Digital Directions: February 2024

By Maya Recanati | Edited by Beth Kerley and Adam Fivenson

Bimonthly insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. If you like this newsletter, share it on social media or forward it to a friend.


When Data Governance Undermines Privacy

by Maya Recanati, Program Assistant, International Forum for Democratic Studies

In today’s information-driven economy, laws that govern the collection and handling of data can be critical safeguards for digital privacy. However, in recent years, authoritarian, hybrid, and democratic states alike have used these kinds of regulations to control information flows and even legitimize intrusive data collection. The weaponization of these regulatory regimes by governments for anti-democratic purposes undermines the rights and principles, such as privacy, that they purportedly protect. To ensure that data governance laws reflect democratic values, a consultative role for civil society is critical. Collaboration across different civil society sectors can help to make policymakers more aware of the diverse ways in which data governance regulation can impact human rights, the rule of law, and other crucial democratic principles.

In January, the Forum asked five leading experts to consider the significance of digital privacy in this rapidly changing, information-driven economy. As one contributor explained, privacy is a gateway right, essential to protecting human rights such as freedom of expression and nondiscrimination. There are ample illustrations available of the human rights risks that can arise where data privacy protections are weak or absent. For example, government officials in the Middle East harassed and prosecuted LGBT people based on information gathered from their social media profiles. More broadly, unrestrained data collection by governments may facilitate mass surveillance that leads to self-censorship and even crushes freedom of thought.

Democratic as well as autocratic states have increasingly relied on carveouts in data protection laws to codify officials’ right to collect information on citizens, with little independent oversight. Data protection laws with wide exemptions can subdue citizen concerns about digital privacy and provide governments with a veneer of legitimacy as they institutionalize state surveillance.

In India, the recently passed Digital Personal Data Protection Bill permits the government to exempt its own agencies from any provision of the bill to protect the vaguely defined “security of the state.” The law also establishes a data protection board appointed by the ruling party, which calls into question its ability to act as an independent body. China’s authoritarian rulers introduced a Personal Information Protection Law (2021) that allows government agencies to collect data without notifying or obtaining consent from individuals when (again, vaguely) “acting in the public interest.” While these laws introduce meaningful checks on private sector data collection, open-ended government exemptions threaten the right to privacy and undermine democratic norms.

Another risk stems from data localization laws, which countries such as Vietnam have passed in the name of protecting sensitive user data from being mishandled when transferred abroad. In contexts where rule of law is weak, however, these laws present a serious threat: They allow states to mandate that social media companies store users’ data in-country and provide information to the government upon request. These regulatory regimes—present across a growing number of authoritarian and democratic states alike—can essentially legalize government surveillance and create a chilling effect for civic actors and the public.

While data governance laws can be effective mechanisms to constrain government and corporate surveillance, they should be rooted in international human rights principles that protect the right to privacy, as well as other critical democratic values such as rule of law and government transparency. Civil society organizations, which are uniquely positioned to understand the nuances of local political contexts, can inform the drafting of these through meaningful consultations. Digital rights groups can also partner with traditional human rights organizations to amplify advocacy efforts, as Eduardo Ferreyra explains in a blog post for the Forum, and deepen understanding of the different concerns at stake in digital privacy conversations. Lastly, democracy advocates should embrace and diligently leverage transparency mechanisms like freedom of information laws that hold governments accountable for abuses of digital privacy.


The Big Question on Digital Privacy

Emerging technologies are creating new digital privacy risks that can undermine key democratic values and practices. Given these challenges, the International Forum for Democratic Studies asked five leading experts to consider the following question: How does digital privacy matter for democracy and its advocates? Read their responses here.

UN’s Interim Report on International AI Governance

The UN Secretary-General’s AI Advisory Body released its interim report in December 2023. The report proposes five principles that should guide the formation of AI governance institutions, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity, multi-stakeholder consultations, and international human rights standards. For a civil society perspective on AI governance, see the Forum’s November report, “Setting Democratic Ground Rules for AI: Civil Society Strategies”. Read the full UN report here.

New Digital Dilemmas on Tech Governance

A recently released collection of essays from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Digital Democracy Network offers global perspectives on critical tech governance debates. The collection’s eleven authors cover topics including next generation digital repression technologies in Iran (Mahsa Alimardani); how digital sovereignty intertwined with human rights can be a tool to counter global power asymmetries (Arindrajit Basu); and ongoing UN Global Digital Compact negotiations (Irene Poetranto). Read the full collection of essays here

Designing Tech to Encourage Democratic Engagement

In this article for Tech Policy Press, Lisa Schirch, Lena Slachmuijlder, and Ravi Iyer make the case for what they call “prosocial tech design governance.” Tech companies’ current design models optimize user engagement, which can elevate particularly divisive and polarizing content over other voices. The principles embedded in platforms such as and Remesh, which are designed with an eye to helping people “listen at scale,” offer an alternative model for product design that can facilitate participatory democratic engagement. Read the full article here.


Can Big Tech Contribute to Breaking Putin’s Censorship? 

This new report from the International Republican Institute analyzes how Western tech companies may be unintentionally supporting the Kremlin’s censorship efforts. The report stresses the need for greater dialogue between tech companies, independent Russian media, civil society, and international governments. Read the full report here.

Taiwan Confronts China’s Disinformation Behemoth Ahead of Vote

In the leadup to Taiwan’s January 2024 national elections, Coda Story examined how local civil society organizations have confronted sophisticated PRC information operations, relying on informal, decentralized collaborative networks and quick adaptation to changes in the information ecosystem. The article specifically highlights the innovative work of Cofacts, an organization which has built a publicly available fact-checking database that fellow civil society organizations have used to assess information operations and inform strategic responses. Read the full article here.

How Foreign Actors Targeted the Polish Information Environment Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

DFRLab reports that sophisticated Russian and Belarusian actors likely attempted to influence Poland’s October 2023 elections, aiming to weaken trust in the country’s democracy. Givi Gigitashvili outlines the “interference actions” documented, including “infrastructure exploitation, false-front engagement, sentiment amplification, and fabricated content.” For example, a Telegram channel allegedly managed by pro-Kremlin assets stoked sentiments against Ukrainian refugees to exacerbate preexisting polarization. Read the full report here

Artificial Intelligence in the Campaign: Fake Video of Sergio Massa Taking Cocaine Sparks Debate

Ahead of Argentina’s October 2023 presidential election, a deepfake video showing candidate Sergio Massa doing cocaine went viral online. Although the video was quickly discredited, its impact remains unclear. While the Perfil article notes that generative AI can be a useful tool to spur creativity for political campaigns, the Massa video illustrates how synthetic media may supercharge the spread of false and misleading content. Read the full article here.


Winning the Battle of Ideas

A new Forum report by Dr. Joseph Siegle analyzes how top-order authoritarian narratives serve as a vital tool to amplify autocrats’ influence and reshape the international landscape. The report also examines how democracy practitioners and civil society can respond by asserting a more positive vision. Read the full report here.

Thanks for reading Digital Directions! If you enjoy this newsletter, forward it to a friend or share on social media so that others can subscribe.