Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

Montesquieu-Prinsjeslezing: de impact van ICT op onze democratie

Governments need to apply digital practices in order to engage society, but the conditions for doing this need to be selected very carefully, involving those who are affected by it. This is one of the conclusions of this year's Europe Lecture where IT Visionary Linnar Viik and professor in IT and the Rule of Law Mireille Hildebrandt spoke about the impact of IT on our democracy.

Linnar Viik set out three conditions for a succesful integration of digital practices in the public sphere. First of all, the government needs to protect its citizens. According to him, this principle does not only hold in a 'brick and mortar-world' but also in the online universe where more and more people find theirselves. At the moment, 4 billion people are on the internet, only half of whom we have a secure digital identity. Governments need to take responsibility to make sure their citizens can operate in a secure online environment.

Second, people should be able to participate in a digital environment. This not only means that everybody should be granted access to the internet, but also that people know how to employ its opportunities. The third and probably most important condition is that governments need to practice what it preaches. The digitalization of public administration makes a very tight communication between a government and its citizens possible. This makes a government more accountable, and more understandable.

Viik continued by saying that figures in Estonia indicate that people aged between 18 and 30 only in small numbers participate in the online voting project. This is a political problem rather dan a digital problem. Therefore the key message Viik laid down in this lecture is that government needs to apply its digital practices in such a way that it engages society, on top of making things more efficient.

However, the lecture of professor Hildebrandt made clear that also engaging society through digital practices can pose serious threats to citizens rights. Hildebrandt explained the basics of democratic theory and the concept of microtargeting. Considering the latter, the underlying presumption is that reality is math. Microtargeting entails the process of capturing behavioural data, figuring out a 'ground truth' in order to match certain features with consumer preferences. The incentive is to maximize user engagement.

This results in the prioritizing of content that has addictive effects. Not only marketeers, but also government and political groups use microtargeting. This does not merely serve the purpose of gathering votes during elections, but is to a large extent used to inform or disinform, or to persuade or dissuade people. The threat is that citizens become scalable data subjects.

To manage this and other threats it is important that those who are affected by these kind of practices are involved in its design. Thereby it is necessary to ask the question wich problems are and are not solved by microtargeting, and also which problems are created. On top of that, it is of utmost importance to enforce the primitives of legal protection, as well as to rethink the assumptions of competition law. Paying with data is excessive pricing, according to Hildebrandt.