At the end of November, the Council of Europe hosted the second World Democracy Forum, with this iteration examining digital democracy (or e-democracy) and its evolution across both developed and developing nations. In keeping with the Council’s international role, which extends beyond the membership of the European Union, more than one thousand delegates from more than one hundred countries gathered in Strasbourg.
The Forum highlighted e-democracy’s evolution from theory to reality across a wide spectrum of initiatives diverse in means but united in cause: namely, to improve the conduct and legitimacy of democratic processes in an increasingly online world. For any public servant, activist, or citizen with an interest, the Forum’s website features an array of content from plenary sessions and labs.
One of the most encouraging trends emerging from the Forum is the widening notion of open source as a new societal paradigm. As governments embrace open data, and as tools and platforms become more interoperable and portable (in large part due to open source coding), the potential for not only the democratization of information but also the fostering of shared solutions and collective learning augments exponentially. Indeed, Forum delegates were keen to share lessons learned as well as the infrastructure to replicate and adapt experimentation across jurisdictions.
Despite the globalizing project of renewing democracy, digital and demographic divides were evident and pronounced. How could it be otherwise in a gathering that showcased innovations ranging from the “Women of Uganda Network” (winner of the Forum’s Democracy Innovation Award) to crowd-sourcing and community engagement initiatives in Finland and New Zealand? In search of new voices, youth delegates were both plentiful and visible at the Forum, determined to overcome the constraints of what they view as outdated and inflexible ideologies and governance.
In closing the Forum, it fell to the Council’s Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, to make some sense of such a rich and diverse discourse. His underlying message was one of cautious optimism: the Internet is no less important today than the industrial revolution that reshaped the economy and society and gave rise to the spreading of liberal democracy and its underlying national democratic architecture.
For Jagland, a former Prime Minister of Norway, new hybrids of representational and participative structures await invention. Stressing the essential role for political parties, he nonetheless underscored the need for new partisan movements, fundamentally different in both form and function than those of today. With plummeting party memberships prevalent in much of the democratic world, such a call for re-invention seems well placed, and it was embraced enthusiastically by younger segments of the Forum’s audience.
The Secretary General also struck notes of caution on two critically important fronts, both of which are germane to the Council’s mandate: first, the importance of cultural and religious minority protections; and second, privacy as a fundamental human right for all. With respect to the first point, Jagland reminded the audience that constitutional democracy often includes necessary legal safeguards that limit outright majority rule: online democracy must also do the same.
As if to highlight the technological dimension of this salient message, and the risks of an Internet of unfettered mob rule, the Council chose to abort an online vote by web participants for one of its innovation awards due to concerns over a fabricated result. As a tool for trust and legitimacy, ICTs are neutral: what matters is how states and citizens deploy them in individual and collective manners.
In terms of privacy, the head of the Council invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a global compact meriting preservation and extension across a digitizing world. An essential enabler of human ingenuity and freedom, privacy faces new challenges and complexities with the widening propensity for openness and sharing online (as well as efforts by government to subversively gather, analyze, and share data). Addressing such frictions openly and politically lie at the core of the still-nascent project of digital democracy.
In sum, the remarks by Secretary General Jagland eloquently reminded the audience that while the status quo is under siege and destined to give way to something new, any transitional path ahead includes both promise and peril. It is only through open and inclusive debate locally, nationally, and globally, mindful of the need for appropriate protections, that a more digital and humanistic democratic ethos can be forged.
Jeffrey Roy was a Discussant at the World Democracy Forum.