The Internet came with the promise of a revolution. First of all, a revolution in information and the way it is read, written and transmitted. Today, however, there are almost no instances of communication not mediated by technology, including in the relationship of the citizen with the state. The press conferences of the government authorities are also broadcast live on social networks. Taxes can be paid online. The results of an election can be tracked in real-time with the help of tools developed by either authorities or non-governmental organizations.
Digital democracy, or e-democracy, or Internet democracy, can be defined simply: the use of information technology in political and governmental processes. But it comes with the presumption that any adult citizen can participate equally in all political processes of a state - with one condition: to have access to an Internet connection.
There are states where the digitization of digital public administration services is almost complete. The easiest example is Estonia - a Baltic country, a former part of the Soviet Union, with a heavy industry economy - an unlikely case, therefore. However, the fact that it was a cybernetics research centre of the Soviet Union, the small number of citizens (almost 1.6 million citizens in January 1990, almost 1.4 million in 2020) and the political consensus on digitization followed by investment serious have accelerated the process.
Today, the only things you can't do on the eesti.ee portal are get married, divorce and sell or buy real estate - and that's not because you couldn't do and break up marriages online (dating sites and dating applications are evidence), but because there was no political consensus for their digitization. Including the response to the current pandemic was digital, through all sorts of online tools: a chatbot called Suve that answers citizens' questions about the pandemic, a platform developed in a few days to help senior citizens of Estonia, or another platform that allowed companies to use the labour force suddenly left without the object of work.
The social networks
It is no exaggeration to say that the commercial face of the Internet was born in American dormitories and basements, from the keys of some geeks who were, above all, curious. But from point zero until today, the face of the Internet and the way it is used have changed radically, and the effects are innumerable. From the initial enthusiasm of the Arab Spring, organized almost exclusively on Twitter, to Brexit and Donald Trump, the arc over time is impeccable. But it is not at all clear what actually happens in all cases that do not become the subject of investigations, trials and documentaries on Netflix.
The time spent on Facebook has been attributed with almost mystic powers - either it makes you lose your mind and vote for what you would never have voted for, or it doesn't move you like a needle. What is certain is that social networks have given each user a voice, in terms and conditions that, according to legend, no one has ever read. And the user can be anyone - grandparents and parents, the government of any state, teenagers, bots and trolls in search of targets. So the initial promise, that anyone can be heard, stands. The problem is not here. What do you do when essential state responsibilities, such as speech censorship, end up being fulfilled by actors who are neither states nor non-governmental organizations, but corporations and the way they are exercised is anyway, only transparent and predictable right?
In a desperate attempt to deny the role they involuntarily took on, Facebook and Twitter allowed false information and identities to spread, leaving it up to the user to decide if the news or information they read is real - and replacing the work of fact-checking of entire newsrooms. The other key function of the press, that of setting the public agenda, has become the responsibility of an opaque algorithm in the case of Facebook, or the user, in the case of Twitter. Content moderation, the other name for censorship, has given people post-traumatic stress disorder.
Legislative efforts to counteract the effects have come only in the last few years, timidly and late. The European Union has decided to address the situation from the perspective of overused personal data, the United States is checking whether Big Tech corporations have reached a dominant position in the market, Australia has tried a solution to balance the situation of media financing, cannibalized by Google and Facebook. Romanian courts have ruled that Facebook is a public space, as opposed to e-mail - an interesting nuance.
I have access to the Internet, am I a citizen?
If everything happens (and) online, a simple question arises - what happens to those who for various reasons do not have access to the Internet? Maybe they live in an area with poor infrastructure, they can't afford it, or they may not have the knowledge to use the Internet. An increasing body of literature is dedicated to inequalities that arise due to lack of access to the Internet, but there is not necessarily a theoretical consensus on digital literacy skills. What should you know? Turn on a computer, to make a phone call using a smartphone? Use an app that reminds you to drink water? Check the news on the Internet? Receive invoices by e-mail? Make a credit card payment on a website? Know how to use Excel? The European Union has developed evaluation guidelines for digital skills, The Digital Competence Framework, according to which it elaborates the measurements and evaluates the level of digitization in all member countries.
In the European Union, 89% of citizens have used the Internet in the last 12 months and 64% have made at least one online purchase. Internet access does not automatically translate into the ability to use a computer or smartphone.
In some countries, in the absence of a digital infrastructure through which the state can fulfil its functions concerning all its citizens, it is difficult to talk about digital democracy, although the progress made in recent years has been important. Digitization can be an anchor to ensure universal access to public services, the last year has shown us that, but no citizen should be left behind. Just as the Romanian state itself must not be abandoned. How many times have you not needed certificates obtained from a state institution to show another institution - of the same state - that you exist as a citizen in good faith?
Excessive bureaucracy. Lack of investment, resources, goodwill, education - or a minimum of skill. Inability and inefficiency of public administration. All contribute to the current situation of and to the difficulty of the digitization process. There is no easy way out of this circle. Of course, the IT industry is one of the most profitable at present, there are even enough programmers with the necessary skills, only much too expensive for what the Romanian state allows (or wants).