IT for Change, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Centre for Internet and Society, Digital Empowerment Foundation and National Campaign on People’s Right to Information organized a national level workshop between 14 and 15 November 2016, in New Delhi. The primary objective of the workshop was to lay the groundwork for building a charter of principles for democratic accountability in the digital age.
The complete charter document with feedback and comments can be accessed on google docs. An abridged version is included here.
India is witnessing the rise of a new governance paradigm, characterized by the digitalization of welfare systems and citizen engagement mechanisms. This moment of flux presents new opportunities for inclusive democracy, but also encompasses the real threat of new forms of citizen exclusion. The shrinking room for local accountability in automated service delivery, the replacement of democratic deliberation by data driven participation, and the hollowing out of the state due to the emergence of a networked governance culture in which private actors are taking over core public functions, suggest the need for a critical stocktaking.
There is much to be gained by appropriate digitalization of governance, but an emerging architecture of digital control poses the risk of disempowerment of the majority. A crisis of democratic accountability is evident. In order to protect and promote participatory democracy in the digital age, we need new legal frameworks, policy guidelines, institutional mechanisms and techno-design practices.
This charter puts forward first principles in this regard and may be considered as a work in progress. It was developed through the deliberations at the Workshop on Democratic Accountability in the Digital Age, organized by IT for Change, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Centre for Internet and Society, Digital Empowerment Foundation and National Campaign on People’s Right to Information, on 14th and 15th November 2016.
1. Digitalized welfare systems must leave no one behind
In the transition to digitalized welfare systems, citizens should not be denied their rightful claims and entitlements on account of lack of connectivity or access. It must be the duty of the State to ensure that citizens can access their public services online in an easy, intuitive way at no additional costs and continue to have access to alternate offline mechanisms. The state must ensure that all the rights that citizens are entitled to offline, are protected online as well.
2. Digitalized welfare systems must be accountable
The transition to digitalized welfare systems must be backed by a people centered accountability legislation that covers unfair denials, delays and malpractice in claims processing by local, state and
union government agencies, as well as private parties contracted for the discharge of public functions/ provisioning of public services.
3. Digitalized welfare must be by choice and not by default
Access to digitalized welfare services should be a choice that citizens can exercise of their own volition. No one can be forced to switch from non-digitalized to digitalized service delivery mechanisms by forcing mandatory adoption or disincentivizing offline state-citizen interactions.
4. Digitalized governance systems must reinforce and expand citizens right to participation
The design and implementation of digitalized governance must be informed by public consultation that facilitates both individual and collective assertion of citizen voice. Universalizing meaningful access to the Internet must be recognized as an integral component of citizen right to participation.
5. Data and platform architectures in governance must be informed by design choices that guard against social bias and inequality, proactively protecting fundamental rights.
Techno-design choices in digital systems must be based on standards and guidelines that check perpetuation and amplification of existing social bias, promoting proactively the human rights of the most marginalised in governance and democracy.
6. Data in governance should be regulated as a common pool resource and held and shared in public interest
Data generated and contained within governance systems should be treated as a common pool resource and held in trust by the state and maintained on public servers.Ownership frameworks of data cannot at any cost compromise fundamental rights of citizens and national sovereignty. Guidelines for data accessibility and citizen audit of data systems must be evolved in accordance with the right to information law.
7. Data systems in governance should not violate citizen right to privacy and anonymity
A data protection legislation is non-negotiable for safeguarding privacy of citizens. Government departments must collect personal data of citizens only on a need-to-know and non-retention basis, the limits of which are determined by law. Every decision to link data bases must be evaluated for implications for citizen privacy. Citizens should also have the right to know what information about them is being collected and maintained by government agencies.