The opportunity of the digital age to achieve bottom-up semocracy

2 May 2016 09:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the WSIS Forum 2016.]

The thematic workshop was organised by the Association for Proper Internet Governance (APIG). 

Mr Richard Hill (President, Association for Proper Internet Governance) outlined the session and introduced himself and his co-panellist, Mr Norbert Bollow, a technologist representing civil society. Hill then focused on the connection between the Internet and democracy. He explored the concepts being addressed, including democracy, bottom-up processes, and changes to digital society starting from telephony – such as how we communicate, how much time we spend communicating with others, and who we are able to communicate with. According to Hill, the digital age has greatly changed how citizens engage in a democracy. He gave an example of the now-simple task of looking up a law. Another example included scrutinising what legislative bodies discuss while in session, as records are now published online. Such tools help to empower citizens to participate. He stressed, however, that digital tools can also hurt democracy: governments are increasing monitoring and surveillance, cracking down on online dissent, and tracking individuals via Internet protocol (IP) address geolocation. The private sector also impacts democratic citizens by owning user data and using it in ways that are either nontransparent or offer way more control over devices or data than most would agree to in person (for instance, by agreeing to terms and conditions). Hill suggested that much more work needs to be done to safeguard the potential of digital tools to strengthen democracy, such as passing more effective regulation and making citizens more aware of their digital rights.

Hill then passed the floor to Bollow, who discussed how to create problem-solving logic for democratic processes. He opened by highlighting what he called the ‘challenge of complexity’. Since the digital age is marked by globalisation, the complexity of public policy issues has increased. Furthermore, increased participation and the diversity of perspectives have added to the complexity. When considering how to facilitate better decision-making and democratic processes, managing this complexity is key. For Bollow, the Internet is not a magic bullet for managing this complexity; problem-solving logic is a critical solution. Bollow outlined a problem-solving mechanism that broke down effective democratic decision-making into areas such as recognising necessary conditions for an effective solution, identifying potential conflict and critical success factors, and setting goals. Such a mechanism introduces a formal structure to discussions that can ultimately facilitate negotiation. Lastly, he suggested creating an experimental problem-solving logic-based process that includes developing appropriate rules for the process and the funding to sustain them. After the process is developed, he suggested creating pilot programmes for public policy processes to test best practices and create a bottom-up, democratic process.

In response to a question from the audience regarding what could be done to strengthen digital democracy, the panellists suggested increased cybersecurity, increased oversight of those who control digital resources (for instance. service providers, social media platforms, governments), and increased public engagement.

Another question highlighted the connection between cybercrime and democratic engagement. Both panellists said tools like encryption make a difference and strengthen cybersecurity for all even if those committing crimes also use encryption. Their answers also stressed how cybersecurity is vital to protecting citizen engagement, as is safeguarding freedom of thought and speech online, regardless of potential threats.

The panellists concluded the session by discussing potential dangers in not developing bottom-up decision-making processes in democratic societies in the digital age. Examples they gave included digital tools increasing job displacement and the ability for lobby groups to be effective – to the detriment of citizens and society at large.

by Michael Oghia