Securing Digital Democracy -By Tahira Islam
On January 7, 2011 a Bangladeshi young girl named Felani Khatun was returning to Bangladesh from India with her father from the Cooch Bihar district of West Bengal crossing the barbed wire near the Chowdhory Hat border camp of BSF. Brokers helped them put three ladders on the barbed wire fence. Her father first crossed the barbed wire. While Felani was crossing the border, the guarding constable of BSF 181 battalion Amiya Ghosh opened fire on Felani from his service rifle. Early in the next morning, a local journalist captured a picture of the hanging dead-body of Felani with his mobile phone. Subsequently that picture spread through internet in social media across the world. Facing huge public outrage after the spread of photo through online and social media, BSF arranged a trial for the first time in the history alleging Amiya Ghosh. Though Amiya Ghosh was released in the trial and appeal verdict but the outrage it generated, could be a turning point in their long campaign against BSF killing in Bangladesh-India border. Similar incident happened to a 28-year old Egyptian man Khaled Said. He was beaten to death when he refused to give bribe to the police. A witness captured the image of the victim’s bloodied face as proof of police brutality. The image was widely circulated through internet that led ultimately to the popular protest in Egypt in 2010.
The ability to relate our thoughts and experiences is seen as an intrinsic part of being human, and therefore restrictions on this ability are viewed as inhibiting both individual autonomy and the ability to attain self-fulfillment. The internet allows for greater freedom of expression, facilitating citizens’ ability to challenge and criticize: a basic democratic right. Therefore, internet can be thought as a democratic medium as it opens plenty of platforms to engage people in open debates and public governance. Internet is viewed as diverse as the people. With emerging digital technologies, the Internet and mobile telephony are reaching gradually their inflection points in terms of usage. The increased involvement of people in political debate is evident on an even greater scale on social networking sites through internet such as Twitter and Facebook. In many places around the world such as the Middle East, the internet has become both the subject of the discussions around protests and the object that enables people to engage in democratic protests- the Egyptian Revolution 2011 being a prime example. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (Special Rapporteur) asserts that:
“Unlike any other medium the Internet facilitated the ability of individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an ‘enabler’ of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.”
On January 21, 2010 a speech given by the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, addressed the issue of internet and the role that new technologies have played in shaping democratic practices.
“The freedom to connect – the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate. Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.”
She further states, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. ”
The virtual world has already become an inevitable part of people’s day to day lives. The effect Internet exerts on our daily lives is transforming societies as a whole. People of all ages are spending increasingly more time on computer based online community environment such as Facebook, twitter etc. Such social networking sites help people meet others “face to face” from thousands of miles apart. From students to scientists, rock stars to the Prime Minister – lots of people use social media sites for both work and pleasure. Such sites help people express themselves. People share their views, communicate their ideas over the internet. Widespread technological advancement has led to easier accessibility and a wider audience that has made digital democracy unavoidable.
Digital media have made strong appeal to the people wanting to improve democratic practices including the realization of right to freedom of expression. Digital democracy incorporates the use of technology to promote democracy. The characteristics of computers or devices connected to the internet have transformative implications for the democratization of policies and society at large. The interactive nature of the internet enables users to transform from viewers, listeners, readers to participants. In many places around the world, increased number of participation has transformed traditional ideas on political dialogue and accountability. This digital age is empowering citizens. People, becoming more knowledgeable, can make informed decisions on matters ranging from their family’s healthcare to travel. Digital technologies can make government more effective, open and transparent, and can make the economy as a whole more flexible and efficient. By putting public data online the government is becoming increasingly transparent and more accountable which again works in the people’s favor. In the state of California, digital democracy provides an online platform that features a searchable database of California state legislative committee’s hearings, allowing the user to search videos by keyword, topic, speaker, organization or date. In this way, the citizens can listen in to the conversations that matter to them. This tool helps close the gap between the powerful and the powerless. Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California states that “Digital Democracy empowers every Californian with unprecedented access to their government. The result will be greater accountability.”
In the United Kingdom, Speaker’s commission on digital democracy investigates the opportunities digital technology can bring for the parliamentary democracy in the UK. Set by the speaker, the commission launched its annual report and hosted debate in the House of Commons in the year 2015. Positive feedback has been received on Digital Democracy Commission’s recommendations from the public and Members of the Parliament. Although digital democracy was observed to have mostly positive effects, many blame the Brexit to be the first major casualty of digital democracy in the UK. In the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, the country is faced with the question on the future of British politics. Even though majority vote of its citizens prevailed towards Brexit, the rest of the world now faces the consequences.
A major problem in our democratic system is the voting method because the existing system allows too much strategic voting. This causes corruption before vote is cast, or corruption how the vote is being counted. The voting methods as we know them are simply not designed for a digital age with exiting polls, media attention, polls, hypes, etc. Digital technologies are posing a challenge and also offering an alternative to the exiting voting system. If people’s opinion can be communicated through digital technologies and internet then it will decrease the chance of corruption in voting and also will increase the transparency in polls. The use of digital technologies in voting will decrease government’s burden in budget allocation and time consumption for casting of votes. Electronic voting is the act of voting using electronic systems to cast and count votes. Electronic voting and electronic counting means that people can get official election results within hours, instead of days or in some cases, weeks. This helps minimize corruption and also build trust with the government. Electronic voting is a useful way of improving voter registration, engagement and voter turnout. It is also vitally important that everyone who is eligible to participate in elections can do so. And electronic voting is very good at making voting more accessible. Hence Electronic voting offers fast, legitimate results and it also ensures citizens participate in democratic practices such as exercising their voting rights.
Conversely, there are some disadvantages of digital technologies in the democratic process. They can endanger privacy, disrupt markets, and open the door to cyberterrorism and cyberespionage. The first challenge is cybersecurity. Any government or organization using digital technologies in the democratic process must ensure protection of their system from theft or damage. The second challenge is transparency. We can harness the potential of digital technology to make government more open. As a consequence, criminals might find the best ways to analyze, visualize, and “mash up” government information. The third challenge is to maintain and increase global lead in information technology, which is vital to our prosperity and our role in the world. Certain factors such as identity theft, IT illiteracy can also discourage participation of people in electronic democratic processes.
The era of digital communications may be the prescription for what ails our current political system. Digital technology is the best way to communicate ideas, and democracy is the best means of realizing those ideas. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their country’s leaders. Digital communications may change the political landscape in an extremely profound way. A democratic country must ensure its citizens freedom of expression as basic democratic right and promote the practice that leads to democratic solutions to the current existing problems. Digital democracy can help in creating solutions to such problems.
Tahira Islam is undergraduate student of CSE at the University of Dhaka.