U.S. Government Public-Private Sector Call to Advance Democracy-Affirming AntiCensorship Technologies to Combat Authoritarian Regimes

Carnegie Endowment Institute for Peace

5:30 P.M. EST

It’s so nice to be here tonight.  I want to start by thanking some of the people who made this possible.  First, thanks to the team from IE University.  Over the last year, IE and the State Department have organized Tech4Democracy events on five continents. It’s really a privilege to speak at the end of such a long and impressive journey. 

Second, thank you to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for hosting this event.  Your focus on international engagement and cooperation is so important.  This is a perfect place to conclude the Global Entrepreneurship Challenge. And finally, thank you to all the teams, private sector partners, judges, and innovators who participated in these events.  While the US Government supports this challenge, all of this comes from you, not us—from the ideas to the selection of winners.  I’m inspired by your commitment to using technology to strengthen democracies. 

In 2021, President Biden hosted the first Summit for Democracy, calling on participants to work with us in a shared effort to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal. And you all have answered that call. 

This week, the U.S. is focusing on “advancing technology for democracy.” It is incredible to think of how many people from around the world will be here to address this crucial issue over the next few days. It is also humbling to reckon with both the challenges and opportunities before us. 

As democracies, we seek to establish an affirmative vision for our digital future. Yet we know technologies are not inherently democracy-affirming or privacy-enhancing. Democracies around the world are facing new challenges from our digitally-enabled world, from disinformation to surveillance to cyber intrusions. And so, we must also counter the misuse of technology and rise of digital authoritarianism.

There are investments we must also make to ensure the values we hold dear are embedded in emerging technologies by design, at every stage of their development. This Grand Challenge is the epitome of how to solve such hard problems with creative, entrepreneurial minds like all of yours. 

Recently, the Biden-Harris administration released the President’s National Cybersecurity Strategy. When we first began drafting this strategy, we looked back at the decades of strategy and policy that came before us. We’re truly standing on the shoulders of giants today, with great work done by many who have come before us.  

But we did notice that decades of previous cyber strategies tend to fixate on threats: Who was trying to hurt us and why there were so deeply invested in trying to hurt us.

In crafting the Biden-Harris administration’s strategy, we took a different approach. Rather than focusing on the threats we needed to overcome, we started instead with what we wanted to accomplish and worked backwards. 

Cyberspace exists to help us achieve our goals. And what are our goals? 

When the President released the strategy, he explained that cybersecurity is essential to the strength of our democracy and democratic institutions.  He also wrote “we must ensure the Internet remains open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure—anchored in universal values that respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Digital connectivity should be a tool that uplifts and empowers people everywhere, not one used for repression and coercion.” 

These are the themes I want to touch on tonight. We must ensure that technologies work in service of, not against, our people. 

Sometimes we have treated cybersecurity as something that belongs in a basement with the IT department, wholly unconnected to big concepts like democracy and prosperity.  But that is wrong.  Securing ourselves against threats is not the only thing that matters when it comes to cyberspace.

If that were the case, we’d simply tell everyone to turn off their computers! But since even our most basic home appliances have chips in them, that approach is off the table. We defend cyberspace not because it is some distant terrain on which we battle our adversaries. We defend cyberspace because it is interwoven into our very lives. Because we want technology to empower us. 

If we build a secure and resilient cyber foundation, we can pursue our boldest goals with confidence, like an Internet that strengthens our democracy.

In the strategy, our ultimate goal is a digital ecosystem that is more inherently defensible, resilient, and aligned with our values.  What do I mean by that? Defensible means that we’ve tipped the advantage from attackers to defenders by designing systems where security is baked in, not bolted on. Resilient means that when defenses fail—which they sometimes will—the consequences are not catastrophic and recovery is seamless and swift.  Cyber incidents shouldn’t have systemic real-world impacts. And, finally, we cannot ignore the way that technology shapes—and is shaped by—the rest of our society.   

