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Can the Internet Improve Democracy? Thoughts on the 2013 World Forum for Democracy

BY WeGov | Friday, December 6 2013

Just another gathering? (Credit: Wikimedia)

The list of online democratic platforms has swelled in just the last few years. Germany's Pirate Party, Italy's Five Star Movement and Iceland's Citizens Foundation are just a few examples of civic groups that have expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo and have attempted to solve the inadequacies and inefficiencies of government through technology. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Council of Europe held its second annual World Forum for Democracy, gathering over thousands from civil society, government and the media to discuss the effect of the Internet on democracy. What exactly did the forum accomplish? Did it have a productive impact on the discussion of democracy and the Internet? Two practitioners who attended the forum weigh in.

Asking the Right Questions But Not Enough Debate

Marci Harris is co-founder and CEO of PopVox, a platform that connects constituents with members of Congress.

A Dizzying Array of Initiatives and Viewpoints But Uncertainties Remain

Rob Girling is a co-founder and principal of award-winning technology product design company Artefact. Artefact’s Civic IQ initiative was a finalist for the Knight Foundation News Challenge on Open Government and is the recipient of a Knight Foundation Prototype Fund.

Asking the Right Questions But Not Enough Debate

By Marcy Harris

credit: Marci Harris

Last week in Strasbourg, France, 1,400 representatives from over 100 countries gathered at the Council of Europe for the second annual World Forum for Democracy. This year’s theme was: “Re-wiring Democracy: connecting institutions and citizens in the digital age.”

A Forum, Not a Conference

While the subject matter might suggest similarities with PdF/Gov 2.0/Transparency Camp events, the WFD was different. It was not necessarily a conference for the benefit of participants, it was a fact-finding event for the Council of Europe. The COE is the 65-year old international organization established to promote “co-operation on legal standards, human rights, democratic development, the rule of law and cultural co-operation” in Europe.

Real Research, Real Questions

The WFD was set up as a series of "Labs," with 2-hour presentations and discussions, twelve on the first day, nine on the second day around four themes:

  1. Alternatives to Representative Democracy
  2. Towards Democracy 2.0
  3. Governing with Citizens
  4. Envisioning the Future

For each Lab, the COE prepared extensive background dossiers with “guiding questions” for discussion. For reference, the Dossier for the Lab 7 “Open Parliament” session is available here. (It was an honor to participate in this Lab with Cyril Lage, founder of the French website, Parlement & Citoyens.)

As a presenter and an attendee, I was extremely impressed by the amount of work that went into the research and the depth of the questions presented. These are exactly the kinds of questions that we should be asking about new democratic initiatives.

Limited Debate, Transparency Questions

Unfortunately, the labs were scheduled simultaneously, so one could only have attended a maximum of two the entire event (which also meant few people at the conference had a common topic to discuss.)

I look forward to going back and reviewing the videos from the labs I missed, though reportedly the video of Lab 5 featuring BalkanLeaks was heavily edited, with allegations of censorship.

An Ironic Voting Problem

At the end of the day, ”rapporteurs" presented summaries of the labs and then the entire conference voted on the individual projects. ("Does/Do the following initiative(s) increase significantly citizens' influence in the policy-making process and/or make democratic institutions more transparent, responsive and accountable?")

The voting was unfortunate. No one knew enough to vote on any of the proposals for labs they had not attended. Complaints about the voting system took up time that should have spent on more productive discussions. The online voting component suffered “irregularities” that led to the abandoning of the online vote altogether… an ironic twist for a gathering of people working on online democracy initiatives.

Is Democracy in Crisis?

Strikingly, phrases like “Crisis of Democracy” were employed frequently in background documents and plenary speeches. In the U.S., we are used to hearing charges that government is broken. (Depending on political leanings, that critique is usually directed at Congress or the Administration.) Rarely, however, is the negative take ascribed to democracy itself. The tone at the WFD carried a pessimism that was noticeably different from the tone in the States.. I am not sure if any one thing is the cause, but frequently mentioned were:

  • High youth unemployment in Europe and the Middle East (not to mention Africa.)
  • The economic crisis
  • Declining trust in institutions
  • Record low numbers of election participation worldwide

Is Anyone Actually Calling for Direct Democracy?

