• Opinion
  • November 21, 2018
  • 10 minutes
  • 1

A constitution for the digital era: why it’s time to reboot democracy

Opinion: In France, we're creating a digital model for citizens, not markets or the state

This opinion piece was written by Paula Forteza, member of the French National Assembly representing French citizens in Latin America. It appears in our digital government newsfeed.


It is time to reboot democracy.

This year, the French constitution, the set of fundamental principles and rights upon which the French Fifth Republic is based, turned 60. In the last six decades, we have gone from post-war and reconstruction to peace and European integration. We have witnessed the fast-paced technological evolution and omnipresent digitisation that characterises our current Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The world has changed, and we have been adapting our lives, our work, our industries and even our dating habits. It was only a matter of time before this technological breakthrough started to shape our political system. The problem today is that we have an analogue legal framework facing a digital revolution, a mismatch that endangers the protection of citizens’ rights.

We have an analogue legal framework facing a digital revolution

Data and democracy

Emmanuel Macron’s reformist spirit is key in this area, as he has proposed a constitutional reform to face the new challenges of our century. How is a constitutional reform related to our most pressing democratic challenges?

On one side, our democracies have been directly challenged by the digital revolution. From the 2008 Obama campaign to the last French presidential election, we have seen myriad examples of how digital tools are reshaping our democratic practice.

Social media is becoming a private deliberation forum, where politicians and citizens are confronted on a daily basis and where civil society is getting organised and mobilised. In parallel, almost all mature democracies are accepting the fact that citizens want to participate in the decision-making process through, for example, online consultations, petition platforms or participatory budgets.

Governments around the world have understood that transparency and open data are key for accountability and essential to regain citizen trust.

Finally, yet importantly, several different countries are investing in digital identity programs to build up their digital government strategy for the future. In sum, digital technologies are becoming an entrenched component of our modern democracies.

Digital technologies are becoming an entrenched component of our modern democracies

On the other side, the internet has been drifting away from its original values. We are confronted today with the privatisation of the digital sphere, with a very small number of actors defining how we use the internet and how our data is shared and valued.

We are also seeing the rise of two geopolitical digital models that are not, in my opinion, citizen-oriented. To your right, the American model, where aggressive competition and a market-oriented policy is building a model without power balances. To your left, the Chinese model, a state-oriented vision where centralisation and censorship are prevailing and where digital rights are, probably, non-existent.

We need to come up with a model for the internet where innovation is stimulated through fair competition, where decentralisation, openness and neutrality are the rule — and where citizens are protected.

A constitution for the digital era

That is why I think it is time to include a set of digital era principles and values in our constitution.

The inclusion of net neutrality as a core principle ensures equality and non-discrimination on the exchange of information and data on all types of digital communications. Concretely, as the internet is becoming an essential tool for our modern citizenry, we need to ensure the equal treatment of data and information flows for everyone.

The protection of personal and sensitive data is another key principle when facing the digitalisation of our democracies. While I welcome the European effort to put in place a rather protective set of rules, I think that we should go further and send a symbolic message about the importance we give to this essential digital right by including it in the constitution.

Equality, inclusion and non-discrimination are principles that we collectively agree upon, but we need to apply them in the digital sphere as well. France should engage in a set of rights to ensure access to the internet to everyone, not just in terms of infrastructure but also from a social perspective. A serious commitment to reduce the digital divide, which can also be gender and skills based, should be included in the constitution.

“How?” you might ask. Last May, I proposed to the French parliament the adoption of a Constitutional Charter for Digital Rights and Freedoms. We did not win all the fights, but the battle will go on. The institutionalisation of digital rights is essential for digital maturity and upgraded democratic standards.

Engaged and committed policymakers need to become Trojan Horses for a culture of openness

Beyond the institutional challenges, it seems equally urgent to revitalise our democracies through a robust and impactful set of participatory initiatives. This means a stronger engagement of citizens throughout public policy and the decision-making process. Citizen contribution to the political decision — aside from the vote — must be identified and valued. We need to scale up many local initiatives to avoid frustration and participatory demagoguery.

It is a technological and cultural challenge that requires a change of paradigm and strong commitment from decision-makers. We need to commit to open data by principle, to the development of open source tools and to the serious inclusion of participatory initiatives in our institutional architecture.

As part of my mandate in the French National Assembly, I have put in place some experimental initiatives to modernise and open up our legislative work. I follow three principles: transparency, collaboration and experimentation. With my team, I proposed the creation of a nationwide participatory budget. I published a tool to crowdsource questions to address to the government. I published my agenda and daily spending. I experimented with different crowd law initiatives. And I received civic tech initiatives every Friday at my “open office”.

We must continue these experiments and create a prolific environment for real research and policy development on innovation and citizen participation. Engaged and committed policymakers need to become Trojan Horses for a culture of openness, by reforming institutions from the inside and building long-term bridges for collaboration.

Transparency and open data are key for accountability and essential to regain citizen trust

In conclusion, to reboot our democracies we need to enhance the protection of basic digital rights by adopting a constitution and regulations adapted to the digital era. This will allow us to protect our citizens and institutions in the digital age whilst safeguarding the core principles of an open and innovative internet.

If we understand democracy through Habermas’ perspective, the internet is a public sphere where large-scale deliberation and debate takes place. Discussion, exchange of ideas and deliberation are pillars of the democratic system. We cannot give the keys of our democracy to private companies or unaccountable algorithms.

This battle is not a national fight. We are now in the run-up to crucial elections for the future of Europe in 2019, and illiberal democracies are on the rise across the continent and the world. Digital rights and democratic innovation have the potential to become fundamental pillars of a new European model to reboot democracy. — Paula Forteza

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Cédric Klei)

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