Democracy in a Digital Future

Democracy in a Digital Future Speakers and Abstracts

Plenary Session: The Politics of the Digital  

The plenary session brings together leading scholars to discuss the democratic challenges of the digital age. While democratic renewal was one of its great promises, the digital revolution has increasingly become a quest for profit and power at the expense of individual autonomy and democratic agency. Driven by the increased availability of personal data and the analytical power of algorithms, digital platforms have been exploited for mass surveillance, disinformation, and behavioural control by corporations, governments, and populist formations. The session explores whether it is possible to reverse the tide. Can digital technologies still be leveraged to rejuvenate stagnating democracies in crisis? How can the design, ownership, and use of digital systems be regulated so as to make them compatible with a democratic future?

Chair: Jón Ólafsson (University of Iceland) 

Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Katrín Jakobsdóttir is the Prime Minister of Iceland and the Leader of the Left-Green Movement. Since 1 January 2019 the policy area of Gender equality was added to the Prime minister’s portfolio to further strengthen the government’s commitment, acknowledging that gender equality cuts through all different government ministries. 

Katrín governs in a coalition with the conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party. She joined the Left-Green Movement in 2002 and has been a member of the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, for the Reykjavík North Constituency since 2007. She has been the leader of the Left-Green Movement since 2013, having served as the deputy leader from 2003. Katrín was Minister of Education, Science and Culture, as well as Minister for Nordic Cooperation, in the left-wing government of 2009–2013. Katrín is Iceland’s second female Prime Minister and is the first elected head of state who comes from a new breed of Nordic left-wing parties that link democratic socialism, environmentalism, feminism and anti-militarism.

David Runciman

David Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University and host of the weekly podcast Talking Politics. His books include The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis, and How Democracy Ends. He has been a principal investigator on the Technology and Democracy project in Cambridge and at the Centre for the Future of Intelligence. He writes widely about contemporary politics for the London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor.

Digitise Democracy or Democratise the Digital?

The relationship between digital technology and democratic politics raises acute questions about sequencing and our order of priorities. Is it possible to take advantage of the democratic potential of new technology before first seeking to democratise the control of that technology? Can concentrations of corporate power co-exist with wider distributions of political power? Are democratic states equipped to regulate this technology before they get captured by it? This talk will explore what needs to come first in ensuring a democratic future for the digital age.

Mireille Hildebrandt

Mireille Hildebrandt is a Research Professor of ‘Interfacing Law and Technologies’ at Vrije Universiteit Brussels and co-director of the research group on Law, Science, Technology and Society studies (LSTS), she is also Professor of ‘Smart Environments, Data Protection and the Rule of Law’ at Radboud University in the Netherlands. She has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for the project of ‘Counting as a human being in the era of computational law’ and co-founder of the ‘Journal of Cross-disciplinary Research in Computational Law’. She works on the interaction between, law, computer science and philosophy.

Is Democracy Computable?

Some may indignantly or dismissively exclaim that – of course – democracy is not computable, whereas others may shrug their shoulders and point to a long tradition of research into voting (e.g. Arrow’s theorem), showing that calculation and computation have a longstanding history of being applied to aggregate political opinion.  My question, however, is not whether – theoretically – democracy can be computed but rather whether democracy would survive if we were to make democratic practice dependent on data-driven computation. To answer this question, I will tap into the notion of the ‘normative force of the factual’ as put forward by the German legal philosopher Jellinek, pitting ‘is’ against ‘ought’ while acknowledging that what is at stake in a democracy is how the ‘ought’ informs the ‘is’. I will argue that data-driven prediction cannot ever do more than scale a version of the past and may thus freeze our future. I will also argue that a better understanding of the research design of data-driven systems will liberate us from their normative force and help us to face and to address the choices we need to make.

Shoshana Zuboff

Scholar, writer, and activist Shoshana Zuboff is the author of three seminal books on technological society. Her recent work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, has been hailed as the tech industry’s Silent Spring and the Das Kapital of the 21st Century. Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School.

Surveillance Capitalism or Democracy?

I have spent the last forty-three years studying the rise of the digital as a political-economic force, propelling our transformation into an information civilization. Over these last two decades I’ve observed as the once young internet companies morph into surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral extraction, monitoring, analysis, targeting, modification, prediction, and sales that I have called ‘surveillance capitalism.’ The once promising global medium of communication, connection, and information flow known as the world wide web is now owned and operated by the anti-social and anti-democratic economics of surveillance capitalist corporations. These operations are the cause of many destructive effects including the wholesale destruction of privacy, the nullification of fundamental rights, and the intensification of social inequality. They have overwhelmed social discourse with toxic disinformation, dividing societies, shrinking the public agora and weakening democratic institutions, visible this year in range of developments from public health to elections. The economic engines of surveillance capitalism have breached the social fabric, unmaking and remaking society in ways that advance the interests of surveillance capital. Against the backdrop of Covid tragedy and the unbearable lightness of American democracy, the last year delivers another bitter lesson:  Surveillance capitalists are coming for democracy. The tech empires reveal an ever more audacious disposition to leverage their absolute control of critical information systems and infrastructures in a showdown with democracy over the laws, rules, principles, norms, and values that govern our social order. As a result of these developments, one question now looms above all other questions: Will our digital century advance the principles, values, and aspirations of democracy and how do we make it so? 


