Using tech to bolster democracy

Using tech to bolster democracy

Alex Gladstein has dedicated his life to human rights. As chief strategy officer of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, he looks for ways to support people living under oppressive regimes.

HRF is the organizer of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual global conference which brings together human rights advocates, artists, tech entrepreneurs and world leaders who share stories and brainstorm ways to expand freedom and unleash human potential around the world. 

Gladstein is also a guest lecturer at Singularity University, where he focuses on the relationship between technology and human rights and in particular on decentralized forms of governance.

The Silicon Valley think tank, which offers educational programs and a business incubator, will be holding the SingularityU Greece Summit at the Athens Concert Hall on November 19 and 20, and Gladstein will be among the speakers at the event.

He spoke to Kathimerini about the opportunities that exist for the promotion of human rights in the age of cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence, as well as the dangers that lurk.

What is the concept behind the Oslo Freedom Forum? Also, could you tell us a bit about “demtech”?

By our count, there’s about 93 authoritarian governments in the world, with a total population of 4 billion people. At the HRF we specialize in advocacy and in creating programs that can make a difference in those countries. One of those programs is the OFF, which The Economist has called the “Davos for Human Rights.” So, the idea is sort of like Davos but flipped – instead of rich businessmen and dictators on stage, we have protesters and activists and people trying to make the world a better place. Now, the idea of demtech [technologies that promote democracy] came about because the impact investment community uses the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations as the guide for how to do good, right? But the word “democracy” is mentioned zero times in the entire SDGs. And the same goes for concepts like a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on.

For years, this idea didn’t really make sense because there wasn’t really a lot of technology where you could make a lot of money by investing in it and also strengthen freedoms. But now there are all kinds of groups investing in Bitcoin and Bitcoin-based applications and other kinds of decentralized cryptocurrencies where people have made mountains of money in the last few years. And these things are going to be crucial to our rights and freedoms.

But what about the flipside? What about the fact that, for example, the regime in Venezuela is using the state version of a cryptocurrency to prop itself up?

Very important, the key difference being that’s a centralized technology, with a central authority, like with fiat money. We focus on decentralized technologies, where there isn’t a central authority controlling things – first with money but then also in telecommunications and many other fields. The vision is to create new systems for payments, communication, medical data storage etc without the oversight and outside of the surveillance reach of the state.

But without a central authority, how can there be effective regulation? Without a central bank, who ensures the security of transactions? Who will compensate me if a hacker steals my Bitcoins?

The threat of governments stealing your money is much greater than the chance that you’re going to lose your Bitcoins to a hacker for most people around the world. And industries – banking and insurance, specialized legal services – will evolve to adapt to the new situation. This is already happening. And it is potentially a very lucrative thing to do in the next decade – investing in technologies that will safeguard our rights and freedoms. For example, Andreessen Horowitz, probably the most prominent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, just set up a $300 million cryptofund. And the people Andreessen Horowitz, they’re not thinking of themselves as impact investors – but that’s what they are.

How concerned are you that democratic societies will move toward a Chinese-type surveillance state as AI evolves, in the name of national security and meritocracy?

Very. The people who work for Tencent, which makes WeChat, and the people who work for Facebook, they’re not any morally different. They just live in a society with different institutions, where there are no human rights. I also think regulators in the West are asleep at the wheel. I mean, Facebook is now starting to create partnerships with banks to get your financial information, and they’re starting to create their own version of a credit score. They’re also developing a credibility score – the posts of users with low scores don’t go very far. And it may be a good idea to use this against a white nationalist group, but where’s the line, right?

Have the disruptive technologies of the internet age (social media, smartphones, etc) mostly helped or hindered authoritarians?

I think that 2015 was a turning point. Before that, they hindered dictators, by breaking the information monopoly that they imposed and preventing them from controlling the information flow. The tipping point is AI and big data. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote recently in The Atlantic magazine, AI will make dictatorships more efficient than democracies. This is typified by China. At first, they were terrified of the internet. But now they’ve realized that technology is their friend, since it’s allowed them to construct an Orwellian surveillance to watch over their citizens.

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