Food for Thought
Technology, Democracy and Rights - Speech Delivered by GRF Vice-Chairman and President Mr. Memduh Karakullukçu at 4th Asian Forum on Global Governance

Food for Thought

Technology, Democracy and Rights - Speech Delivered by GRF Vice-Chairman and President Mr. Memduh Karakullukçu at 4th Asian Forum on Global Governance

On October 28, 2014, Memduh Karakullukçu, Vice-Chairman and President of Global Relations Forum, delivered a speech entitled "Technology, Democracy and Rights" at the 4th Asian Forum on Global Governance organized by the Observer Research Foundation and Zeit-Stiftung. The following is an edited transcript of his presentation:

Good Morning,

It is a great pleasure to be here in Delhi, it is a city that persistently defies, challenges and hopefully broadens one’s habits and conceptions. And it is a great pleasure to be at ORF; it is fast becoming an institutional partner and an institution of friends. And of course it is a unique opportunity to be at the Asian Forum on Global Governance with such a group of committed, accomplished professionals. I congratulate ORF and the Zeit-Stiftung for this remarkable event.

Now let me turn to the task at hand.

First a few words about how I will approach this critical issue.

Doing what I do as my day-job, I of course participate in many discussions around the world about the myriad dimensions of the global governance agenda. I think there is an implicit mindset that underlies most, if not all, of the global formulations, analyses, prescriptions that I hear at these events. 

The concept of the “global” is constructed from below by aggregating the nations. As a result, the faultlines, habits, constraints of nation states are fed into the mental constructs of the global governance issue from the very beginning.  Before we think the global, we think China, US, India, EU.

That contaminates and biases the global governance discussions from the outset. And it is so easy to get caught in the cross-national tensions and disputes that you run the risk of not having the time to get to the real nature of the actual global problem.

Of course, I do recognize that the world is governed by nation states and we have to deal with all the associated complexities. But I think intellectual imagination need not be constrained by this mundane observation.

I think it is worth trying to reverse the thought process and to assume a single globe for our initial understanding of the problem. Once we really understand the problem in its pure form, then we can start thinking about the imperfections or divergences which stem from national variations.  So I will start by discussing privacy as a general problem abstracting from US, China or India and then go to the international imperfections that we have to deal with in global governance.

Finally, the topic we were given for this panel, “Technology, Democracy and Rights”, is provocatively and temptingly broad. When I first received the topic, I was getting ready to talk about transhumanism and robots and neuroscience and their potential impact on human rights. But I think our organizers rightly decided to narrow the topic and sent me three questions a few weeks ago. So now I am somewhat more anchored and will focus on the issues of technology, privacy and democracy. 

But I have to tell you that there are very interesting and real technology-related issues ahead of us, in your lifetimes, that will impact democracy and rights. Please keep your time horizons long and your imagination as technologically-motivated as you can. The world that awaits us with respect to technology, democracy and rights is significantly richer and more interesting than either Snowden revelations or the ITU meeting in Busan.

Now let me turn to the privacy and technology issue.

When you look at the motivation and justifications for privacy, you can group them into categorical and instrumental reasons. The distinction matters because if you think privacy is a categorical right, it would not be contingent and you would have to defend it very strongly against all other social interests.

If, however, you think it is an important right because it promotes certain social or individual benefits, then it becomes open to social compromise. You would have to balance privacy rights against security, against freedom of expression or against property rights. And when it is open to balancing with other rights, then privacy norms can and will vary across societies and across time.

So before we talk about and evaluate technology’s impact on privacy anywhere around the world, you have to decide whether you think it is a categorical right, like the right to life, or it is a right that is open to trade-offs. Those who argue that it is a firm right conceptualize it as integral to the individual’s autonomy, liberty and uniqueness. It is what makes you an individual and that makes it non-negotiable. I have my reservations about that formulation but I don’t have time to get into that.

If we focus on privacy as an instrumental right, you come across many justifications. Privacy is critical for personal growth and creativity, so it is essential for social and economic vibrancy. It is necessary for promoting non-conformism and dissent, which is crucial for democracy. It is important because it is a way to balance the asymmetry of state power over the individual. When the state collects unwarranted information on you, it can abuse it, overstep its authority or cause harm by mistake. Privacy cuts off those risks at the source. At another level, privacy is necessary for individuals’ ability to develop intimate relationships and hence serves social cohesion and individual fulfillment.

