How Digitisation Can Compromise Democracy
“Words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.”
– James Baldwin, The Crusade of Indignation
Tackling the above concepts requires constant learning, not only rationally and institutionally, but also interpersonally: how to respectfully live with others.
On the week of the International Day of Democracy, we might want to ask ourselves how digital tools help us learn, or prevent us from learning, how to build more perfect democracies.
From a legal perspective, the notion of democracy, in the broader sense, defines the direct or indirect participation of citizens in the making of the law. It rests on the political idea that those who must obey the rules should also take part in designing them.
This participation can take many forms: from voting for representatives, to direct votes for a specific proposition or collaboratively elaborating one, from demonstrating in the streets to fighting against voter suppression.
In all these aspects, digitisation is increasingly playing a role.
Access to internet has become an essential tool to support the rights to safe protest and free and fair elections
Access to internet has become an essential tool to support the rights to safe protest and free and fair elections. By facilitating the documentation of human rights violations and the transmission of live information about the situation on the ground, as well as by using social media platforms to share important information, new technologies can be useful tools in the search for accountability and wider political participation.
Consequently, internet shutdowns now frequently happen alongside suspicions around election fraud, during coups, or to repress popular uprisings. In 2021, intentional disruptions of electronic telecommunication took place in Niger, Myanmar, India, Uganda. With elections in Russia around the corner, many human rights NGOs and activists fear that internet shutdowns may be used to temper or illegally influence the elective process.
The #KeepItOn Coalition, composed of more than 240 organisations from 105 countries around the world, is campaigning to put an end to government-imposed internet shutdowns. Access Now has published an internet shutdowns and elections handbook to help all of us be better prepared and informed about the issue.
…if the internet appears to be one safeguarding tool of democracy, reinforcing the central role freedom of speech plays in supporting democratic processes, big tech companies have a more problematic role
But if the internet appears to be one safeguarding tool of democracy, reinforcing the central role freedom of speech plays in supporting democratic processes, big tech companies have a more problematic role in this equation, enabling the surveillance of activists mobilising for more transparent and equal participation to power.
As Haythem Guesmi, the Tunisian academic, writes:
“Despite posing as a force for progress and development, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started. For example, in 2011, US embassy cables published by Wikileaks revealed that in 2006 Microsoft had agreed to train law enforcement officers in IT in exchange for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government going back on its decision to use open-source software.”
Social media platform such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have also censored the voices of numerous activists. In June 2021, while Palestinians families were being evicted from the neigbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah or as the Mosque of Alaqsa was being attacked, Instagram blocked numerous posts that used the hashtag #Alaqsa through its content moderation system.
Furthermore, in a western context in which anti-terrorism laws are used to discriminate against people perceived as Muslims, human rights activists from Syria, Tunisia and Palestine have seen their Facebook accounts deactivated on the grounds that they infringed the company’s policy against “praise, support, or representation of” terrorist groups.
…human rights activists from Syria, Tunisia and Palestine have seen their Facebook accounts deactivated
Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have also been deleting probable evidence of war crimes.
Since 2017, the NGO Mnemonic has worked to research the impact of content moderation on human rights and provides archival strategies to ensure that digital information can be used in the fight for justice and accountability. Mnemonic has created three standalone archives called the Syrian archive, the Sudanese archive and Yemeni archive in order to achieve this.
Another aspect of the digitisation of democratic processes is electronic or e-voting. Electronic voting can refer to electronic machines being used in a polling station to facilitate the vote or to remote voting systems which operate over the internet.
Online voting can appear like a solution, as the study on potential and challenges of e-voting in the European Union from the AFCO states, to increase “political participation, reducing the cost of voting and convenience of the process”.
On the other side, the central challenges of online voting are often formulated around security issues such as insuring the secrecy and the integrity of the vote.
Indeed, for a voting system to be considered democratic, it must guarantee universal, equal, free, secret and direct suffrage.
Those criteria are currently far from being fulfilled, including in European democracies. Members of the Roma communities and travellers face voter suppression, linked to registration requirements. The indigenous people of current French overseas territories are also largely excluded from voting- again largely due to poorly adapted registration requirements.
According to research, online voting doesn’t affect turn-out
In this context, the introduction of electronic voting systems, specifically remote online voting systems with their promise to increase political participation could be perceived as a solution. But far from constituting a fix to the issues of voter suppression, online voting could instead render access to voting more difficult.
According to research, online voting doesn’t affect turn-out. Moreover, in addition to guaranteeing anonymity for the voter and being verifiable and easy to use, the online voting systems must be able to prevent voter fraud. Trapdoors were found in the voting system used in Switzerland, with the flaw being linked to the system put in place to guarantee the integrity of the votes. If the flaw had been exploited, it could have led to massive vote tampering. Switzerland has stepped back from the use of online voting for the moment.
As they necessitate a high degree of technological sophistication to ensure both the verifiability and security of the vote, internet voting systems are often provided to governments by private tech companies, paradoxically decreasing the level of democratic accountability they are subject to while overseeing particularly sensitive data, legally protected by secrecy to avoid harassment and pressure, if not persecution, on the ground of political convictions.
Finally, the need for encryption and verification of the voter’s identity in online systems, far from addressing the existing exclusion from voting that specific marginalised communities already face, could reinforce them, by adding new administrative barriers, such as digital ID systems.
While the Council of Europe has formulated clear recommendations regarding standards on e-voting, none of them tackle the issue of voter suppression and no mandatory framework is currently in place that specifically regulates the role of private providers in internet remote voting.
That also means ensuring that the digitisation process does not enable the interference of the private sector to become more pervasive
When it comes to democracy, nothing is self-evident. Maintaining democracy takes individual efforts. It also requires strong accountability mechanisms in the process at a structural level to ensure we eventually reach equality in participation, including when digital technologies are involved. That also means ensuring that the digitisation process does not enable the interference of the private sector to become more pervasive, reinforcing current dynamics of disenfranchisement.