New AI and free press standards fortify the fight against autocracy

Individual human rights, privacy and the free press are under siege in an increasing number of countries around the world. Liberty itself is being challenged by authoritarian governments whose power is enhanced by the unethical use of social media, facial recognition technology and the ability to intercept private communications. 

Even in democracies, disinformation and doctored videos are often used on social media to undermine confidence in political leaders. Conspiracy theories abound, amplified by unregulated technology. As we have seen in the United States, democracy is threatened when a high percentage of citizens lose confidence in governance and the electoral system.

In the past two weeks, two organizations took steps to fight back against these attacks on democracy: the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. And the Biden administration joined the fight for a free press.

ADVERTISEMENT

On Nov. 25, UNESCO announced a remarkable consensus agreement among 193 member states creating the first-ever global standard on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI). The text of that agreement will guide the formulation of national laws that will encourage the healthy development of artificial intelligence systems while calling more attention to their misuse by autocratic governments and criminal elements.

The Nobel Committee made its contribution by awarding its Peace Prize to two courageous journalists: Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitri Muratov of Russia. These journalists demonstrated personal bravery by persisting in exposing powerful and corrupt leaders despite physical and legal attacks against them. They represented the global journalism profession that has seen the murder and incarceration of so many of its members.

In her Dec. 10 acceptance speech, Ressa mentioned the names of the journalists who had lost their lives in recent years and indirectly reinforced the importance of the UNESCO global ethical standard when she said:  "Our greatest need today is to transform the hate and violence… that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us."

Ressa, who also won the UNESCO Press Freedom award in 2021, has 10 arrest warrants against her for exposing the campaign of Philippines President Duterte’s war on drugs, in which thousands have been killed by the government without the benefit of due process. She lives in constant fear of spending the rest of her life in prison.

She appealed to foreign assistance donors to spend more development dollars to strengthen her profession and urged governments to pass laws that regulate “algorithms that have been programmed by humans with their coded biases” and “profit-driven” motives.

ADVERTISEMENT

President BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE must have been listening. At the Summit for Democracy, he announced that USAID would contribute up to $30 million to an International Fund for Public Interest Media, $5 million to launch a Media Viability Accelerator to improve the financial viability of independent media in developing countries, $9 million to support a Defamation Defense Fund to protect journalists from spurious claims and $3.5 million to establish a Journalism Protection Platform.

These contributions were designed to attract additional resources from other democratic governments. Ressa must have been very pleased!

Her appeal was fully consistent with the principles contained in the UNESCO global standard on AI. Principles that emphasize fairness and non-discrimination, the right to privacy, transparency, responsibility and accountability are values that will encourage the creation of more responsible citizens and accountable governments.

As we have seen in recent congressional hearings here in the United States, there is bipartisan support for curbing the unfettered influence of social media companies like Facebook. Congress wants access to those algorithms that dictate the distribution of the type of messages that influence the behavior of hate-filled citizens and impressionable teenagers. Gaining that access is what UNESCO calls “human oversight and determination.”

UNESCO has a distinguished history of battling antisemitism through education and advocating for press freedom. Creating a global ethical standard for AI is consistent with that history. It is but a first step in confronting the potential misuses of AI while accentuating its many potential benefits. It is now up to national governments to create the will to act. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While the United States has its own set of challenges in overcoming social media companies’ lobbying, autocratic governments like that of China will be hardpressed to live up to the UNESCO standard by denying itself the “luxury” of spying on its own people. 

Somewhat ironically, China, after seeking to soften the language on citizen surveillance, actually endorsed the UNESCO principles, most likely not wanting to stand out as the only member of UNESCO to dissent. Now the world has a benchmark against which to judge China’s conduct. 

Sadly, the United States did not endorse the global standard as it is no longer a member of UNESCO. Hopefully, that will change soon. 

In the past two weeks, UNESCO and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have acted as the conscience of a troubled world. They have reminded us that preserving our freedom requires eternal vigilance and an awareness of the lurking human and technological dangers we are facing. 

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs where he now serves on the board (NDI presented its Democracy Award to Maria Ressa in 2017). He was the administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.