Data-driven democracy: Ensuring values in the internet age

27 Nov 2019 15:00h - 16:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

Data is not only one of the biggest commodities today, it is also a necessity for a good life. From individual well-being to a collective one, the issue of increasingly data-driven societies challenges political systems, values, and global unity. The panel concluded that technology needs to reflect societal values, but since they are context-based, it is important to find the best approach forward in an interdisciplinary way by bringing together all stakeholders.

Panellists shared different perspectives on data governance. Ms Elke Greifeneder (Western European and Others Group (WEOG), UN Regional Groups) reminded that we often believe in our ability as humans to create the best working systems, but forget their endless use and unwanted consequences. Instead of adapting to technology, we need to adapt technology to our society. ‘We cannot have a one-size-fits-all solution to data governance’, stressed Mr Matthias C. Kettemann (WEOG, UN Regional Groups). Data has to be socialised for societal goals and used for the state to make better decisions. Mr Gustavo Paiva (Civil Society, Latin America) said that political and legal norms must be shaped into Internet governance, but that we must be mindful of the unpredicted effects of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital platforms. Ms Nadine Abdalla (African Group, UN Regional Groups) exemplified that with the Arab uprising. While social media did enable the expression of grievances and mobilised protests, it damaged the democracy-building process. Everyone ended up polarised in clusters of like-minded people and there was no space for sustainable nor democratic institutions to develop. Twitter cannot replace the national parliament as a space for national debates. As an engineer, Mr Kalman Graffi (Honda Research Institute Europe) explained that privacy preserving computing can be built and used to overcome some societal issues. Ms Jessica Berlin (CoStruct) agreed that there are useful tools but added they all have to be applied uniquely and must be context-based.

All these points raised the question of how to enable data to simultaneously be context-based and global. Can we have a global baseline for democratic data governance? And who determines the ultimate values? A global baseline can be found only in the fundamental human rights principles. Graffi and Berlin stressed that disruption is a business model which puts innovation before regulation, so that developers cannot have one global baseline. Social contexts also vary, but we could focus on deep research or grassroots projects to get a sense of local contexts and sensibilities. Participants disagreed on whether democracy as a value is endangered. Berlin insisted that online bubbles leave citizens apathetic to politics. Kettemann added that democratic principles are still there, but need to be adapted to the online sphere, mentioning the Contract for the Web.

To a question about the negative impacts of AI and platforms, Greifeneder replied that we need to talk less about that and more about people’s laziness over data awareness. She proposed to focus on responsibility-by-design since average citizens do not bother to take control over personal data. Are users lazy to learn about data or do they need a bigger role in the design process? Users should understand that data sovereignty is one of the key concepts of the future. Paiva stressed that laziness is not a good explanation, because the interface and design incentivise people to use it despite failing to understand the issues surrounding it. The design process, of both technology and regulation, should include users more. Explainability has many layers and users can give input to developers and policymakers, through participative design processes, on what functions they need. Design should be fluid.

Finally, the panellists shared key comments. Kettemann said that we do not need new rules or values, but new and better information on how to best use data for societal good. Griefeneder said that users need to be included in developing technology and controlling the products more. According to Paiva, evaluating data for democracy lacks a new research methodology that would connect users and developers. Abdalla stressed the importance of transparency, especially of social media sponsorship which became a key space for public deliberation. Giffy focused on the technical solutions and emphasised encryption and privacy-oriented technologies as a solution. Berlin called for the creation of an inclusion certification for digital products that would force companies to think about offline and marginalised communities. They all agreed that the best approach to ensuring the respect of values, norms, and a data-driven democracy, must rely on interdisciplinary collaboration and governance.

By Jana Mišić