The Fluid Society

Digital Democracy

On social media numerous discussions are taking place about the influence of Big Tech on society, about the danger of a digital ID that is supposedly being developed through the QR code, about a “Great Reset” that the World Economic Forum is advocating. The fact is that traditional society is being overrun by a digital world which is beyond democratic control. 

National governments and politicians have no grip on the digital world. The economy is shifting from the traditional world to the digital world at a dizzying pace: on average IT companies are growing by several tens of percentage points per year, while traditional manufacturing companies are growing marginally. It will not be long before the digital economy overshadows and completely dominates the classical economy. A new form of economy that is by its very nature global and country independent, whereas the classical economy is mostly nationally rooted and interconnected. National laws and regulations have little or no grip on the virtual economy generated by Big Tech companies, as repeatedly demonstrated. 

Democratic deficit. This might cause a democratic deficit, because current democracy controls the classical world and classical companies, but has no grip on the digital world. Actually this has generated a free playing-field for Big Tech, cybercriminals, crypt currencies and, in the background, for superpowers that can hold organizations and countries to ransom by means of modern technology. 

Digital ID risks. An important new discussion is that on digital ID (identity). Some fear that Big Tech, the European Commission and the World Economic Forum are conspiring to introduce a digital ID using blockchain technology. From the QR code that has been introduced as a digital vaccination certificate, it would be a small step to a digital ID, which would allow the aforementioned large parties to digitally control every citizen. In theory, this is a risk, although the European Commission is of course under democratic control. However, a digital ID might also be of great advantage to the citizen, because the current problems with identity theft could be prevented. Again, when introducing systems of this kind, democratic control is what matters most. 

Power of Big Tech. There are also many concerns about the motives of the Big Tech companies. Do they just care about more and more power and money? They probably do. Do they want to achieve this by stuffing humanity with ever more “fun” technology, useful or not? Probably so. Do they have a vision of the digital world? Yes, they do! But the question is whether this is necessarily much different from the vision of classical multinationals such as the large food companies, lemonade manufacturers, large Pharma companies, etc.. The difference is merely that Big Tech can evade democratic control much more easily than classical companies, simply because in many digital (i.e. mostly virtual) areas no legislation exists, let alone the international legislation and law enforcement that are necessary. Should we blame Big Tech companies for this? In fact, no. After all, it is not up to them to develop laws and regulations to control themselves so as to solve the digital democratic deficit. We would expect a little too much of self-regulation. So let’s call on politicians in particular to draft future legislation and rules to curb Big Tech, cybercriminals or cryptocurrencies. 

Digital utilities. Big Tech companies are gradually developing into digital utilities on a global scale. After all, all their services are in principle for all people in all countries and include more and more digital services that a consumer really needs: news supply, information, education, knowledge in many areas, video conferencing, gaming, and so on. This is exactly where national politicians are failing badly at the moment. While, at the national level,  there is democratic control of the classical utilities for gas, water, electricity and telecommunications, there is no form of legislation or regulation in the field of digital utilities. However, these digital services are becoming more and more vital for every consumer, as the corona pandemic has demonstrated. Countries that are digitally well-connected emerge considerably better from the corona pandemic and numerous lockdowns than countries whose digital infrastructure is still lagging behind. 

The European Commission is doing well. Where the European Commission is busy with numerous regulations (General Data Protection Regulation, Digital Markets Act, Digital Services Act, etc.) or initiatives for a stronger European digital position (Gaia-x: the European Cloud), national governments in general are totally unprepared for the arrival of a digital society. Virtually no country has a minister for this kind of digital affairs (except recently in Italy under the energetic Prime Minister Draghi). Hardly any initiatives are getting off the ground for a digital labour market, training and education, healthcare, digital information to citizens, national digital legislation and regulation, etc. National governments have turned inward-looking, whereas the digital world is developing worldwide and is crying out for democratic legislation and regulation.

Digital governance. In short, there is a great need for a new governance of digital international society. Forms of new, possibly digital, governance and democratic control of the major digital developments of our time. However, politicians have so far shown little ability to look beyond their national horizon, bound as they are to their national mandate and ‘raison d’etre’. Let us therefore hope that the few politicians with an international outlook, such as Macron in France, Draghi in Italy and perhaps a new Dutch and German government with a stronger European orientation, will pick up the gauntlet of the need for a digital democracy. 

Threat of a digital black hole. If the democratic deficit and the necessary legislation and regulations in the digital sphere are not filled soon, a digital black hole is looming. A situation in which Big Tech, crypto-currencies, cybercriminals and authoritarian governments will increasingly gain an uncontrollable digital grip on the world and its citizens. It is therefore of great importance that there should be a broad, open discussion about the digital world and how we can make it democratically controllable. Let us do everything possible, particularly through digital media, to get this discussion off the ground. 

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