The prefiguration group will be guided by a steering committee whose first members have just been announced at a Paris Peace Forum event. Co-chaired by former OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría and by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Harvard Business School Professor emeritus, it is now composed of 9 prominent members including 2021 Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa.
The creation of the International Observatory on Information and Democracy was announced at the Summit on Information and Democracy in New York on 24 September. It will conduct regular evaluations of phenomena observed in the information space, their causes and the risks they pose to democracy. It will publish reports based on a meta-analysis of the available research and data with the aim of fostering a common understanding of the digital space and informing public decision-making.
The prefiguration group will meet periodically during the next six months to work on the Observatory’s structure. The Observatory will be hosted by the Forum on Information and Democracy, an entity created to implement the Partnership for Information and Democracy, which has been endorsed by 43 countries. The prefiguration group’s report will be published in the first half of 2021.
The Forum announced the first distinguished members of the prefiguration group, whose purpose is to define the Observatory’s objectives, methodology and resources:
● Virgilio Almeida, Emeritus Professor, Department of Computer Sciences, Federal University of Minas Gerais
● Jim Balsillie, founder of BlackBerry
● Jean-Marie Guéhenno, diplomat, former UN Under-Secretary-General
● Elsa Pilichowski, Director for Public Governance, OECD
● Miguel Poiares Maduro, Chair, European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO)
● Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and 2021 Nobel Peace Laureate
● Burhan Sönmez, President, PEN International
“To curb the logics destroying democracies, decisions must be based on evaluations that are clear, relevant and shared,” said Christophe Deloire, chair of the Forum on Information and Democracy. “It will be the International Observatory’s role to provide them. We need a process similar to the one for global warming, with regular summits, the equivalent of the IPCC, and undertakings by governments. With the Forum on Information and Democracy and the Observatory at its heart, we are on the right path. The steering committee’s impressive list of members and the prestige of its co-chairs bode well for the Observatory.”
“Today we confront a tragedy of the “un-commons”: Information spaces that people assume to be public are strictly ruled by the private commercial interests of surveillance capitalism and its drive for maximum profit,” insisted Shoshana Zuboff. “We need lawmakers ready to engage in the once-a-century challenge of fundamental questions that have never been asked or answered: How should we structure and govern information flows, connection, and communication infrastructures for a democratic digital century? I am excited to help lead The International Observatory on Information and Democracy, as it gathers knowledge and assists lawmakers and policy experts in building durable solutions to these historic questions for the sake of the flourishing democratic and digital century yearned for by people of every society.”
According to Angel Gurria, “the Observatory is about the quality of Democracy. It’s about how to ensure that people, society at large, are truly free to make their own decisions based on the best, most objective, neutral information . It’s about avoiding biases and blind spots. It’s about our well-being as defined by what we want, rather than a commercial outfit with an agenda or an algorithm designed to benefit the few, rather than the many.”
A support from the beginning of the initiative in 2018, Maria Ressa recognized the need for an independent international evaluation: “this is what will do with the International Observatory on Information and Democracy, just like in 2018 when RSF got a small group together to begin to talk about the principles and values that the internet should have.”
Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas, respectively Minister for foreign affairs of France and Germany, welcomed the creation of the Observatory. The latter is “looking towards the progress of the International Observatory on Information and Democracy and further cooperation to keep the democracy engine running.” Minister Le Drian announced France is “very committed to the setting up of the International Observatory on Information and Democracy because we really need it. We need to understand the space we are in and the global failures.” The Observatory is a means “to alert us on the risks we are facing in the information and communication space. We need this tool to make good decisions,” he said.
European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said: “The Information and Democracy Forum and the newly created Observatory play a key role. We need to develop a common understanding of the issues at stake [...] I am sure that the work of the new Observatory will further contribute to our action.” Referring to a report published in 2020, Jourova added that “the recommendations of the working group on infodemics of the Forum on Information and Democracy were an important contribution to our European Democracy Action Plan.”