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Reflections from the Nordic Think Tank on Tech and Democracy

The speech below and in the video is from a presentation by me to civil servants from the nordic regulatory authorities in the media sector. The report mentioned can be found here.

In our rapidly digitalizing world, the cornerstone of our societies—democracy—finds itself at a critical juncture. The digital age, with its boundless opportunities, also presents a set of challenges that directly impact the very foundation of democratic principles. There’s a pressing need to protect and fortify democracy in this digital era. Not only because it’s the bedrock of our societies but also because it represents the collective will and aspirations of the people. The digital platforms, which were once hailed as harbingers of free speech and open dialogue, are now increasingly becoming arenas of disinformation, propaganda, and even hate speech. The proliferation of such content threatens the integrity of our democratic processes, sowing discord and mistrust among communities. Having said this, its important to recognize that the nature of these platforms is not inherently malevolent. They are bound by their business models and economic interests, that are not always the same interests as those of our societies. But with the right oversight, regulations, and community engagement, they might yet be parts of our digital fabric that uplift democratic values rather than undermine them. Active involvement from governments, in collaboration with civil societies, might be able to steer these platforms towards a more constructive path. By exploring regulation in areas such as adversarial interoperability, transparent algorithms, promoting digital literacy, and ensuring accountability, it is most likely possible to mitigate the adverse effects of our current digital landscape and harness the potential of a more society-centric digital public discourse.

So, as I have started to express, the very nature of our democratic dialogue is undergoing a transformation. We’re in the middle of an ongoing shift from physical town halls to virtual spaces, from printed newspapers to digital feeds. While this shift has democratized information access, it has also made our public discourse vulnerable. Strengthening our digital democratic dialogue is not just a necessity—it’s an imperative. We must ensure that our digital public spaces remain bastions of credible information, constructive debates, and genuine community engagement. It’s in this context that the report titled “A Nordic approach to democratic debate in the age of Big Tech” steps in. Drawing from discussions, research and in-depth analysis by the members of the Nordic Think Tank on Tech and Democracy, this report serves multiple purposes. It acts as an inspiration, reminding us of the important ideals of democracy in a digital age. It functions as a roadmap, pointing out the challenges and charting out potential solutions. But perhaps most importantly, it stands as a call for cooperation. The Nordic region, with its shared values and collective spirit, is uniquely positioned to lead the way in this endeavor. By coming together, pooling resources, and sharing insights, we can ensure a more democratic digital future.

I had the privilege to be part of the Nordic Think Tank on Tech and Democracy, charged by the Nordic Council of Ministers to provide a joint report in the area. Our report delves deep into the challenges i just outlined, and also offers actionable recommendations. The report outlines eleven suggestions in total, and in this context I will focus primarily on suggestions relating to Nordic cooperation and the work of government agencies.

The primary suggestion of the report is the establishment of a dedicated Nordic Centre for Tech (Recommendation 1A). Such a center would serve as a beacon of excellence and innovation, bringing together the best minds in the region to explore the confluence of technology and democracy. It would be instrumental in devising strategies to address challenges of democracy in a digital age and leverage the opportunities of research, practices in the societies and public sectors of the Nordic countries. Since we presented our report in May this year, the Danish government has pushed forward in this work and have decided upon establishing a Danish center for tech and democracy. Here I think there might be great opportunities for the other Nordic countries to explore possibilities of cooperation or collaboration, perhaps strengthening this initiative and expanding it into the Nordic context.

Furthermore, government agencies and institutions are charged to safeguard the integrity of our democratic dialogue through different laws and regulation. As online platforms grow in influence and reach, there’s an increasing realization that Big Tech through various methods hinder researchers, and also journalists, from accessing data from the platforms. Its not reasonable that our digital infrastructure should be like a labyrinthine that only a few can navigate. Recommendation 2B from our report offers a suggestion, emphasizing the need for ensuring that independent researchers, intent on contributing to the greater societal good, remain unobstructed in their pursuits and research. This is not just about the sanctity of research; it’s about upholding the democratic values that the Nordic region cherishes. Platforms’ terms of service, according to the recommendation, should be crafted in a manner that facilitates, rather than impedes, data access for researchers. Such access should be granted, provided the researchers adhere to relevant regulations and maintain scientific integrity—even if their methods involve techniques like web scraping.

Another suggestion is that of recognizing volunteers, the often unsung heroes of the digital world, who play a pivotal role in shaping the online ecosystem. Recognizing their invaluable contributions, Recommendation 3A stresses the need to provide robust support mechanisms for volunteers. Whether they’re contributing to open-source projects, moderating online communities, or driving digital literacy initiatives, these individuals deserve our utmost respect and support.

