Editor’s Note: Vinton G. Cerf is a pioneer of the internet; Sheldon Himelfarb is the CEO of PeaceTech Lab. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The promise of the internet – the very soul of the tech industry – is under siege.
Those of us who worked to create the internet during the Cold War were driven by the deep belief that open communication and collaboration could change our world for the better. But that belief was not a guarantee. Today, the same technological advancements that have dramatically increased the ease of communicating and sharing information are being used for harm and hatred.
Online groups claiming freedom of speech proudly disseminate instructions for creating untraceable firearms with 3D printers. The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warns that the digital infrastructure serving this country is under attack by foreign agents. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg admits to feeling “a deep sense of responsibility” to fix disinformation and hate speech on the platform, which has been linked to deadly violence in several countries.
It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the scale of these threats, or the seriousness with which the tech community must work to create effective solutions. However, it would also be a mistake to think that technology is inherently to blame for the proliferation of hatred. Although we see countless examples of tech being used by those bent on behaving badly, the internet itself is essentially neutral; it enhances, enables, and scales user efforts – good, bad, or otherwise.
So, how do we mitigate the harmful abuses of the internet without destroying human rights? How do we assure that we harvest the tremendous advantages of sharing knowledge that those of us working on its creation had front of mind?
How do we amplify technology’s power for good and diminish its power to harm?
You wouldn’t know it from the din of stories about election hacking, 3D gun printing, and cyberbullying, but the reality is that we are witnessing the quiet, powerful emergence of a new and exciting industry – one true to the spirit that drove the internet’s birth, and one that should serve as an important blueprint for charting its future.
The peacetech industry.
Nearly every day, the peacetech industry – consisting of nonprofits, startups, and even large companies – is working on ways to leverage the best of tech to diminish conflict and violence, stop the spread of hate speech and fake news, and empower local citizens to participate fully in democracy and so realize their own destiny.
In countries like Iraq, Venezuela, and Mexico, for example, the Salama.io application enables journalists to protect their safety, privacy, and sources, by providing a risk assessment tool and access to security resources. Created by journalist and Knight Foundation fellow Jorge Luis Sierra, the app is available in English, Spanish, and Arabic.
The website IPaidABribe.com is being used in 15 countries and counting to expose corruption – one of the leading drivers of conflict that, according to the International Monetary Fund, costs the world $2 trillion annually. In India alone, where the platform was first created, over 160,000 bribes have been reported to date.
And Cambodia is well on its way to eradicating landmines by 2025, thanks in large part to the Halo Trust. The organization uses state-of-the-art geospatial mapping technology to track progress on landmine clearing in an effort to restore the livelihoods of those affected by war.
But if you think the peacetech industry is about getting people to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” with no money to be made, think again. Annona and Agromovil are two companies tackling the issue of food insecurity, while also helping international buyers protect their bottom line through transparent, digitized supply chains.
Primo Wind’s renewable EnergiTree is as suited to powering cell phones on San Diego beaches as it is to hurricane-affected homes in San Juan or refugee camps in Syria. Notable companies like Amazon Web Services and SAP NS2 have even come together with C5 Capital, a venture capital firm in London, to invest in the world’s first PeaceTech Accelerator for young startups.
These compelling examples remind us that the answer is not less technology but rather its better application.
We are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. In today’s world, violent conflict is currently responsible for nearly all of the 68.5 million refugees worldwide, and all four of the world’s famine threats. Equally disturbing is the fact that after declining for much of the 1990s, the number of major civil wars has almost tripled in the past decade – with a six-fold increase in battle deaths between 2011 and 2017.
The peacetech industry is uniquely positioned to not only alter the world’s current trajectory, but to lead the planet into a new era of conflict prevention. Social media is already being mined by companies seeking to better predict social and economic disruption. AI and machine learning offer great promise for better, smarter interventions.
We can and must embrace the unprecedented opportunities we have to solve the most intractable and ongoing conflicts that continue to plague our world.
But we will only succeed if we beat technological swords into plowshares for the good of humanity.