l.t.r. Jeff Rathke (AICGS), Ingo Zamperoni (ARD-presenter), Michael Link (Member of the Lower House of German Parliament and Transatlantic Relations coordinator), Annalena Baerbock, Antony J. Blinken, Amy Gutmann (U.S. Ambassador to Germany), Emily Haber (german Abassandor to the U.S.), Ralph Heck.

l.t.r. Jeff Rathke (AICGS), Ingo Zamperoni (ARD-presenter), Michael Link (Member of the German Bundestag and Transatlantic Relations coordinator), Annalena Baerbock, Antony J. Blinken, Amy Gutmann (U.S. Ambassador to Germany), Emily Haber (german Abassandor to the U.S.), Ralph Heck (chair of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Executive Board)

Strenghtening Democracy in a digital World

At the inaugural U.S.-German Futures Forum in Muenster, Germany, participants formulated recommendations for finding concrete ways to strengthen the principles of democracy in view of the digital transformation. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined the exchange of ideas in a panel discussion.

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Foto Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook
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Mark Fischer
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Agreed as part of the July 2021 Washington Declaration signed by U.S. President Joe Biden and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Futures Forum aims to bring together an intergenerational, multi-sector expert group on a future-oriented issue challenging both democracies. In four distinct workshops over two days in Muenster, Germany, 140 participants from the United States and Germany discussed how to improve the functionality of government and civic services through technology, stem the rising tide of disinformation in public policy especially in democratic processes, improve the use of technology in both U.S. and German development policy, and how best to safeguard and promote human rights online. Organized by the U.S. State Department, the German Federal Foreign Office, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), the forum took place on the sidelines of the G-7 foreign ministers' meeting. In a joint appearance, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered their perspectives on advancing shared democratic values in an increasingly digital world.

Organized in four workshop groups, the participants developed several proposals for specific political measures, each focusing on a different topic:

"Reinforcing Democracy at Home: Delivering Democracy Digitally"

Technology plays a crucial role in bolstering the reliance and sovereignty of democratic institutions – but these institutions need a diverse innovation landscape in government technology (GovTech), particularly startups, to respond to and anticipate citizen needs. The establishment of an (inter-)governmental standardization body to ensure interoperability between public sector software systems in the U.S. and Germany could help each side learn from one another more effectively, participants concluded. To assist and support public servants at national, state, and city level in making decisions on technological investments, participants recommended that new public procurement institutions should be set up in both countries.

"Advancing Democracy and Human Rights Online"

Democracies can model an affirmative vision for the internet by ensuring that domestic and foreign policies are appropriately coordinated and aligned with human rights principles. The Freedom Online Coalition – a global coalition of 34 governments and its Advisory Network, which both Germany and the U.S. are part of – should be expanded in its functionality and reach. Participants suggested the development of global normative frameworks to increase and incentivize the accountability and responsible behavior of corporations to address human rights online. U.S. lawmakers could significantly strengthen such accountability by passing federal data protection and privacy standards. Participants suggested that the Freedom Online Coalition should expand its capacities to offer pro-democracy advocacy groups the necessary financial resources and support toward the active development of democracy-affirming technologies. Additional resources were also needed for educational institutions across the Coalition member states to develop curricula and resources for digital and media literacy – comparatively and cooperatively. Taken together and anchored in strong legislation on both sides of the Atlantic, these initiatives could serve to achieve a greater alignment of domestic and foreign policy priorities.

"Defending Democracy: Countering Digital Authoritarianism and the Misuse of Technology"

Participants encouraged new measures to enhance platform accountability and argued in favor of changes to the current business model of internet platforms, including mandating interoperability and reducing algorithmic amplification. Multilateral coalitions of democracies could share information about network vulnerabilities and devise minimum standards for the export of advanced technologies among themselves. Similarly, the participants suggested, democracies could actively push back against information controls instituted by authoritarian governments by creating multilateral funding sources for open technology systems and increasing support for developing local circumvention tools. 

"Extending Democracy: Integrating Technology for Democracy in Development Efforts"

The group identified numerous recommendations for policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, highlighting a need to pursue the setting of norms and standards and the protection of accessible digital infrastructure. Participants suggested the German and U.S. governments might incentivize or subsidize technology models and platforms that are rights-respecting, and work with technology providers to improve VPN access globally. Both USAID and the German Development Ministry could consider allocating funds for countries in the Global South to improve their own capacity-building toward developing digital policy positions – e.g. related to digital norms and standards – and amplify their views in the global context. 

Over the coming year, participants will reconvene, hosted by key stakeholders in the U.S.-German relationship, to discuss implementation plans. In 2023, the U.S.-German Futures Forum will address a different issue of salience to both governments and will "fully utilize the expertise and innovative power of our societies and recommend solutions to jointly shape our future," as set out in the 2021 Washington Declaration. The 2023 Futures Forum will take place in the United States. The German Federal Foreign Office, Bertelsmann Stiftung, U.S. Department of State, and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University (AICGS) are partnering to host the U.S.-German Futures Forum each year.