‘DIGITAL PRODUCTS AREN’T NEUTRAL BY DESIGN’
Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft: Alexandra, you are the head of the Digital Europe 2030: Democracy by Design project, which marks the third round of Digital Europe 2030. Why did you decide to turn your attention away from policymaking to focus on companies and the development of new digital technologies instead?
Alexandra Hunger: From the outset, the aim of the Digital Europe 2030 project has been to find solutions to put us on track to create a desirable digital future in Europe by 2030. In doing so, the project strives to help Europe develop its own approach to digitalisation so it can set itself apart from other large technospheres like the USA and China. It will still be several years until European regulations like the Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act or Artificial Intelligence Act are fully implemented. And that’s just one of the reasons why business decisions have a huge part to play in making digitalisation a more democratic process. Companies influence our day-to-day digital lives through their products and services. This is a huge area of potential, which is why we have chosen to make companies our target group this time around.
What exact points do you wish to address? How can companies be empowered to help shape a democratic digital future?
Alexandra: The way digital applications are designed is of major importance. Let’s take Facebook as an example. Facebook decides what form its algorithm takes. Unlike Mastodon, which displays posts chronologically, Facebook shows us personalised content tailored to our user profiles and therefore has the potential to create filter bubbles. How we communicate on Facebook and the content we see is ultimately determined by product design decisions. We believe that far from being neutral, this type of product design is shaping society. However, what we have seen is that many companies are not all that aware of the (potential) impact of their products or services on society.
So, in other words, one of your aims is to make tech companies more aware of the importance of meeting their social responsibilities in a democratic society.
Alexandra: We’ve noticed that companies are not always conscious of the fundamental impact of technology on society or that some staff have more awareness and knowledge of this than others. To help with this, we are developing an online toolkit as part of the project to help give companies and their staff the required knowledge and to improve their self-efficacy.
In the toolkit you just mentioned, you suggest following the Democracy by Design principle. What does that mean exactly?
Alexandra: In software development, there is a principle called security by design or privacy by design. Inspired by this, we’ve drawn on the assumption that achieving a desirable digital Europe by 2030 will require companies to take steps to realise this during the product development stage. So Democracy by Design refers to how democracy and public interest as a whole must be taken into account during product development.
Software that is specifically designed not to undermine democracy must be continuously monitored to ensure that it does not start harbouring risks for democracy at a later point in time.
That being said, the principle doesn’t stop there. Software that is specifically designed not to undermine democracy must be continuously monitored to ensure that it does not start harbouring risks for democracy at a later point in time. People often mention the issue of ‘dual use’. In basic terms, this describes how, instead of having just one possible use, technology has the potential to serve various purposes. Often, these other possible uses are not foreseeable at first and the technology’s risks for our democracy only become clear later as these other uses emerge. Democracy by Design is therefore an ongoing process that is never fully complete. It must be practised continuously across all areas.
In tech companies, who is responsible for enforcing and implementing Democracy by Design? Who is the toolkit’s target audience?
Alexandra: Rather than focusing on a single area, our toolkit is aimed at all levels of a company. That’s because, at the end of the day, many different people within a company are responsible for enforcing and implementing certain policies. Software developers may choose to adopt the approach if they so wish. But introducing principles and ensuring they are followed is also a strategic matter for senior management.
What do companies need to consider if they wish to establish the Democracy by Design principle? What parameters can be used to determine whether a digital product meets democratic values?
Alexandra: We’ve identified different categories on which to base our guidelines. The first is fairness, in other words, taking steps to avoid discrimination as far as possible. Bias is still something we often hear about in the media. Just take the example of automatic soap dispensers that only recognise certain skin colours because they were trained using a non-diverse data set. The second is the principle of self-determination. This involves ensuring that individuals have control over how their data is used and do not unknowingly consent to their data being used for other purposes or being shared with third parties. Technical aspects, such as guaranteeing data security, also play a role in making sure that new technologies meet democratic values. Action to take here includes protecting user data – e.g. in public administration – from cyberattacks or only making personal data available anonymously so it cannot be traced back to individuals. These are of course just a few examples of the many specific steps found in our toolkit.
Why should companies take an interest in the toolkit and implement the principle of Democracy by Design?
Alexandra: Theoretically, some companies are already aware of this issue simply because they are in the public eye. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram readily spring to mind here, as do service providers such as Palantir Technologies that interact with the public sector. These companies know what it is like to face public criticism so have an interest in finding ways to respond to it. Gaining a first-mover advantage could be another incentive to tackle the issue before new regulations become effective. I’ll explain what I mean using the example of climate change.
Companies benefit from operating in open and democratic societies so should take an intrinsic interest in helping to preserve democracy.
Companies that were ahead of the game and took early steps to protect the climate were more prepared when new regulations entered into force or were able to use their green credentials to gain an advantage over their competitors as public awareness of the issue grew. When it comes to digital transformation, we’re seeing something similar. Companies benefit from operating in open and democratic societies so should take an intrinsic interest in helping to preserve democracy. However, it’s important to remember that these pioneers and their design work will only be rewarded with a growing market share if we have a level playing field. Otherwise their efforts will be drowned out by the big market players.
Thank you! To find out more about the toolkit and the project, please visit the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft’s website.