And the list motivating privacy rights goes on. The important thing is; regardless of which justification appeals to you, if you think the privacy right is important because it serves a social purpose, you should be ready to weigh it against other crucial social priorities.

Hence, once you go down that route it becomes a contingent right, where the trade-off is to be determined by each society at each point in time. For example, what we today view clearly and obviously as private - like our bodily functions, our homes and our families - were not perceived as such just a few centuries ago. Or the decision to make letters private is a socially constructed privacy right; there was a time, not long ago, when your letter did not benefit from the legal protection of your privacy claim. So privacy norms change and evolve.

An additional complexity about privacy is that it does not just pertain to the government’s actions. Your privacy can also be threatened by private citizens or corporations. Standards of defamation, decency and the like need to be determined by each society. It is not an easy process and that balance also changes over time. In Europe, a citizen’s right not to be embarrassed online by a private company can be deemed more important than the freedom of expression and consequently, the right to be forgotten was recently granted. In the US, that balancing does not justify such a right.

So, there are legitimate bases for variation about privacy rights across societies. Given the capacity for such variation, what is the mechanism of evolution in privacy rights? How do they change?

There are many dynamics at play. Technology is obviously an important one. We live in a world of electronically networked individuals, pervasive camera surveillance and GPS devices. And there is more to come like the internet of things, more pervasive use of RFID’s, and the like.  That change forces each society to translate its existing norms for privacy in the physical world to the virtual world. And in some cases, that translation leads to a weakening or strengthening of the right itself. Technology forces a reformulation of the trade-off at every juncture.

Normally, the evolving social compromise is a political process. And judicial interpretation comes in when appropriate.  Of course, if the context is an authoritarian regime, the broad political negotiation will not take place and the government will unilaterally make the compromise as it sees fit. The violation of privacy rights in these cases is a derivative problem; the real problem is authoritarianism.

However, even in democratic systems, there is a risk of slow, long-term erosion of privacy rights, which fails to trigger political reaction. For example, in the US, when a technology is widely used by the private citizens, like GPS, it becomes difficult to prohibit its use by the government. So technology surveillance gradually creeps up. There is a real risk of taking slow changes for granted and compromising privacy without a proper debate. Even democracies have to defend themselves against this slow but powerful dynamic.

Now, let me take a breath here. Nothing I have said so far relates to globalisation or global dynamics. All the issues I raised would be relevant if we were one global society with no national boundaries. The privacy-technology questions are simply difficult and would require political struggle and debate in any society.

I think it is important to establish the inherent dynamics of and tensions in this problem before we delve into finger-pointing and lamenting difficulties of global coordination and governance.

So, what happens when I put the technology-privacy dynamic in the global context?

Let me address this systematically. We can talk about a nation’s intrusion into the privacy of its own citizens versus a nation’s intrusion into the private data of the citizens of another country. That is the first axis of distinction. Then, we can think of government versus corporate intrusion. That is the other axis we need to think about.

What are the global governance challenges within this two by two framework?

First, let’s think of a nation’s own internal privacy right trade-offs, be it government to citizen or corporate to citizen. Is this a subject matter for global governance? Should we care about how a nation sets its own privacy settings in light of the new developments in technology?

As I mentioned earlier, this compromise is by its nature variable and can be determined through political/judicial processes in each society.  We can each have our opinions on another society’s privacy balance based on our worldviews, but that’s not a global governance issue.

However, if we believe the political process behind the social compromise is not working, then it’s a different matter. If it is not a negotiation but the imposition of the will of an authoritarian regime, our criticism can have a different and higher tone.  And one national government can promote democratic processes in the determination of social trade-offs like privacy in another country without really encroaching on its sovereignty. That national government or its citizens can take open, transparent actions to support the citizens in another country to advance the democratic process. And technology is a key instrument in that support; it can widen the public debate, help transparency and accountability and help mobilize the citizenry. Looking ahead, banning exports of internet filtering technology to authoritarian regimes or providing easy/cheap satellite access to citizens are ways in which democratic states can empower the citizens of other sovereigns to demand open political processes.

