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Reflecting on the World Forum for Democracy 2013

Around the world, voter turnout rates have been declining, party membership is waning and citizens report record low levels of trust and satisfaction with their political leaders. Yet despite this crisis of citizen participation, we see the dramatic impact of Internet-based communication technologies on petition initiatives, on the ability of movements to coordinate massive protest rallies and dramatic change. That was the central question at this year’s World Forum for Democracy – how is the Internet shaping democracy today and in the future?

The Council of Europe’s second annual World Forum for Democracy took place in November in Strasbourg, France. There were over a 1,000 participants from over 100 countries engaged over three days of labs, voting, and discussions. Divided by themes, 21 different labs presented case study projects, demonstrated alternatives to representative democracy, and successful attempts to engage citizens using digital tools, and speculated about the future. Due to our Civic IQ initiative, I was invited to attend as an official discussant in the Fostering Public Debate and Building a Shared Vision of the Future lab.

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While sessions ran concurrently and I was not able to attend all of them, this was an incredible experience enhanced by its auspicious setting, backed by a leading world organization and attended by many diverse thought leaders from both public and private sectors. Over the course of the three slightly jet-lagged days there were four themes that emerged:

From Gutenberg to Zuckerburg: The evolution of democracy through technology

The Internet’s profound disruption of traditional ideas of political engagement is a fact: from campaign fund raising and petitioning through interaction with our elected representatives, and from more progressive ideas of citizen drafted legislation to participatory budgeting. Mary Kaldor, Professor of global governance at the London School of Economics challenged participants to think about how democracy changes in the age of the internet, rather than how the internet impacts democracy. This more proactive framing allows us to examine the historical context for our democracy as it relates to technological progress rather than focus on one technology solution. Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and President of the Nobel committee, expanded on that theme drawing parallels between the evolutionary paths of democracy in the industrial and information age. If our technological and cultural progress was partly responsible for the conditions that created our current ideas of governance in what ways must it now adapt to stay healthy?

The crowd in the cloud: Direct vs. representational democracy

Across the spectrum of ways in which the Internet is changing democracies, there are examples of the initiatives where traditional political engagement is not just being augmented by technological tools but wholly replaced. Iceland, Finland, and Switzerland all offer glimpses into direct democracy and the tools that enable citizens to participate directly in the crafting of legislation and prioritization of issues within their respective parliaments. The participants in the Forum represented both sides of this debate but I felt that the most distinguished speakers went to great lengths to remind everyone of the perils of a more direct democratic model, with allusions to mob rule from British MP Robert Walter. In the closing plenary address, we were reminded that a constitutional majority must uplift of the rights of all citizens, and populist, reactionary majorities cannot put such rights to the test. Perhaps the bigger question is, in what ways can a representational democracy better integrate ideas from its population without succumbing to the potential downsides?

Darwinism vs. Leninism: Evolution not Revolution

Just as the e-government ideas offer us exciting possible ways forward of our current declining participation and general disenfranchisement with our political leaders and governments, we have to examine the possibility of the technology to undermine democracy. All technologies come with both expected and unanticipated outcomes. One of the most obvious examples is Wikileaks, Snowden, the NSA, and the required complicity of corporations to work with the States on expansive surveillance programs to an extent not possible before. With more of our lives having a digital trail, the possibility of privacy violations seams to be growing and this has the potential to further undermine our trust in our political institutions and exacerbate the already dwindling of political participation. Authoritarian regimes are routinely involved in the censorship and monitoring of Internet content and even democratic governments are not immune to using technology in covert ways to identify dissident networks and threaten the security of those citizens.

The conference itself provided us with a great example. Part of the event included participants voting on the utility of various case studies. Participants could submit their votes on the floor, and at the same time, votes could also be submitted online. However, online voting on a Russian-backed initiative showed extreme irregularities, suggesting that the system was hacked. The irregularities were so significant, that the organizers decided to discount all the internet based voting. It’s hard to imagine a more profound illustration of the potential risks of technology to subvert democracy than for it to happen at a conference discussing that very possibility.

When discussing e-government technology it’s important to remember that these affordances are not enjoyed universally. One participant from Tunisia gave voice to many who would subscribe to the statement ‘give me food today and a better democracy tomorrow,” illustrating the huge gap in priorities mature democracies and those who are just embarking on the path to a better democracy. The lack of universal access to technology and representation prompted some to call for access to the Internet to be a universal human right. Even within states with near universal access, a different equally troubling phenomenon is emerging – nonuniform participation gives people with the time, education and, perhaps, polarizing ideological perspectives a more prominent, dominating share of voice. As both these phenomena will inhibit the progress and impact of technological democratic empowerment, how do we ensure that the new engagement tools and patterns continue to deliver on the promise of democracy—giving voice to everyone?

Talking about the Future behind Its Back: Disenfranchised Youth

47 youth delegates were selected from member states to represent a unified voice for the youth of their countries. In every venue, I attended they managed to call attention to their perspective by raising signs every time the word “youth” was mentioned. They represented their constituency by asking many questions about how the various initiatives would empower youth. I was at first puzzled as to why the youth seemed so convinced their needs were not fairly being represented, but in talking with them it seemed that they felt the Council of Europe had simply not asked many or ‘any’ of them to come to the forum to present as speakers or formal discussants. They seemed to have a point. Declining youth participation is often heralded as a key problem, so shouldn’t we try to engage them in this proactive discussion about the future of democracy? Perhaps it is time to think about a Youth Democracy Forum that runs concurrently with this one?

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I came away from the conference highly inspired. I saw and heard about a dizzying array of cool and interesting new initiatives. Having met and talked to participants, I am fascinated by the interesting viewpoints on the challenges of this time of change. Change is happening. Steering it in a truly democratic direction is our biggest challenge and responsibility.

A version of this article originally appeared in TechPresident.