes into contact with other people, the software alerts those contacts and advises them to self-isolate. With the proper democratic oversight and restraints, these apps can be powerful weapons in the fight to control the virus. But without such limits, they can be used to spy on private citizens and expand social control.
In India, for instance, many fear that a new tracking app rolled out in April could become a tool of mass surveillance for a government already bent on trampling civil liberties. Since Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014, his government has been assaulting venerated pillars of Indian democracy: press freedom, religious tolerance, judicial independence, and respect for dissent. Most alarming has been the Modi administration’s escalating campaign against India’s Muslim minority, which, at about 180 million, is the second-largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia. The narrative—pushed most blatantly by Modi’s extremist followers but condoned by the prime minister with the same wink and nod that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville—is that Muslims (and sometimes Christians and other non-Hindu minorities) are “internal enemies” with allegiances to lands and peoples outside India. That narrative has grown only stronger during the pandemic, fueled by a vile stream of disinformation that blames Muslims and Dalits for deliberately spreading the virus. Modi has used the COVID-19 crisis to centralize authority over revenue at the expense of India’s states and parliament and to wrest control of state governments from opposition parties. Many rights activists and cyber experts fear that his government will enlist the disease-tracking app, called Aarogya Setu, to compromise privacy and monitor opponents.
Aarogya Setu was initially voluntary, but as the government eased lockdown restrictions in early May, it made the app mandatory for public- and private-sector employees as well as for people in so-called containment zones, areas with particularly high rates of COVID-19 prevalence. It also required anyone traveling by train to download the app. Later, the government took the positive steps of prohibiting the storage of individual data beyond 180 days and enabling individuals to seek deletion of their data within 30 days. To alleviate concerns about privacy and security, it also eventually opened up the app’s source code to public scrutiny (and improvement). But reasonable suspicion persists, and it may abate only if India does what all democracies should do—appoint an independent ombudsman to ensure that rules on privacy, data gathering, and use are respected.
To comply with international human rights norms, disease-tracking apps and technologies must be grounded in law, publicly deliberated, transparent, limited to the duration of the emergency, and restricted to the specific requirements of combating the virus. The MIT Technology Review has initiated an important effort to study and rate government tracking apps according to five criteria, such as whether or not they are voluntary, whether the data they collect can be used only for public heath purposes, how quickly that data is destroyed, and the transparency of the policies and the code that underpin them. By these measures, Aarogya Setu rates only a single star (for data destruction).
Election delays should be limited in time and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
Privacy is not the only democratic precept under threat in the time of coronavirus: holding regular elections has become a logistical conundrum. Many democracies are left to decide which poses the greater threat: holding elections on schedule, when the opposition cannot campaign, poll workers and monitors may not show up, and large numbers of people don’t feel safe going to the polls; or postponing elections and perpetuating in power unpopular governments that voters might have otherwise ejected. The choice is straightforward in established democracies that have the time and resources to alter election procedures so that voters can vote safely from a distance, ideally by mail, or at least at fully staffed poll stations that have been disinfected and updated to accommodate physical distancing. But even in the United States—five months away from a general election—some Republicans, led by Trump, have turned voting by mail into a fiercely partisan issue, despite convincing evidence that it won’t give either party an advantage. Imagine, then, how much more fraught elections could become in countries with weaker institutions and less widespread postal services.
According to International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy around the world, more than 60 countries and territories have postponed elections at the national or (much more often) subnational level due to the pandemic. In many cases, doing so may have been the least undemocratic course of action. To avoid enabling authoritarian power grabs, the Kofi Annan Foundation has recommended that any decision to postpone elections be guided by rules that the government and the opposition agree upon, that are clearly communicated to the public, and that ensure the inclusion of vulnerable groups. As with the use of potentially invasive tracking apps, election delays should be limited in time, grounded in law and technical expertise, and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
To protect rights, privacy, and the integrity of elections during a pandemic is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. It will require politicians, bureaucrats, and members of civil society to restrain their partisanship, adhere to sound expert advice, and submit all emergency measures to disinterested monitoring and oversight.
Before the pandemic, democracy-minded people in countries that had slid toward electoral autocracy showed that it was still possible to make democratic inroads through organized political campaigns. A campaign of “radical love” carried the opposition to a stunning victory in municipal elections in Turkey last year, and opposition parties won municipal elections in Prague in 2018 and in Budapest last October. Even in the absence of a national electoral upset, similar municipal campaigns that engage practical issues and transcend political divisions can limit the ability of autocrats to consolidate power in the pandemic’s wake. Public opinion can also help defend the frayed boundaries of democracy. The original emergency powers bill that Duterte’s office sent to the Philippine Congress in March would have enabled the president to temporarily take control of any privately owned business or utility. But congressional and public resistance forced Duterte to accept much narrower language, involving only the budget and hospitals.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States.
Ultimately, the pandemic’s effect on global democracy will be shaped in large part by its effect on the advanced industrial democracies and most of all, the United States. At a time when China and other autocracies are using the pandemic to trash the efficacy of democratic governance and tout their superior capacity to deal with public emergencies, free governments must show that they are up to the task. Some have already done so. Ironically, the “other” Chinese society—Taiwan—has vividly exposed the lie that competent governance in a pandemic requires the extinction of freedom. Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have also performed well in containing the virus. The successful governments responded early and vigilantly, with widespread testing and contact tracing, and they communicated with their publics in a transparent, coordinated manner that put health professionals at the forefront. Sadly, few major countries have performed worse than the United States, whose president has routinely flouted such elementary imperatives as wearing masks, respecting science, trusting the public health leadership, and not promoting voodoo cures. The damage has been incalculable—not only to American lives but to global esteem for American democracy and hence, for democracy itself.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States. But first, the country must get its own house in order. Fortunately, supplies of ventilators and protective gear have rapidly increased. But national leadership, with discipline and strategic vision, is still lacking. The U.S. government must not only galvanize its people to act responsibly but also spearhead the international effort to distribute protective equipment and—as they become available—vaccines and medicines. Then, when the coronavirus has been vanquished, the United States must resume its leadership of global democracies in defense of liberty and against authoritarianism, corruption, and bullying.