Tools and Weapons – an extract from Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne’s book on the digital age

This excerpt is from Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne’s “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age”. The book was chosen as the World Economic Forum Book Club’s pick for October.

Each month, a new book is selected and discussed among the group, with the author joining in on the last day of the month to reply to some questions from our participants.

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From Chapter 16 Conclusion:

Managing Technology That Is Bigger than Ourselves

It’s a time of enormous promise, but also of new challenges. Digital technologies literally have become both tools and weapons. They take us back to Albert Einstein’s words in 1932, reminding people of the benefits created by the machine age but calling on humanity to ensure that its organizing power keeps pace with its technical advances.5 As we keep working to bring more technology to humanity, we also need to bring more humanity into technology.

Technology today is having an immensely uneven economic impact, creating huge advances and wealth for some while leaving others behind as it displaces jobs and fails to reach communities that lack broadband connectivity. It’s changing the face of war and peace, creating a new theater of warfare in cyberspace and new threats to democracy through state‑sponsored attacks and disinformation. And it’s increasing the polarization of domestic communities, eroding privacy, and creating an emerging capability for authoritarian regimes to exercise unprecedented surveillance of their citizens. As AI continues to advance, all these developments will accelerate even more.

It’s unrealistic to expect the pace of technological change to slow. But it’s not too much to ask that we do more to manage this change. In contrast to prior technology eras and inventions such as the railroad, telephone, automobile, and television, digital technology has progressed for several decades with remarkably little regulation—or even self‑regulation. It’s time to recognize that this hands‑off attitude needs to give way to a more activist approach that addresses evolving challenges in a more assertive way.

A more active approach doesn’t mean that every thing should be left to governments and regulation. That would be as shortsighted and unsuccessful as asking governments to do nothing at all. To the contrary, this needs to start with individual companies and with more collaborative work across the tech sector.

When Microsoft was in the hot seat two decades ago, we recognized that we needed to change. I took from our battles three lessons that we continue to learn from and apply.

First, we needed to accept the heightened expectations that those in government, the industry, our customers, and society at large had for us. We had to assume more responsibility, whether it was required by law or not.

Second, we needed to get out and listen to what other people had to say and do more to help solve the technology problems that needed to be solved.

We had to understand better other people’s perceptions of and concerns about us. We needed to do a better job of solving small problems before they grew out of control.

And finally, we needed to develop a more principled approach to our work. We needed to maintain an entrepreneurial culture, while also integrating this with principles that we could talk about both internally and externally.

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While there is enormous opportunity for individual companies and the tech sector to collectively do more, it’s impossible to conclude that this can relieve governments of their responsibility to do more as well. The tech sector is full of good and thoughtful people, but the three centuries since the dawn of the industrial revolution are devoid of any major industry successfully regulating everything about itself completely by itself.

How can governments regulate a technology that is bigger than themselves? This is perhaps the single greatest conundrum confront‑ ing technology’s regulatory future. But once you ask the question, one part of the answer becomes clear: Governments will need to work together.

There exist many hurdles that will need to be overcome. We live in a time when roiling geopolitical headwinds are causing many governments to pull inward. It’s difficult to expect great leaps in bringing nations together when the day’s dominant headlines talk about countries leaving trade blocks or pulling out of long‑standing treaties. Beyond this, it’s a time when many governments are finding it difficult even to make decisions that matter only to themselves.

But amid these pressures, the inexorable course of technology is forcing more international collaboration. Issues like surveillance reform, privacy protection, and cybersecurity safeguards have all required governments to deal with each other in new ways. It’s one reason so many of our initiatives at Microsoft have focused on supporting the building blocks needed for international progress. Since the start of 2016, these include the coordinated response to WannaCry, the industry’s Cybersecurity Tech Accord, the multi‑stakeholder Paris Call, the US‑EU Privacy Shield, the CLOUD Act’s authorization for international agreements, and a long‑term vision for a Digital Geneva Convention. These same years have seen stronger privacy protection move across the Atlantic and the emergence of a new global conversation about AI and ethics. If this type of progress is possible in a time of growing nationalism, there is hope for even more headway when the international pendulum swings back toward the center.

