Barack Obama’s take on democracy and the future of technology

Former United States President Barack Obama at the Stanford campus on April 21, 2022.

Jessica Espinosa • May 2022

On the 21st of April, former president of the United States, Barack Obama delivered a keynote address on the Stanford University Campus about the need to regulate the digital space to strengthen democracy and fight desinformation. Closely aligned with the Swiss Digital Initiative (SDI) mission and work on the need for ethical and safety standard to navigate the digital space, on this blog we highlight our main take-aways from his powerful speech:

“I am amazed by the internet. It’s connected billions of people around the world, put the collected knowledge of centuries at our fingertips. It’s made our economies vastly more efficient, accelerated medical advances, opened up new opportunities, allowed people with shared interests to find each other”.

Undoubtedly, the internet has allowed profound and accelerated cultural changes in the processes of knowledge production, learning, interaction, communication, work, creativity and in ways of political representation. Society, businesses and governments have found their place in the digital space and, somehow, this space has also facilitated the interaction and exchange between these actors. In this sense, the internet has become a fundamental tool and an inherent part of our everyday lives.

The Challenges

“So the internet and the accompanying information revolution has been transformative. And there’s no turning back. But like all advances in technology, this progress has had unintended consequences that sometimes come at a price. And in this case, we see that our new information ecosystem is turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses”.

Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash [].

“It’s fair to say then that some of the current challenges we face are inherent to a fully connected world. Our brains aren’t accustomed to taking in this much information this fast, and a lot of us are experiencing overload. But not all problems we’re seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet generally and social media platforms in particular. Decisions that, intentionally or not, have made democracies more vulnerable”.

Nevertheless, as we are still navigating the many possibilities the internet can bring, challenges have arisen around its safe and ethical use, particularly since digital services and internet applications can affect human rights, individual autonomy, competitive market order, financial stability, democratic processes, and national sovereignty. Obama’s speech is mainly focused on these last two challenges, as he emphasises on how desinformation through digital channels has weakened democracy. Deeply connected to SDI’s work, Obama also points out that companies that are digital service providers, whether intentionally or not, are responsible for accentuating these challenges. In this sense, now more than ever, trust and ethics are fundamental to guarantee accountable and transparent digital providers and responsible and informed consumers.  

Ethical standards are needed to build trust

“Twenty years ago, the pillars of web search were comprehensiveness, relevance and speed. But with the rise of social media and the need to better understand people’s online behaviour, in order to sell more advertising, companies want to collect more data. More companies optimise for personalization, engagement and speed. And unfortunately, it turns out that inflammatory, polarising content attracts and engages”.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash [].

“New technologies are already challenging the way we regulate currency, how we keep consumers safe from fraud. And with the emergence of AI, disinformation will grow more sophisticated. Without some standards, the implications of this technology, for our elections, for our legal system, for our democracy, for rules of evidence, for our entire social order are frightening and profound”.

Former President Obama highlights the need to create and adopt standards that, in a way, regulate new technologies or that guarantee that companies adhere to ethical and safety standards when providing a digital service. Within SDI, we believe that trust and ethics in the digital space are fundamental to build safe digital infrastructure and strengthen responsibility.

Moreover, in his speech, Obama makes a special emphasis on AI technology, which undoubtedly has been growing fastly with its implications still highly misunderstood. To raise awareness on AI algorithms,  SDI together with HEAD Genève created the interactive tool ADface. Try it out to learn more about the way AI algorithms might influence your everyday life. 

“Fortunately, I am convinced that it is possible to preserve the transformative power and promise of the open internet, while at least mitigating the worst of its harms. And I believe that those of you in the tech community, soon to be in the tech community, not just its corporate leaders, but employees at every level have to be part of the solution”.

Barack Obama keynote address at Stanford University on April 21st. Photo by Obama Foundation [].

“…And while companies initially always complain that the rules are going to stifle innovation and destroy the industry, the truth is that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation because it raises the bar on safety and quality. And it turns out that innovation can meet that higher bar. And if consumers trust that new technology is doing right by them and is safe, they’re more likely to use it”. 

“We do expect these companies to affirm the importance of our democratic institutions, not dismiss them, and to work to find the right combination of regulation and industry standards that will make democracy stronger”.

As SDI, we couldn't agree more with Barack Obama’s words. Now, on the face of the fastest digitalization process we have witnessed, the future of democracy is tightly linked to the interactions in the digital space. Therefore, adopting clear ethical standards, principles or guidelines is the next step toward a future of digital ethics and safety. The SDI, in an effort to put t​​rust and transparency back into tech, has developed the very first Digital Trust Label. Through this label, we want to empower users to feel safe and secure when they use digital services and we want to give organisations a way to convey their commitment to credibility and build trustworthiness on their services. 

We agree with former President Obama, effective standards and regulations can indeed motivate further innovation by raising the bar on safety and quality. One of the main advantages of our Digital Trust Label is that it makes digital services comparable on the trustworthiness of their services and, therefore, enables organisations to aspire to achieve ambitious ratings, leading to a competitive advantage.