Stanford Joins International Initiative to Strengthen Democracy and Foster Responsible Technology

(Originally published by Stanford Report on June 7, 2023) 

Through Project Liberty’s Institute, Stanford will collaborate with Georgetown and Sciences Po to shape the technical, ethical, and governance infrastructure of emerging technologies and the next-generation internet.

Digital technologies, from social media platforms to cryptocurrencies to generative AI, are the source of a variety of problems that undermine the interests of individuals and organizations, and the foundations of democracy itself. In order to fully enjoy any upsides, these downsides need to be effectively addressed.

Civic entrepreneur Frank McCourt, Jr. (second from left) with members of the faculty steering committee, who will lead and oversee Stanford’s activities under Project Liberty’s Institute. From left to right, Erik Brynjolfsson, Rob Reich, Michael McFaul, Marietje Schaake, and Nathaniel Persily. (Image credit: Melissa Morgan)

Stanford University is joining Project Liberty’s Institute, a consortium of experts in law, policy, social sciences, ethics, and technology working together to shape emerging technologies and a new internet designed and governed for the common good. Stanford becomes one of three founding partners, with Georgetown University and Sciences Po, and will receive philanthropic support to advance cutting-edge research, education, and training in technology, ethics, policy, and governance.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for Stanford’s interdisciplinary researchers to join forces with other leading experts and play a larger role in shaping an ethical future for our digital society,” said Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University. “By building a network of collaborators focused on technology, governance, and social good, we can advance research solutions that have the potential to create stronger, more enduring democracies worldwide. We are deeply grateful to Project Liberty for accelerating this important work.”

Project Liberty’s Institute was founded by civic entrepreneur Frank McCourt, Jr., as the digital governance arm of Project Liberty, an independent, international nonprofit he launched in 2021 to enable a more equitable and inclusive technology infrastructure for the internet. The initiative will leverage Stanford’s existing expertise and enable new efforts in the Ethics, Society, and Technology Hub at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, which are both in the School of Humanities and Sciences; the Cyber Policy Center, a joint center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and Stanford Law School; and the Stanford Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (Stanford HAI).

“Stanford will add an important anchor for us in Silicon Valley,” said McCourt, who is also the parent of three Stanford alums. “Project Liberty and its institute aim to foster a transatlantic network of the most innovative thinkers on technology for the common good. With their openness to collaboration, focus on solutions, and shared sense of urgency, Stanford faculty will help propel our work. We couldn’t be more pleased to have Stanford join us at this critical juncture.”

Stanford will initially collaborate with Project Liberty’s Institute through three complementary, interdisciplinary hubs that encompass ethics, social science, technical research, and thought leadership aimed at informing emerging technologies and the internet of tomorrow.

“Tech companies have a disproportionate influence and power over our lives,” said Martina Larkin, CEO of Project Liberty. “We know the damage – to our societies and democracies, and to the health and safety of individual users – that social media causes. This partnership with Stanford University will accelerate our mission to build a better web for a better world: one in which social networks, AI and responsible technology can support democracy, and build a digital society that benefits the many and not just the few.”

Ethics, society, and technology programs

With support from Project Liberty, the university’s Embedded Ethics program – a joint initiative of the Department of Computer Science, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, and Stanford HAI – will expand. The program’s mission is to inject ethics and policy curriculum in all core courses of the undergraduate major in computer science and help ensure a meaningful encounter with ethics for every technology student educated at Stanford.

The Ethics, Society, and Technology (EST) Hub, housed at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, will also develop a portfolio of fellowships for undergraduates and graduate students, as well as postdocs and members of industry, enabling newly trained leaders to engage with ethics at critical junctions in their education and careers, and thereby facilitating the placement of technologists into positions of influence in higher education, industry, civil society, and government. Furthermore, Project Liberty’s support will enable the EST Hub to create a best-in-class library of open-source ethics, policy, and technology case studies to shape thinking and decision-making in other university and industry settings globally.

“Our goal is to bring about a culture shift on campus, at other universities, and in the wider world,” said Rob Reich, professor of political science, who co-directs the EST Hub with political science Professor Margaret Levi.

“To ensure a flourishing and inclusive democratic society, we need to transform the training of the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and leaders,” added Reich, who is also the faculty director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. “The EST Hub will usher in a new breed of technologists who place in the foreground the ethical and societal implications of their work – and who are committed to building tech that serves rather than subverts democracy.”

Governance of emerging technologies

A new Governance of Emerging Technologies program will be housed within Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center. The program will be directed by Nathaniel Persily, an expert in digital law and policy, and will focus on governance and regulation of generative AI, virtual reality, and blockchain technologies. For its first year, the program will be co-led by Florence G’Sell, a visiting professor who holds the Digital Sovereignty and Governance Chair at Sciences Po, one of the partner institutions of Project Liberty’s Institute.

This program will recruit top researchers and postdoctoral scholars to the Cyber Policy Center to advance research at the intersection of technology, governance, law, and public policy. They will leverage existing initiatives like the Program on Platform Regulation, led by Daphne Keller, an expert in the regulation of social media and other Internet platforms; and the Program on Democracy and the Internet, led by Persily, Reich, and Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow in International Studies. Marietje Schaake, a former member of the European Parliament and an expert on European tech policy, will lead research efforts focused on equity, representation, and human rights.

The Governance of Emerging Technologies program will also build a rigorous research agenda, identify gaps, and set a path for future research and policymaking to explore the impacts of emerging technologies on democratic governance, rule of law, and socioeconomic inequality. And, as with the EST Hub, the digital governance program will train a new generation of global policy leaders versed in the technology and policy impacts of the next-generation internet.

“Technology is changing rapidly, and we need to grapple with governance challenges right now,” said Persily, who is the James B. McClatchy Professor in Stanford Law School. “We’re very excited to work with Georgetown and Sciences Po through Project Liberty’s Institute to define how we govern the future of global digital communications. With presences in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and Europe, this research consortium will have the reach and the expertise to accomplish these important and difficult goals.”

Digital platforms, society, and the economy

Support from Project Liberty will empower the Stanford Digital Economy Lab at Stanford HAI to expand its research into how digital technologies, particularly AI, affect society and the economy – and shape the global conversation about transforming social media and other institutions for the betterment of society.

The lab will convene leading experts on technology and policy to author an ongoing series of Digital Society Papers, inspired by the Federalist Papers that conveyed the precepts of the U.S. Constitution to a nascent American democracy in the 18th century. The lab will hold convenings with academics and other stakeholders with the intention that these clear, informed, and data-driven articles will spark a global conversation about the role of digital technologies and the future of technology in democratic society.

The Digital Economy Lab will also launch a new set of research projects focused on social media, digital platforms, and their impact on society. The goal of the work is to identify ways in which social networks and AI can support democracy, truth, and be a benefit to society. The topics include the use of AI like ChatGPT on social media platforms, ecosystem incentive structures, new protocols and models (like the Decentralized Social Network Protocol), and solutions to the problems of privacy, security, misinformation, and political polarization.

“From recent experience, we know that the flow of truthful and thoughtful information through our vast digital web of social connections is critical to the well-being of society, to economic progress, and to democracy itself,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, who leads the Digital Economy Lab and is the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Professor at Stanford HAI. “Our focus must be on designing and implementing social and technical systems that promote truth, insight, and cooperation while mitigating those that amplify misinformation, confusion, and polarization. We want to engage a broad collective of stakeholders in this work, generating the insights, ideas, and information necessary to address these challenges and shape a new digital society for the world.”