A noteworthy inclusion in our recommendations is the suggestion to leverage ActivityPub (Recommendation 3B). ActivityPub, a decentralized social networking protocol, offers the potential to democratize the digital space, providing an alternative to the centralized models of current Big Tech platforms. By endorsing and adopting such protocols, the Nordic nations can take the lead in promoting digital sovereignty, fostering local communities, and ensuring that data remains in the hands of its users. Other countries, such as Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland, organizations such as the European Union and media such as the BBC, have already chosen to actively engage in open, federated social media as a more resilient and society-centric alternative to Big Tech. On platforms such as Mastodon, PeerTube and PixelFed we see the emergence of a new digital public infrastructure being built.

Government agencies stand at the intersection of policy-making and the practical realities of the digital realm. In the Nordic context, these agencies play a pivotal role in participating in shaping the contours of our digital future, ensuring that it aligns with our democratic values and societal goals. Our report, “A Nordic approach to democratic debate in the age of Big Tech” suggests a kind of roadmap for these agencies, with concrete recommendations tailored to their unique challenges and mandates.

In the light of this, one important suggestion is recommendation 2A – Protect the well-being and safety of children and young people. While social media and screen time have many positive effects, it is also associated with risks when it comes to mental well-being in terms of unhealthy comparison culture, loss of face-to-face interaction, loneliness, lack of sleep and so forth. The Nordic countries should therefore strive towards minimising online risks to children and young people as they are the future of our societies and democracies. We recommend that the Nordic countries push for making platforms legally obligated to offer settings that enable citizens to take more control of their usage of platforms in their everyday lives at EU level. These settings should be guided by a need for the well-being of citizens in integrated online and offline lives, with a particular focus on protecting children and youth, and the well-functioning of our democracies. In the implementation of such supportive structures, it is my belief that we at the same time need to uphold the values of privacy. Efforts to protect citizens from online harms must only be introduced in such ways that preserves the privacy of children as well as adults. In the light of this, we recommend that the Nordic countries establish a specialised Nordic task force to commission a meta-analysis on the potentially damaging effects of social media platforms on citizen well-being and the democratic space, and on this background develop recommendations for Nordic policy initiatives onward.

Moving forward, unity in purpose and action is paramount in order to build resilient democracies in a digital age in the Nordic region. While individual nations grapple with the challenges posed by Big Tech, a collective approach amplifies the efficacy of solutions. Recommendation 4D in our report accentuates the need for such a unified stance. It calls for the establishment of a dedicated Nordic task force. Such a task force would be more than just a symbolic entity—it would be an important structure for collaboration, pooling resources, expertise, and insights from across the Nordic region. This collective endeavor would empower the region to tackle challenges head-on, ensuring that the digital age strengthens, rather than weakens, our democratic fabric.

Lastly, Recommendation 5B – Commission a biennial report, highlights the need for periodic reviews and assessments. In the dynamic world of technology, change is the only constant. By commissioning regular reports, government agencies can stay on top of the latest trends, challenges, and opportunities. These reports would serve as a barometer, gauging the effectiveness of existing policies and highlighting areas that require renewed focus.

In concluding my remarks on the report in and of itself, our recommendations offer a strategic blueprint in several areas for government agencies, one that’s both actionable and aligned with the Nordic ethos.

Finally, I will end this talk by looking towards the present and near future. As we have seen over the past decade, where the pace of technological advancement has far outstripped traditional policy-making processes, there has emerged a need for flexible and adaptive regulatory mechanisms. One such example that I would want to explore today is that of the concept of policy sandboxes. The concept has its roots in the development of financial technology, but has over time found its way into other sectors as well. Policy sandboxes serve as controlled environments where innovative solutions can be tested without being immediately subject to all of the standard regulatory requirements. This provides a space for experimentation, allowing policymakers and innovators to collaboratively understand the implications of novel solutions before they are scaled up. A policy sandbox can be visualized as a space for co-creative exploration, where ideas evolve, mature, and are fine-tuned, all in collaboration between innovators, researchers, regulators and policy makers. The process of a Policy Sandbox ensures that while innovation isn’t stifled, public interests and safety aren’t compromised. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that seeks to marry rapid technological advancements with sound policy considerations.

I think its high time to explore such ventures. An approach to regulation such as that found in the ideas of Policy Sandboxes, holds the possibility to provide a commitment to innovation, transparency, and the greater societal good at the same time. In an age dominated by Big Tech, policy sandboxes could very well be a welcome tool that might guide policy makers in the Nordic region towards a stronger integration of technology and democratic values in the years to come.

With this final remark, I thank you all for your attention.

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