“Digital communication tools have not so far produced a dramatic increase in public participation or trust in representative institutions, neither have they hailed the end of these institutions.”— COE Conclusions

The first point in the Council of Europe’s Official Conclusions from the Forum was that the world still appears to be safe for Representative Democracy. However, As Anthony Zacharzewski, founder of the UK’s Democratic Society observed in his 20 things from the World Forum for Democracy: “[The only ones] talking about e-democracy as a complete alternative to representative politics…. were representative politicians setting up straw men.”

Next Steps for the Council of Europe

The Council identified several important areas of focus for its ongoing work:

  • Encourage/promote change in political parties to enable greater openness, transparency, accountability and responsiveness to grassroots input, including by exploiting e-initiatives
  • Ensure that e-participation schemes are transparent, auditable, and accountable to participants and the wider community and in conformity with the highest standards on protection of privacy
  • Step up media literacy to enable citizens to make full use of the opportunities of digital technology for self-empowerment and participation in political processes.

Truly Inspirational Plenary Sessions

It was a unique honor to sit in the beautiful hemicircle of the Council of Europe. The speakers featured in the plenary sessions were exceptional and displayed a historical perspective and cautious optimism wrought from years of seeing movements, politicians, parties, and countries come and go.

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, delivered closing remarks that both reiterated the institutional caution that was a theme of the conference, and laid out an agenda for the Council’s future work:

The Council of Europe's future work on democracy will be guided by three priorities which have emerged from our discussions: engagement, transparency and the protection of human rights.

Veering from prepared remarks, the Secretary General emphasized the need to protect the rights of minorities, even as technology magnifies all voices: “basic human rights are inherent, not determined by a vote of a majority or subject to referendum.”

A Council that was Listening

One of the most impressive elements of the Forum was the engagement of Secretary General and other dignitaries throughout the event. It may just be that I am accustomed to Congressional hearings and policy events where speeches by elected officials greatly overshadow the input from those invited be heard. That was not the case at the WFD.

Despite the distraction of voting issues and grouchy participant discussions in the plenaries, the Council of Europe demonstrated itself to be a legacy institution that was listening, and that is a remarkable thing. But of course, listening is only the first step.

A Dizzying Array of Initiatives and Viewpoints But Uncertainties Remain

By Rob Girling

Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe (Credit: Marci Harris)

Around the world, voter turnout rates have been declining, party membership is waning and citizens report record low levels of trust and satisfaction with their political leaders. (link-Amanda Clark, University of Oxford) Yet despite this crisis of citizen participation, we see the dramatic impact of Internet-based communication technologies on petition initiatives, on the ability of movements to coordinate massive protest rallies and dramatic change. That was the central question at this year’s World Forum for Democracy – how is the Internet shaping democracy today and in the future?

The Council of Europe’s second annual World Forum for Democracy took place last week in Strasbourg, France. There were over a 1,000 participants from over 100 countries engaged over three days of labs, voting and discussions. Divided by themes, 21 different labs presented case study projects, demonstrated alternatives to representative democracy, and successful attempts to engage citizens using digital tools, and speculated about the future. I was invited to attend as an official discussant in the Lab titled "Fostering public debate and building a shared vision of the future" due to our Civic IQ initiative.

While sessions ran concurrently and I was not able to attend all sessions, this was an incredible experience enhanced by its auspicious setting, backed by a leading world organization and attended by many diverse thought leaders from both public and private sectors. Over the course of the three slightly jet lagged days there were four themes that emerged:

From Gutenberg to Zuckerburg: Evolution of Democracy through Technology

The Internet’s profound disruption of traditional ideas of political engagement is a fact: from campaign fund raising and petitioning through interaction with our elected representatives, and from more progressive ideas of citizen drafted legislation, to participatory budgeting. Mary Kaldor, Professor of global governance at the London School of Economics challenged participants to think about how democracy changes in the age of the internet, rather than how the internet impacts democracy. This more proactive framing allows us to examine the historical context for our democracy as it relates to technological progress rather than focus on one technology solution. Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and President of the Nobel committee, expanded on that theme drawing parallels between the evolutionary paths of democracy in the industrial and information age. If our technological and cultural progress was partly responsible for the conditions that created our current ideas of governance in what ways must it now adapt to stay healthy?