Maximilian Conrad

Maximilian Conrad is Professor and Head of the Faculty of Political Science, University of Iceland. His main research interests include European integration, German politics and political theory, in particular issues connected to democracy, communication, civil society and the public sphere. Recent and ongoing research includes work on the emergence and implications of post-truth politics for liberal democracy in Europe and elsewhere. Conrad is the Academic Coordinator of the Jean Monnet Network Post-Truth Politics, Nationalism and the (De-)Legitimation of European Integration.

Sveinn M. Jóhannesson

Sveinn M. Jóhannesson is Fennell Early Career Research Fellow in United States History at the University of Edinburgh. He completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2018, where he received the Sarah Norton dissertation prize. His research focuses on the political, intellectual, and cultural history of nineteenth-century America, with a particular emphasis on connections between statebuilding and science and technology. He is co-editor of Liberal Disorder, States of Exception and Populist Politics (Routledge, 2021) and his research has been published in the Journal of American History.

Panel: Designing a Democratic Future 

In recent years, researchers and activists have amassed evidence that biases ingrained in digital technologies and automated systems are undermining democracy by amplifying exclusions along the lines of gender, class, and ethnicitySimilarly, the growing sophistication of bots and artificial intelligence have made disinformation easier to tailor, targetand disseminateand much harder to spot and remove. As automated systems make more and more decisions that shape everything from news to public services, this panel explores how the design and regulation of new technologies can be guided by democratic values in support of equality and civic rights. What is the role of governments, citizens and civil society institutions in ensuring accountability, transparency, and democratic control of the digital sphere? 

Chair: Sigríður Ingibjörg Ingadóttir (Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB))

Virginia Dignum

Virginia Dignum is Professor of Responsible Artificial Intelligence at Umeå University, Sweden and associated with the TU Delft in the Netherlands. She is the director of WASP-HS, the Wallenberg Program on  Humanities and Society for AI, Autonomous Systems and Software. She is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, a Fellow of the European Artificial Intelligence Association (EURAI), member of the European Commission High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, of the working group on Responsible AI of the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), of the World Economic Forum’s Global Artificial Intelligence Council, of the Executive Committee of the IEEE Initiative on Ethically Alligned Design, and a founding member of ALLAI-NL, the Dutch AI Alliance. Her book “Responsible Artificial Intelligence: developing and using AI in a responsible way” was published by Springer-Nature in 2019.

Responsible AI: From Principles to Action

Every day we see news about advances and the societal impact of AI. AI is changing the way we work, live and solve challenges but concerns about fairness, transparency or privacy are also growing. Ensuring an ethically aligned purpose is more than designing systems whose result can be trusted. It is about the way we design them, why we design them, and who is involved in designing them. If we are to produce responsible trustworthy AI, we need to work towards technical and socio-legal initiatives and solutions which provide concretise instructions, tools, and other means of dictating, helping, and educating AI practitioners at aligning their systems with our societies’ principles and values.

Jón Gunnar Ólafsson

Jón Gunnar Ólafsson is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Iceland. He completed his PhD in Media and Communications in 2019 from Goldsmiths, University of London. His research interests include political communication in small states, misinformation and the impact social media has had on political news coverage. He is involved in several international research projects focused on democracy and the media, including the Media for Democracy Monitor and the Worlds of Journalism Study. Recently he has been conducting mixed methods research on information dissemination related to COVID-19 in Iceland.

The Role of the News Media in Tackling Online Misinformation

Online misinformation has been identified as a crucial threat to democracy in the digital age, where news dissemination and consumption increasingly rely on online platforms and social media. Public and scholarly debate has so far heavily focused on the affordances of social media platforms, on automated bots and trolls, as well as on the role of alternative news providers, when approaching the issue; the role of established news media has in turn received somewhat less attention. In attempts to counter the spread of online misinformation, the news media have been identified as a crucial actor. The media’s role spans from reactive aspects, such as avoiding to relay misinformation, to more proactive aspects, such as fact-checking and debunking news stories flourishing online, or fostering media literacy and awareness among news users. Based on research from 18 countries (including Iceland) conducted in 2020 for the project Media for Democracy Monitor, I discuss how this ‘new’ democratic role of the media is being interpreted and implemented in newsrooms around the world. How do journalists and editors define their role with regard to online misinformation? Which specific measures (such as task forces, algorithmic solutions, fact checking initiatives) are being used to address the issue of misinformation?

