BLACK HAT ASIA 2022 – Technology is an existential threat to global democracy – requiring a shift to a transnationally regulated, culturally sensitive technology ecosystem that allows democracies to flourish.
This is the word from Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation, in the opening speech for Black Hat Asia 2022.
“Democracy is turning on itself, and technology is the tool,” Saran said. “If democracy is to survive, technology must be tamed.”
Big Tech vs. Red Tech
Trapped between Big Tech in Silicon Valley and what Saran called “Red Tech” by the Chinese Communist Party, it’s time for the world to establish meaningful global regulation of massive social and enabling platforms that have often run amok and been used against the peoples they pretending to serve, Saran explained during the speech entitled “#HackingDemocracy.”
Silicon Valley’s ability to pick and choose who has a platform, apparently based on the whims of the owners, and its unwillingness to control the spread of hate speech and misinformation, primarily because it’s good for business, stifles American democracy and should be curbed, he argued.
Big Tech in the US has a quasi-utility status, but uses its enormous influence to ward off any kind of meaningful regulation, he explained from his bookshelf-filled office in India (his speech was distant). But compared to the untamed censorship, malicious intentions and brutal pursuit of Red Tech against populations, US-based companies are still the best hope for establishing new ground rules that can hold boardrooms and powerful people accountable. “Maybe even selected …,” Saran suggested.
China’s plan to split democracies
China’s Red Tech is more dangerous to democracy because, as Saran explained, it is used to “control the domestic population and also cause mischief abroad.”
Chinese Big Tech has been able to insert itself into the global democratic discourse and divide where possible, through the use of deepfakes, fake news and its formidable troll army, Saran warned.
“The business model for Chinese technology is to divide democracies,” he said. “The Chinese ensure that they are part of every conversation, every political discourse in free societies – democratic countries.”
Saran credits Chinese technology for sustaining the country’s “brand” despite the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan by dominating and playing the news cycle. “They were never held accountable for what happened in Wuhan,” Saran said.
But thanks to the so-called Great Firewall of China, no other country has the same access to create similar problems for the Chinese Communist Party. This is no longer tenable, and Saran recommends a global ultimatum to Beijing: Let the world come in, otherwise we will block you from the world.
Can China be held accountable?
Saran said the global technology response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by blocking Russian interests proves that the sector has the ability to hold power accountable.
“Can the same platforms work together to see Chinese propaganda being relieved?” he asked. “Can they intervene against Chinese manipulation?”
The question is whether they are willing to abandon the Chinese market in the name of democracy.
Towards a transnational future
Transnational technology platforms also have an obligation to provide services with multiple cultural nuances, he said.
“Facebook in India is going to have to have a different texture than Meta in the US,” Saran said, adding that in the end it’s about taking better care of the people behind the usernames.
Regulations can be an important part of the picture given that regional laws are not uniform for a culturally diverse world, Saran added.
“Transnational corporations need to have a different level of regulation with some standards and accountability.”