The Crowd in the Cloud: Direct vs. Representational Democracy

Across the spectrum of ways in which the Internet is changing democracies there are examples of the initiatives where traditional political engagement is not just being augmented by technological tools, but wholly replaced. Iceland, Finland and Switzerland all offer glimpses into direct democracy, and the tools that enable citizens to participate directly in the crafting of legislation and prioritization of issues within their respective parliaments. The participants in the Forum represented both sides of this debate but I felt that the more distinguished speakers went to great lengths to remind everyone of the perils of a more direct democratic model, with allusions to mob rule from British MP Robert Walter. In the closing plenary address, we were reminded that a constitutional majority must uplift of the rights of all citizens, and populist, reactionary majorities cannot put such rights to the test. Perhaps the bigger question is, in what ways can a representational democracy better integrate ideas from its population without succumbing to the potential downsides?

Darwinism vs. Leninism: Evolution not Revolution

Just as the e-government ideas offer us exciting possible ways forward of our current declining participation and general disenfranchisement with our political leaders and governments, we have to examine the possibility of the technology to undermine democracy. All technologies come with both expected and unanticipated outcomes. One of the most obvious examples is Wikileaks, Snowden, the NSA, and the required complicity of corporations to work with the States on expansive surveillance programs to an extent not possible before. With more of our lives having a digital trail, the possibility of privacy violations seams to be growing and this has the potential to further undermine our trust in our political institutions and exacerbate the already dwindling of political participation. Authoritarian regimes are routinely involved in the censorship and monitoring of Internet content and even democratic governments are not immune to using technology in covert ways to identify dissident networks and threaten the security of those citizens.

The conference itself provided us with a great example. Part of the event included participants voting on the utility of various case studies. Participants could submit their votes on the floor, and at the same time votes could also be submitted online. However, online voting on a Russian-backed initiative showed extreme irregularities, suggesting that the system was hacked. The irregularities were so significant, that the organizers decided to discount all the internet based voting. It’s hard to imagine a more profound illustration of the potential risks of technology to subvert democracy than for it to happen at a conference discussing that very possibility.

When discussing e-government technology it’s important to remember that these affordances are not enjoyed universally. One participant from Tunisia gave voice to many who would subscribe to the statement ‘give me food today and a better democracy tomorrow,” illustrating the huge gap in priorities mature democracies and those who are just embarking on the path to a better democracy. The lack of universal access to technology and representation prompted some to call for access to the Internet to be a universal human right. Even within states with near universal access a different equally troubling phenomenon is emerging – non uniform participation gives people with the time, education and, perhaps, polarizing ideological perspectives a more prominent, dominating share of voice. As both these phenomena will inhibit the progress and impact of technological democratic empowerment, how do we ensure that the new engagement tools and patterns continue to deliver on the promise of democracy—giving voice to everyone?

Talking about the Future behind its Back: Disenfranchised Youth

47 youth delegates were selected from member states to represent a unified voice for the youth of their countries. In every venue I attended they managed to call attention to their perspective by raising signs every time the word “youth” was mentioned. They represented their constituency by asking many questions about how the various initiatives would empower youth. I was at first puzzled as to why the youth seemed so convinced their needs were not fairly being represented, but in talking with them it seemed that they felt the Council of Europe had simply not asked many or ‘any’ of them to come to the forum to present as speakers or formal discussants. They seemed to have a point. Declining youth participation is often heralded as a key problem, so shouldn’t we try to engage them in this proactive discussion about the future of democracy? Perhaps it is time to think about a Youth Democracy Forum that runs concurrently with this one?

I came away from the conference highly inspired. I saw and heard about a dizzying array of cool and interesting new initiatives. Having met and talked to participants, I am fascinated by the interesting view points on the challenges of this time of change. Change is happening. Steering it in a truly democratic direction is our biggest challenge and responsibility.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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