Is that a violation or erosion of sovereignty? Some think it is. I don’t think advocating and promoting the democratic process in another country through transparent means, not through covert means, is a violation of anybody’s sovereignty. And technology will increasingly be an important element of such support, so it will be a contentious domain and we have to watch closely how those debates will evolve.

Now, let me turn to other boxes in our matrix. I dealt with a state’s intrusion with its own citizens’ privacy as a global governance problem. The more complex problem is how to deal with one state’s intrusive actions or surveillance on another state’s citizens.

Such an intrusion can be motivated by security or economic interests. It can be defensive or offensive. The government-centered intrusions into data and privacy in another nation can be discussed under cyberdefense, cybercrime, and cyberespionage. As national constitutional rights and protections typically do not apply to the citizens of other countries, national governments feel free to spy on other countries’ citizens or corporations.

So privacy and data protection across borders suffer because the globe is divided into nations. That is a pure global governance challenge we have to deal with. Is it important, and what can we do about it?

If you think privacy is a categorical right, then it is indeed very important and we would need a global privacy right defined and defended. That unfortunately looks unlikely in the near future.

But if you believe it is an instrumental right, then we would need to think carefully about which justifications for privacy I mentioned before, such as dissent, creativity, intimacy, and personal growth suffer when another government intrudes into your data. The global governance remedy we find will have to be linked and proportional to the privacy harm we identify.

At the moment, the cross-border privacy or data intrusions are perceived and evaluated as threats at the state level rather than at the level of individual harm. Because the discussion is about national security and national economic interests, the remedies are sought in intergovernmental relations and negotiations. The discourse is not about the global citizen’s privacy rights; it is on national interests. I think it is important to keep that distinction clear.

And in the intergovernmental exchanges, the prospects for data privacy are dire to say the least. When you talk to high-level officials, nobody is realistically thinking about giving up espionage. The US is making noise about separating and preventing economic espionage, but the track record so far does not give much confidence. Security concerns related to homeland or security in general are unlikely to abate, so they will probably continue to motivate prying into other nations’ citizens.

The one area we may have progress and global coordination is cybercrime, where nations may reach an agreement as they are all the victims of it. The Budapest Convention is such an agreement but it still has not been signed by Russia and China. However, there are some positive signals on the consensus with respect to not selling dual-use cyber technology to risky purchasers.

So, the justifications to fight cross-border data privacy risks are predominantly national security concerns, not personal privacy issues. The possible remedies are international agreements, and they are not forthcoming.

Of course, the other possible dynamic that could work in favor of cross-border individual privacy is nations’ interest in attracting non-citizens for economic benefit as well as for enhancing their softpower. If a nation is perceived globally to accommodate theft of a non-citizen’s personal data or IP during the course of an economic transaction or even when you visit that country, the interest to do business in that country will be diminished.  Similarly, it doesn’t really serve a country’s image or softpower to be perceived as a privacy-intruder. 

In the long-run, this is probably the most reliable mechanism to reduce cross-border privacy intrusions. In the long-run, globalisation itself is likely to ensure that the imperfections of nation states will be overcome by the interests of the global citizens.

The final box in the matrix is the intrusion of one country’s private actors, like Google or Facebook, in another country. At the moment, large nation states have enough leverage and capability to force corporate players to abide by the privacy norms of their nation. Whether that balance of power will change any time soon is open to speculation.

That brings me to the end of my analysis.

Let me conclude by re-emphasizing that global governance issues are usually entangled with the actual complexity of the core substantive issues and it helps to separate them. The technology-privacy-democracy nexus is one of those complex issues.

Realistically speaking, at the moment, the global governance debates on privacy and data protection are primarily about national security and economic interests and not about citizens’ privacy interests. And the cases where technology-privacy issues in another country rise to the top of the public agenda are mostly about the struggle to strengthen democratic processes in those countries. 

The core issue of a global citizen’s global privacy right is lost in the midst of all these national debates and struggles. The long-term dynamics of deepening globalization are our best bet in aligning the interests of nation states to start talking about that core global right.

Until that happens, we are in the world of a fragmented globe and its myriad imperfections. We simply have to build the interdependencies of globalisation step by step, with patience and determination. That is why it is good to speak to a group of young people who have long time horizons and long careers ahead of them.

Thank you for inviting me and thank you for your patience.