Digital Identity and Online Citizen Engagement
At the start of the Internet, many thought it would be a great forum for public discourse. Ideas would flow freely with open and honest debate ruling the day. They did not imagine trolls, fake news, bots, spam and other social fabrications mucking up the gears of Internet democracy. But the battle for authentic engagement is not over; we can still use Internet technology to build an open, transparent and authentic democratic process.
A recent Whitepaper from the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), Digital ID & Authentication for Citizen Engagement, studies how the Internet (and related information communications technology) can positively impact democracy. While the white paper considers Canada specifically, the insights and recommendations are universal.
At its core, democracy is about power to the people, enabling citizens to collectively determine their governance. The more information citizens have, the better (theoretically) they can govern. As the Internet improves information flow, speed, and access, it has the potential to improve our democratic systems and processes.
Democracy arose in a time when the fastest communication was horseback; true, full participatory democracy was a practical impossibility for any large geographic area. Modern electoral systems still function on this old premise.
Besides elections, the other common form of engagement is the town hall or public meeting. If election participation is low (59.7% in the 2016 US election), participation in these types of meetings is abysmal (~ 25%, according to a citizen participation survey). In general, the ineffectiveness of town halls are not meeting the needs of democracy.
While full, participatory democracy is not in the cards quite yet, we can improve the town hall by going digital. This model improves access, by allowing people to attend when and where they want. It encourages participation, by enabling people to post their views, without fears of being shouted down. There’s opportunity to create better demonstrations, with files, links, and interactivity.
However, successful digital town halls will require overcoming many of the pitfalls of online social interactions. One major adaptation is the use of verified digital identities.
Anonymity is one of the major enablers of online social mayhem. While anonymity does provide certain advantages, such as freedom from direct reprisals, it contributes to a lack of accountability. People are more likely to say something inflammatory, or abusive, if they are anonymous. And even more troubling is that oftentimes they aren’t even a real person, as an anonymous profile can be fake or a bot.
In the context of public debate, citizens have to take responsibility for their words and be actual citizens.
Using electronic identity verification (eIDV), citizens can prove their identity, they reside in the geographic area, and have a right to participate in the process.
Trusted identities make for better online interactions and enables better data gathering . Governments run online surveys and polls to provide insight into the mindset and better serve their citizens. However, that data is potentially compromised by ballot-stuffing and astroturfing, the practice of falsifying participant’s identity. Only counting results from verified identities leads to better data and more accurately informed decisions.
Authentication also enables the delivery of new, digital services. All sorts of P2G (person to government) services become possible if authentication is in place from paying government bills to receiving benefits. Other services, such as electronic voting, are only possible if you first securely authenticate the person.
This is not to say that anonymity doesn’t have a place in digital democracy; it’s vital that a person’s political views remain safe and secure. They should have the right to not publish their name if they so choose. Any data collection should not contain any connection to their PII (Personally Identifiable Information). Monitoring needs to have strict conditions for collection and even stricter rules for distribution; we want to encourage the free exchange of thoughts, not worry about surveillance or micro-targeting. We do, however, also have to protect against online harassment, hate speech and other nefarious behavior, so a balance is necessary.
A proper digital identity scheme is a fundamental step to the flourishing of a digital democracy . It allows participation by real constituents and blocks bots, fakes and out-of-area individuals. It encourages real engagement by all, without demanding fixed schedule attendance. It enables delivery of new government services to improve lives and lower costs. It protects rights to privacy and freedom of speech while simultaneously offering protections against online harassment.