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Great Charter ConventionAnthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, opened the discussion on digital freedoms on an optimistic note by predicting that the UK will have a codified constitution in the next 25 years and can therefore become the first major democracy to harness the participatory potential of the web to found a new constitutional settlement. He laid out three pressing issues for democracy in the digital age: i) What does it mean to be a person? ii) How do we address the corporate power of tech companies? iii) How do we define what we have in common?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to legal protections against state surveillance, suggested Carly Nyst of Privacy International. We have an established framework of human rights protections for privacy going back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of1948, which followed the experience of totalitarian surveillance. The battle should be about making the existing right to privacy relevant to the digital age: any new right to our “meta-data” (which reveals where you are and who you relate with online) should be seen as an expression of the existing right to privacy.

Nyst pointed out that the Tory government is committed to extending its surveillance powers, while the same powers are being cut back in the US, but suggested that the forthcoming investigatory powers bill provides an opportunity to alter the legal framework of surveillance. The legislation shows the government may have been listening to criticisms of the current surveillance regime following Snowden’s revelations and thus offers the possibility to build in safeguards and potentially undo some of the worst measures. She further noted how tech can be used to harness popular participation with the example of Brazil crowd-sourcing its digital rights framework last year, which was then adopted by parliament.

The tech author John Naughton suggested that we face unprecedented challenges as a result of the near unchallenged dominance over the internet of the “Big 5” tech companies, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google. While we are roughly familiar with the nature and interests of the first three, Facebook and Google are new beasts entirely. It is very hard to conceptualise the type of power they wield with our existing political and legal vocabularies, but it a type of power that shapes our lives, identities and experience of the world. The much-vaunted ‘right to be forgotten’, ruled upon by the European Court of Justice in 2010, he pointed out, is in fact a right not to feature in Google search, implying that one corporation now has the power to decide who is visible in our society. With its 1.44 billion users, Facebook has shown they can easily manipulate people’s moods and outlook – and potentially even elections too.

There is, he warned, a symbiotic relationship between the national security state and tech companies: the rhetorical device of the ‘war on terrorism’ is being deployed to declare a permanent state of exception that sidelines democratic norms. How do we begin to address this type of power? Individuals can encrypt their emails and browsing, but in doing so they effectively paint a target on their backs for the security agencies. The tech companies would be vulnerable to a wide-scale boycott, given their reliance on the trust of their users, but there are few signs of this happening. It is a tragedy, said Naughton, that a technology that promises so much has become used for passive consumption to the profit of a few companies.

Bill Thompson, of the BBC, suggested that any model of citizenship for the digital age must take account of the fact that we now exist across time and place, while our very consciousness is shaped by our online interactions. The network does not respect physical space, existing across multiple jurisdictions, something the tech companies are far better positioned to exploit than territorially-bound governments. While it may be tempting to think the internet itself is anti-democratic, it is the domination of profit-seeking companies that poses the biggest threat to freedom: if code is law, as Lawrence Lessig has said, then capitalists are currently writing the law in their interests. The net needs to return to its early idealism, said Thompson, so that citizens can define a digital commons to engage online as citizens and not consumers. Intriguingly, Thompson also talked of citizens’ responsibilities online and speculated on the possibility of a responsibility to organise one’s own digital footprint, rather like how we now organise our financial affairs today.

This is part two of a three part series on democracy in the digital age. For part one, see here

This post is part of our Great Charter Convention series, hosted in collaboration with Open Democracy, IPPR and the University of Southampton. 

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