Big Tech Is Undermining U.S. Democracy—And This Ukrainian American Has Had Enough | Opinion

"You have a slight accent. Where are you from?" I've heard it from strangers just about every day since I was 13 years old, when I immigrated to the United States from Ukraine.

Yes, Ukraine. That small, amazing, resilient, strong and beautiful country that borders Russia, Poland and Germany, among others. Ukraine, a nation surrounded by economic, political and military giants—yet never in their shadow.

Yes, that small country that somehow ended up in the middle of an international geopolitical crisis and the impeachment proceedings of the president of the United States. I suppose between direct military conflict with Russia and a cameo appearance in U.S. impeachment hearings, the latter is an upgrade?

Though I haven't lived in Ukraine since I was 13 years old, and I spent my formative years in the U.S. in the '90s with boy bands and boom boxes, I seem to have recently become an informal expert for many Americans on a variety of Ukraine-related questions concerning current events.

"What do you think about the new Ukrainian president?" they ask.

"Never met the guy. My relatives tell me that we are from the same provincial, industrial town" is my normal answer. But before you get too excited, remember that Ukraine is a small country. One could say that we are all more or less from the same town in the grand scheme of things. So this assertion likely falls in the category of "fake news."

"Which side you are on: Ukraine or Russia?" is another question I get very often. My answer is obvious and consistent: "I am always on the side of democracy." Always. Period.

That includes the Silicon Valley tech community's responsibility to protect it here in America. As a member of that community, I increasingly find myself in conversations about so-called "techlash." If you haven't heard of it, "techlash" refers to the backlash we are seeing against Silicon Valley giants.

What is behind all this techclash? When I'm not being asked about internal Ukrainian politics, this is another question I get frequently.

The answer is simple: Tech companies are propagating un-American values that cut to the core of who we are as a people. They undermine what we stand for. Specifically, they have, likely inadvertently, undermined the principles of American democracy as outlined in our seminal documents, including the Constitution.
Allow me to illustrate.

"Fake news," for example. Very few things are more American than constitutionally protected freedom of speech. We consider free speech to be a cornerstone of democracy—the very first amendment to the Constitution. We fundamentally believe that free press is not just a nice or right thing to do; it is a critical birthright. We believe that it will help us reach the truth eventually.

Yet fake news, designed to mislead and manipulate masses, has us questioning this core belief. Could it be that the freedom of speech and press may lead to the opposite of what our founders intended? To the obfuscation of truth? Could it lead to the intentional dispersion of manipulative misinformation?

How about election interference? I can't think of anything more essential to democracy than free elections without interference. They are synonymous with democracy. Yet has that ideal become practically unattainable in an age where foreign powers around the world use sophisticated tech tools to influence election results? Could it be that in the age of technology, perfectly free elections have as mythical as unicorns and the tooth fairy?

And then there is the question of privacy. From the Miranda rights popularized by Hollywood police films ("You have the right to remain silent...") to our belief that we ought to be able to do whatever we please in the privacy of our homes as long as no one is harmed, we regard privacy as an essential American value, courtesy of the Constitution.

Yet data beaches have become more and more common. They're business as usual. But they are dangerous—Google seems to understand me better than my husband ever could. It knows what I want, when I want and that I want! And I have been married to my husband for more than a decade. If Google were my husband, it would always say the right thing and buy me the right birthday gift, all without me saying a word.

Yet what do I sacrifice to be understood so intimately by Google? It's simple: my privacy. And technology is what drives it.

So these three examples alone—free speech, free elections and privacy—show just a few ways that technology undermines who we are as people, what we stand for and the democratic values that we hold dear. Technology can, and does, propagate values and beliefs that are undemocratic at best and un-American at worst.

It feels like a continued violence that we can't stop or control. And techclash is a natural reaction to this violence. It is a visceral, knee-jerk response.

Ukraine administration building Volodymyr Zelensky
People walk past the President's Administration building prior to a press conference by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on October 1 in Kiev, Ukraine. The country has found itself at the center of a U.S. political storm. Sean Gallup/Getty

I don't think technology is evil. On the contrary, technology has a lot of potential and has greatly improved our lives. It might even be the solution eventually. Yet somewhere on the innovation curve, we have become arrogant. We have forgotten who we are and what we stand for. We have started taking our democratic values for granted. And we have sacrificed our humanity.

It is a big mistake. This does not mean that we should halt technological progress. But we must ask not only what technology can do and how it enriches us, but also if it is the right thing to do. What advances our core values?

We must collectively address the current destructive technology autopilot that is driving us toward non-democracy. I am convinced that we will find ways to use technology to preserve our values for generations to come. There is no reason that technology and innovation have to undermine democracy rather than promote it—technology can secure free elections, can provide new platforms for unheard voices, and can secure our homes and private lives from wandering eyes.

Together, whether in politics or technology, we must all be on the side of democracy. Always.

Olga V. Mack is a strategist, attorney, nationally recognized author, public speaker and women's advocate. She is CEO at Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.