Technology does not, itself, represent a value system. It carries with it the values of its creators and operators. Technology can bring great advancement, from groundbreaking vaccines to essential services for the underserved. It can be help labor groups organize and bring transparency to government. But it can also be used by antidemocratic forces to suppress or to misinform. 

We have to actively define and assert our values in the way we build our digital world. This is why the Tech4Democracy Global Entrepreneurship Challenge is so important: it seeks to inspire and cultivate technologies that advance democratic values like transparency and accountability. 

So, I want to repeat my thanks to everyone who was involved—our goal is to empower efforts like this. To secure the foundations so people can build amazing tools and platforms atop them. 

Now, I want to talk about cybersecurity and human rights, which are inextricably linked. But not in the way too many people think! We have long operated under the false pretense that security and human rights—or privacy—are in opposition, that increasing one necessarily decreased the other. 

In cybersecurity, that’s just not true. Measures that protect security advance human rights and provide additional privacy.  Here’s an example: If you’re browsing the internet without any security, your data could be captured by a criminal trying to get your financial information or by a repressive regime looking to identify dissidents or censor news.  

Securing your data can help protect you against both. Cybersecurity allows for people to safely organize, to access information, and—in some cases—to share news of authoritarian repression with the outside world. 

Cybersecurity can create safe spaces and communication channels for persecuted minorities. Of course, we’re not there yet.  And some regimes are using technology as a way to repress their populations. In some places, technology that should empower individuals is instead being used by governments to conduct unjustified surveillance on a massive scale. Authoritarian regimes are using technology as a tool of control: monitoring their populations to find critics, hindering independent media, and more. 

It’s a really hard problem to fix. As I said earlier, technology is value neutral. We have to build it in to align with our values.

One particular challenge is that we didn’t design the internet with security in mind – and we designed it a long time ago! The “request for comment” that defined the Internet Protocol we use today dates from 1981.As a result, many of the technologies and protocols that underly the internet lack appropriate security. 

That’s why one effort from our strategy that I am really excited by is to secure the foundations of the internet. By “foundations of the internet” I mean things most people don’t know about, like the “Domain Name System” and the “Border Gateway Protocol.” 

But securing these would make a huge difference! Not only would everyday internet users be much safer, but securing these technologies could help combat oppressive government censorship around the world. 

This is because authoritarian regimes often exploit security weaknesses in common Internet technologies in their attempts to censor information and curtail freedom of expression.

Because there are vulnerabilities in the foundations, authoritarian regimes can act at scale, engaging in dragnet censorship or rerouting huge volumes of internet traffic.  At times, countries seeking to censor information have even caused internet disruptions around the world.

Fixing those weaknesses would improve Internet security, resilience, and access for vulnerable users. There’s a lot of work to be done to secure the foundations, and it’s not work that governments can do alone. Democracies around the world, including the US, need to do more to implement these technologies on our systems. 

But the private sector will also play a key role: A lot of key technology and infrastructure is privately owned. 

Today, I am proud to announce that the U.S. government is focusing on technologies that would help combat authoritarian government censorship.  This is a follow up to the State Department’s prior call to the private sector to advance democracy through countering the misuse and abuse of technology. 

This week, the State Department and Office of the National Cyber Director are jointly releasing a call for democracy-affirming anti-censorship technologies. That document asks the private sector to help make key technologies both more secure and harder for repressive regimes to use. 

Together with the private sector, we can make advances across these technologies that would help people around the world, from every day internet users in democracies to those struggling under repressive regimes.

I really do believe that we can secure the foundations of the Internet in ways that provide security benefits and also make it harder to use these technologies to repress.

I’m optimistic about our ability to do so because I am inspired by all of the teams participating in this Grand Challenge. It is incredibly encouraging to see the way you are embedding democratic values in your visions to secure digital identity, promote inclusion, bolster our election systems, and strengthen human rights efforts. 

I want to close by thanking you again for the opportunity to speak this evening. I am really impressed by what I’ve heard of the teams that will be competing this evening.  

I am looking forward to hearing the teams’ presentations and learning more about their solutions. Thank you!

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