The Democratic Impacts of 5G

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | July 13, 2021

Small Photo
A city overlaid with connected network lines and symbols for cellular technology
Image via stnazkul on Getty Images

5G adoption is happening around the world, even in places with low internet penetration. At the end of 2019, 131 countries had announced plans to invest in 5G, and more than 60 of the 98 countries NDI works in were engaging corporations that have close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in their 5G plans. Existing research on 5G has focused almost exclusively on its impacts for international security and economic growth. Little is understood in the democracy donor community about the paths to 5G for developing democracies, how players in the 5G rollout process interact with democratic actors in a given country, or where there are strategic points of intervention to defend democracies from illiberal influences and technology standards. NDI set out to address this gap of comprehensive research into the impacts, positive or negative, of 5G on human rights and democracy through NDI's new white paper, 5G and the Future Internet: Implications for Developing Democracies and Human Rights.

While global demand for 5G is rooted in economic ambition, this technology will have irreversible effects on civic and political rights of citizens. 5G will transform the way we communicate and live. It will expand information access and control, bring billions of devices online across sectors, automate everyday activities, and advance smart cities. With so much of people's daily lives at stake, it is crucial that 5G technologies are governed with transparency and democratic accountability.

NDI's research, however, found that decision-making around 5G adoption occurs almost exclusively in executive branches of government with little to no oversight of these actions. Almost no dedicated civil society organizations focus on Future Internet issues in their countries, and civil society is not included in discussions on 5G adoption. In most cases we examined, parliaments and legislatures are weak in general, and parliaments lack strong mechanisms for understanding the tradeoffs between digital convenience and democracy and individual rights. As the influence of the CCP and other illiberal actors over the digital landscape and 5G standards grows, autocratic leaders will gain broader control over data flow and governance. For an aspiring autocrat, 5G will be an attractive technology for manipulating the information environment and for empowering large-scale human rights abuses and mass discrimination.

Events over the last ten years as the world progressed from 3G to 4G have demonstrated that technology is inseparable from the future of democracy. Technology is increasingly used to block transparency and suppress dissent in closed and closing spaces, violate privacy and individual rights, and polarize societies even in the most vibrant democracies. 5G could further enable these negative impacts on democracy and civic participation, due to the volume, scope, and scale of data processed and accessible through 5G infrastructure. These direct risks to democracies must be framed in clear terms that empower policymakers to understand the impacts of their decisions.

Even if leaders come to different conclusions about risks and acceptable trade-offs for 5G in their own country, prioritizing a democratic and transparent process for setting 5G policy is critical. The democracy community has a key role to play in engaging the public, companies, governments, and global entities on 5G, but a lack of familiarity with the technology limits the ability to identify effective interventions. 

International democracy stakeholders have yet to craft and influence 5G strategies that protect privacy, human rights, and democracy. The community must work together across sectors to advance technology rooted in human rights.

How Future Internet technologies are created, defined, governed, and used will have an impact on the future of data information ecosystems and the choice between models of digital democracy and digital authoritarianism. The importance of 5G goes beyond protecting democracy from equipment produced by companies close to the Chinese government. The critical risks associated with AI, data flow, and the Internet of Things will be further underpinned by the transition to 5G. The democracy community needs to better understand and craft strategies to counter growing digital authoritarian trends across regions, in democracies and non-democracies alike. The current focus on economic and cybersecurity arguments fails to capture some of the most pressing digital risks posed by illiberal 5G influence to human rights and democracy. 

For more information, read the full white paper here.

NDI's work to help our partners address the challenges and opportunities 5G presents is ongoing. Join us on Wednesday, July 14th at 10:00 ET for the next installment in our Tech Summer Series to discuss these implications of 5G with the paper's co-authors.