To start with, we will need to continue to build coalitions of the willing. Six governments and two companies came together publicly to address WannaCry. A group of thirty‑four companies launched the tech accord, and an initial group of fifty‑one governments were part of the multi‑stakeholder support for the Paris Call. In each instance, there were important and even critical omissions. But progress came not by dwelling on who was missing but on who could be persuaded to join. This in turn led to continued momentum and additional expansion later on.

We also need to recognize that some issues may lead to global consensus and others may not. Many of today’s technology issues involve questions of privacy, free expression, and human rights that lack global support. A coalition of the willing is most likely to require the world’s democratic countries to come together. This is not a small group. Today there are roughly seventy‑five democratic nations with a total population approaching four billion.14 This means that more people live in democratic societies than at any time in history. But recently the world’s democracies have become less healthy. Perhaps more than that of any group of societies, their long‑term well‑being requires new collaboration to manage technology and its impact.

This makes it even more important to sustain momentum until the day the United States government resumes its long‑standing diplomatic role by both supporting and providing leadership for these types of international initiatives. There is no mistaking the fact that the world’s democracies are weaker when the United States is standing apart from the rest.

Continued progress also requires that governments recognize that in addition to regulating technology, they need to regulate themselves.

Issues like cybersecurity and disinformation will shape the future of war and the protection of our democratic processes. Just as no industry in history has fully engaged in successful self‑regulation on its own, there’s no precedent for a nation protecting itself by relying solely on the private sector o r even by regulating it. Governments will need to act together, and part of this will require new international norms and rules that limit national conduct and hold countries accountable when they violate those rules.

This inevitably will lead to new debates about the virtues of international rules. You can already hear the concerns that will be voiced regarding the probability that some countries will follow these rules while others will not. The world has had arms control bans and limitations in place since the latter 1800s, and for over a century, controversies have always swirled around the same points. The harsh reality is that some countries will violate these agreements. But it is easier for the rest of the world to respond effectively when an international norm or rule is in place.

Digital technologies’ new challenges also require more active collaboration across traditional institutional boundaries. You can see this, for example, in successful projects to help manage technology’s broad societal impact by bringing together governments, nonprofit groups, and companies to address jobs and the need for people to develop new skills, as described in chapters ten and thirteen. This type of combination can also help address other community challenges such as affordable housing, as reflected in recent initiatives in the Seattle area.

But the opportunity and need for new forms of such collaboration does not end with these social issues. More than ever, the protection of fundamental human rights rests on steps that governments, NGOs, and companies must take together. This will continue to become more pronounced as even more data moves to the cloud and more governments push for data centers to be constructed within their borders. The issues of the twenty‑first century require initiatives that are both multilateral and multi‑stakeholder in scope.

One key to multi‑stakeholder collaboration is the recognition of the respective roles that each group needs to play. Government officials play a unique leadership role, especially in democratic societies, as those elected by the people to make societal decisions. They alone have the authority and responsibility to chart the course of public education and make and apply the laws under which we all live. Companies and nonprofit groups can bring a civic spirit and complement and partner with governments, bringing additional resources, expertise, or data the public sector often needs. And companies and nongovernmental organizations can test new ideas by experimenting and then move faster, especially across borders. We all need to appreciate and respect each other’s roles.

Many issues also will require compromise. For successful business leaders who have helped build some of the world’s most valuable companies, this is not always easy to contemplate. They typically succeeded against long odds by doing things their own way; regulation will restrain their freedom in the future.

This perhaps explains why some tech leaders argue in public and assert even more in private that the greatest risk to innovation is that governments will overreact and overregulate technology. It’s a clear risk, but we currently remain far from falling over this precipice. Politicians and officials have started calling for regulation, but so far there’s been a lot more talk than action. Rather than fret excessively about the dangers of overregulation, the tech sector would be better served by thinking about what shape intelligent regulation should take.

There’s a final consideration, and it’s the most important. These issues are bigger than any single person, company, industry, or even technology itself. They involve fundamental values of democratic freedoms and human rights. The tech sector was born and has grown because it has benefited from these freedoms. We owe it to the future to help ensure that these values survive and even flourish long after we and our products have passed from the scene.

This context provides clarity. The greatest risk is not that the world will do too much to solve these problems. It’s that the world will do too little. And it’s not that governments will move too fast. It’s that they will be too slow.

Technology innovation is not going to slow down. The work to manage it needs to speed up.

From Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.

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