What is digital democracy and do we need it?

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The internet's creator, Tim Berners-Lee, is calling for a revision of its basic principles (image by Campus Party Europe in Berlin via flickr).

Yes, the internet doesn't always function perfectly, but we can collectively harness its great potential, writes Paul Budde.

CELEBRATING THE 30TH anniversary of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the internet, reiterated his vision for radical change — which would improve the functionality of the internet for the benefit of society.

He suggests a sort of revision of the web, creating a fresh set of rules, both legal and technical, to unite the world behind a process that can avoid some of the missteps of the past 30 years.

While this most certainly would be an excellent development I am rather pessimistic about a rapid implementation of such radical change. Nevertheless, his plan contains many possibilities that are worth looking at, to see what we can do in our ‘muddling on’ process to make changes for the better.

Calling it the ‘contract for the web’, Berners-Lee said:

Generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diverse groups of people have been able to agree on essential principles. With the Law of Sea and the Outer Space Treaty, we have preserved new frontiers for the common good. Now too, as the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.

Very few of us would have been able or be in the position to create the internet, but all of us can help to shape it. The internet reflects humanity, it is a mirror of our society, the good things and the bad things.

For the first 15 years of its existence, it has shown us all the good things it has to offer. Over the last 15 years, it unfortunately also started to show the uglier side of our society.

However, it is up to us to collaborate and ensure that as many as possible of the bad things are being tackled and eliminated, together (people, government and businesses) can do this.

I most certainly agree that what we need is more positive government involvement and a departure from the current market-driven neoliberal approach.

While I am all for free market developments, at the same time we also need to acknowledge that some of the structures are now faltering and, rather than burying our heads in the sand, we should acknowledge this.

Yes, legislation for the digital age will be needed to get us back onto a more robust democratic path. This is needed if we want to stay competitive, innovative, and to maintain a free and open society that protects people’s individual rights.

However the new way forward should be based on a contract between people, business and the government — "people" being a critical addition here to similar contracts in the past. And the internet allows this to happen.

Each group will have to play its part in this new digital environment. Shareholder-driven, short-term profit strategies should be replaced with strategies based on broader stakeholder values.

Positive developments here are that staff in large high-tech companies are standing up against the short-term profit-driven strategies; we are seeing the #MeToo Movement; and schoolchildren taking a stand for better policies to address climate change. We also see companies investing heavily in renewable energy, despite government policies in many countries that still support the old fossil-based industry lobbies.

A key problem with our political system is that it is far too short-term focused. It often acts on a whim, looking at immediate issues as they crop up and addressing these with bits and pieces of hasty, unconnected regulations and legislation.

All these pieces together create the notorious red tape, which then becomes like a bowl of spaghetti that cannot be untangled.

What they should do instead is take time, think things through and develop long-term policies and strategies. What we need is far more visionary leadership. While there are many examples around the world of this short-termism, with policies being made on the run, in Australia we can point to, for example, the NBN Broadband policies, energy and climate change issues and the current shocking policy-making mess around cybersecurity.

So, change is desperately needed to rebuild trust in our social, economic and political systems. This needs to be a collaborative effort and digital technologies can assist here. There is growing evidence that we are building mass in our society that could form the base from which we can work together.

What is needed in order to achieve this is progressive government leadership to facilitate these developments in a more unified and structured way, providing the foundation for a more digitally-based democracy.

The internet itself is an example of global collaboration. It is not owned by any individual, business or government. It is "owned" by millions if not billions of people and organisations. It can function therefore as a model for the above-mentioned concept of  "contract" arrangements.

As I have mentioned in the past, I also see (smart) cities as an ideal platform for such developments. Building from the bottom up will be much more manageable, rather than trying to take the top-down approach. The challenge will be scaling this, and I do have personal experience here of how difficult it is to get smart cities working together.

There's also, of course, the need for more collective action to address larger problems such as national security and climate change.

The digital transformation that is taking place in many organisations is creating the conduit for much better collaboration, and we are learning fast. We already see far more equal cooperation between employees and employers, customers and business, and between citizens, bureaucrats and politicians.

The internet has changed and has led to the destruction of many of the old structures – both for better and for worse – but on the positive side, it has changed the way we interact within society. And this can be further exploited for greater collaboration.

We are also learning that we must address the darker side of the web. While this is receiving a great deal of (media) attention, we need to put it into perspective. Certainly, digital developments are producing challenging issues such as privacy, cybercrime, cybersecurity, but I would dare to conclude that so far the benefits of the digital transformations outweigh the negatives.

Concentrating on the positives, we should continue to use the internet for more and better collaboration and create opportunities for all parties to transform and take an equal share in working for the common good. This is essential if we want our societies and economies to prosper.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Communication, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde

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