María Rún Bjarnadóttir 

María Rún Bjarnadóttir is a lawyer, academic and policy adviser. Her doctoral research at the University of Sussex is focused on the interaction between freedom of expression and privacy in the online context, and the impact technology has on states´ role to uphold the protection of these fundamental rights. Her research has underpinned national policy and criminal reform in Iceland, reframing sexual privacy for a digital age. She has presented her work on gendered online abuse at the United Nations HQ in Geneva and New York, and been cited in news outlets like Wired and BBC. She serves as the chair of the Council of Europe Expert Committee on Combating Hate Speech (ADI/MSI-DIS).

When the Private is Made Public: Digital Surveillance and Sexual Privacy 

Technological advancement in the recent and coming years has constituted what is referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, fundamental alterations to the way people live, work and relate to one another. This same technological progress has reenergised activists for gender equality and created space and tools for the fourth wave of feminism that seeks to empower women, mainstream intersectionality and utilises technology to mobilise the movement.

The strides that have been taken in technological progress are partly reliant on the masses accepting the trade-off between the convenience technologies facilitates and the compromises to privacy adjacent to that same convenience. The invasive nature smart technology can turn an innocent convenient technological solution into a weapon of surveillance and abuse in the context of domestic abuse and stalking. The marketing of private surveillance as a form of abuse calls for a questions about responsibility to protect women from gendered abuse and if the narrative central to the second wave feminism ‘the private is political’, needs to be readdressed in this context.

Jón Ólafsson 

Jón Ólafsson is professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Iceland. His research interests combine cultural theory and political philosophy and his most recent papers deal with political culture, including dissent and protest action; epistemic democracy, democratic engagement and democratic constitutional design. He now leads a research project on Democratic Constitutional Design. From 2010 to 2013 Jón chaired a committee on ethical codes for government ministers, public servants and state employees, and in 2018 he led a working group on trust in government and public service which submitted a report and proposals to the Prime Minister in September 2018. 

On the (Inevitably) Digital Future of Democracy

Current concerns on misinformation, fake news and polarization often seem to involve a certain illusion about public reason, assuming its prima facie innocence and inherent sense of fairness. Seen from this point of view public space is now threatened by the agents in control of information systems – including and in particular social media platforms – whose interests and power undermine free and open discussion, camouflage corporate control as public choice and surveillance as openness.

In my talk I will challenge this conception of the state of public disourse. I will, first, discuss a few current examples of how the world wide web simultaneously endangers open discussion and offers unprecedented possibilities to verify information and strengthen accountability. Cleaning up social media space could facilitate the continuing evasion of accountability, rather than steer public discourse away from polarization. Second I will argue that while robust mechanisms to expose misinformation and systematic efforts to mislead and subvert verified information are necessary, regulation that removes content from digital platforms will backfire. There is a tradeoff to be made between improving public discourse and deliberation on the one hand and the value of open digital space on the other. I argue that all things considered regulation to control use, access and content of web platforms may serve us less well than attentiveness to and engagement with misinformation and abuse.

RoundtableDemocratic Experiments and Democratic Control* 

Chair: Halla Gunnarsdóttir (Icelandic Confederation of Labour)

Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir 

Ms. Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir is the Director of the Media Commission, the independent regulator for media in Iceland. Prior to that she was the Head of Division of Media at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. Ms. Gylfadottir was one of the main authors of the Act on the National Broadcasting Service No. 23/2013 and the Icelandic Media Law No. 38/2011, transposing the AVMS Directive. Ms. Gylfadottir has been a lecturer at the University of Iceland for 20 years. She is the author and co-author of several peer reviewed articles on media policy and media law. Ms. Gylfadóttir was also the Chair of the Steering Committee on Media and Information Society at the Council of Europe in 2016-2018.

Huginn Freyr Þorsteinsson 

Dr. Huginn Freyr Thorsteinsson is a partner at the creative communication agency Aton.JL. His a part-time lecturer at the University of Iceland and has been on various boards and commissions for public and private companies. In 2017 he wrote a report on the potential impact of high tech on the Icelandic fisheries sector. More recently he was the chairman of the committee on Iceland and the fourth industrial revolution. The committee published a report in 2019 on Iceland and fourth industrial revolution. Huginn has a Ph. D in the philosophy of science from the University of Bristol.


Kristinn Þórisson

Kristinn R. Thórisson is Professor of Computer Science at Reykjavik University, the co-founder of Reykjavik Uniersity’s AI lab, and Founding Director of the Icelandic Institute for Intelligent Machines. During his 30 years of AI research he has consulted for NASA, British Telecom, and HONDA Research Labs, and taught AI courses at Columbia University, KTH and Reykjavik U. Over the pasts decade Dr. Thórisson and his team developed a new kind of AI that can learn complex tasks from scratch, via recursive self-programming. Dr. Thórisson is a two-time recipient of the Kurzweil Award for his work on artificial general intelligence.

Róbert Bjarnason

Róbert is a successful entrepreneur that introduced the web to Iceland in 1993 and in 1995 to Denmark. Before co-founding the nonprofit Citizens Foundation in the year 2008 he worked in the video game industry where his teams received many awards.


Þorbjörg Sigríður Gunnlaugsdóttir