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Democracy in the Age of Digital Regulation

Many start our digital age with the invention of the computer. The device materializes Alan Turing’s concept of universal machine capable of executing any finite sequence of unambiguous instructions on any data.

Such « universal » capability has political implications each time some digital application supports human interactions.

We know that with words we can compose a near-infinite number of legislative texts from the most emancipating to the most subjugating. The very same is possible with digital devices. We can think up countless algorithms, standards and designs to manage relations between human and legal persons.

Thus, any set of design, data and programming for such purpose involves decisions of social, ethical and political nature.

And once imparted to machines, digital rules and instructions are automatically implemented with remarkable efficiency. Definitely more than legislative texts, regulations and contracts which can easily remain symbolic, gathering dust on shelves.

From the intimate…

Recently, U.K. and U.S. health authorities approved commercial pilots of wireless microchip pills. Those tablets transmit the time we take them or live results of the medical tests they carry out.

We can imagine beneficial uses: helping patients to manage multiple medications, or physicians to fine-tune diagnostics and prescriptions.

Conversely, we can envision contentious scenarios: doctors trailing patients who adjust medication on their own; or insurers suspending coverage for non-compliance to prescriptions.

Who then decides which automatic interactions between whom are permitted or prohibited through such devices? We the patients, with or without our physicians? Health professional corporations through standardized protocols? Pharmaceutical companies? The digital device’s manufacturers? The government agency approving their commercialization? Public or private insurers reimbursing their costs? Our elected representatives through legislation?

It is the highly adaptable effectual communications offered by digital devices that unavoidably opens such unfamiliar questions and issues.

To the global…

Internet has become a key societal infrastructure. However, Edward Snowden’s revelations proved how much it facilitates mass surveillance.

Yet, it is possible to redesign the Internet with default end-to-end encryption and « onion » rerouting of our communications and uses. Such features would still allow targeted surveillance of suspected individuals or organizations. But they would make mass surveillance of entire populations economically impracticable.

But again, who decides? Is it, for instance, the few thousand self-appointed members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international group with no legal status, nor formal membership procedure? If so, where are we, billions of Internet users, in those deliberations that directly concern us all?

We barely are even spectators of these decisions since such arcane stories often escape mass media’s attention.

Indeed, democratic governance of digital infrastructures such as the Internet remains to be devised.

To everywhere

Digital applications work best in integrated standardized settings.

Thus, future « smart » pills’ standards set in U.S. and U.K. could impose themselves as global medical norms.

As much as India’s controversial biometric standards for identification of its 1.3 billion citizens could become worldwide citizens/customers relationships management norms.

We already saw how cottage start-ups such as Google and Facebook rapidly got their undisclosed algorithms to custom-filter contents and relationships of the billions of users we are.

Soon, manufacturers might well leave us no choice but to use « smart » light bulbs that automatically link up to the Internet and our digital appliances and devices. Exactly as we recently discovered that some « smart » TV sets were built to spy on us.

As the « Internet of Everything » emerges, social norms under technical guises will be imposed upon us. Or not. It depends on who decide among all the possibilities offered by technology.

The new legislators

Currently, such digital decision making is increasingly exercised by technocrats, engineers and entrepreneurs outside traditional democratic institutions. All the more easily since they use formal languages incomprehensible by most citizens, processes largely imperceptible by human senses and standards applicable across jurisdictions.

I was a direct witness of one troubling instance: the development of the Quebec Health Record (QHR). Over a decade, the provincial government conducted several public consultations which confirmed a consensus on the long-standing principle of patients’ consent over communication of their medical information. Except that once QHR’s deployment begun, it became obvious that the device did not allow workable exercise of this right.

Hence in 2012, the adoption of a bill abolishing consent when information goes through QHR. It’s now all or nothing: either all care facilities and professionals have access to all your QHR contents; or nobody has.

They were existing or conceivable health records systems that maintain, even enhance, patients’ control over such communications. Unfortunately, once a large infrastructure such as QHR is in place, overhaul becomes quite expensive.

Recently, the Quebec Minister of Health admitted that the 1.6 billion dollars system is a failure, even from a strictly clinical standpoint, and that fixing it would cost at least another billion.

Design, standards and algorithms picked years before by a handful of technocrats, once embedded in costly circuitries and systems can force an entire society to give up on an undisputed fundamental right or principle. Or even on basic public service efficiency.

The democratic challenge

In order that democracy does not wane, but reinforces itself through the digitization of human interactions, we must collectively:

  • learn torecognize whichIT innovationsinvolve some exerciseofsocial power;
  • compel their designersto document such features in understandable and verifiable ways; and
  • democratizetheinnovation processes by deliberating them, eitherinexisting democratic venues or in new, often transnational, ones to be developed.

This requires:

  • better understandingby populations of the social and political dimensionsof IT;
  • internationally networked citizenry from local to global levels;
  • publicly availableexpertise on key technologies and issues; and
  • preferencefor open sources technologies permitting :
    • examination of which social interactions they actually permit,require orprohibit; as well as
    • their modification to democraticallydefined – and changing – needs.

Digitization of our societies has barely begun. Being able to decide about their future among all the many possible ones requires us to renew our democratic culture, practices and institutions.

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