Institutions Matter

By Subhashish Bhadra, Principal, Responsible Technology

Regulators, governments, and courts have struggled to catch up with today’s rapid technological progress. That’s why Omidyar Network is exploring what it takes to reimagine our institutions.

Circa 2011, the internet was hailed as a bastion of freedom. A man in Egypt even named his newborn daughter “Facebook,” in honor of the pivotal role the social media company played in the Arab Spring.

Today, countries in the Global South have a litany of complaints against tech companies: privacy breaches, domestic tax evasion, inadequate content moderation, lack of free speech online, data extraction to outside the country, and much more. So, what’s changed since 2011? And why didn’t we see this coming?

Technology has evolved in ways we didn’t imagine, so we didn’t plan and prepare accordingly. Tech has transformed into new business lines, using the data at its disposal to create sprawling commercial empires. It has permeated governments, with law enforcement using facial recognition and other surveillance technologies. And it has fell into the hands of bad actors who used AI, for example, to create deep fake pornography.

Governments, courts, and regulators — the institutions we created to protect us — have failed to catch up; oftentimes they simply lacked the tools to counter these new threats.

We must catch up and look ahead. Omidyar Network believes we must reboot our institutions to set them up for success in the data economy.

Many consequences of technological progress are unknown — and will remain so for years to come. Therefore, our institutions need to serve as “safety valves” that can identify and act as soon as harms become evident. Western democracies took centuries to develop such institutions for the industrial age; we don’t have that luxury for this digital era. Our institutions need to either move fast or risk undermining digital progress by exacerbating digital harms.

We have urgent concerns that public and private tech implementers must address now — like misinformation and privacy — but we must proverbially walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to tackle the immediate needs while building robust institutions for the long-term. The latter is critically important for three reasons. First, technology will keep throwing new challenges at us and we shouldn’t always be playing catch up. We need to get ahead of the curve and tackle issues in their infancy. When institutions like Parliament and courts work well, they provide forums for individuals to question how tech is rolled out. Second, most of today’s solutions originate in the US and Europe, but the same solutions may play out differently in different socio-economic contexts. Citizens need forums in which theycan discuss what is best suited for them, rather than have a solution thrust from the Global North. Third, it is not just where we land that matters, but also how we get there. The path countries take on tech needs to be based on democratic norms and a respect for constitutional principles like individual liberty and non-discrimination. Those that don’t will risk being unsustainable because of possible tech lash by the people or courts.

That’s the “easy” part. The more difficult question is where to even start. Here’s the approach Omidyar Network is experimenting with:

We are seeking to better understand the existing laws and institutions, and how they are performing, including the entire mosaic required for a thriving digital economy: data protection, competition, taxation, transparency, cybersecurity, speech regulation, consumer protection, and more. Many of the underlying principles are context-agnostic, although their application to a country requires nuance and caution. To help guide our learning, we have commissioned multiple cross-country analyses of data protection laws. We have also recently funded the Africa Freedom of Information Centre in Uganda to evaluate whether open contracting norms are applied effectively to government procurement of tech systems. We are curious about issues surrounding surveillance and online free speech.

Concurrently, we are exploring ways to strengthen the capacity of institutions that uphold these laws. Across the globe, we see that regulators struggle with low budgets and headcounts, wait for years for cases to wend their way through the courts, and for governments to belatedly apply ineffective band-aids on issues that require fundamental re-thinking. As such, we are working in different institutional contexts to understand which types of capacity-building efforts are most effective. For example, we recently funded the Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative in Nigeria to train lawyers in digital rights litigation in the hopes it will improve the quality of technology rulings.

Finally, we are supporting digital rights organizations throughout Africa to act as checks on technological excesses of both governments and corporations. We partnered with the Next Generation of African Foresight Practitioners at the School of International Futures to generate a set of insights, signals, and scenarios that look out to 2030, and explore their implications for African institutions.

Our hope is that these investments will help us — and our many partners — answer critical questions: Which laws do we need? Which institutions can uphold them? And how can we hold institutions accountable?