Democracy in the digital age is one of the more debated and contested issues for modern day Europe. How do we ensure participation in elections and what is the effect of ‘fake news’ on referendums? Is the younger generation more likely to vote if they can do it from their phone? What about the party system? Is the parliament an outdated platform for legitimate debates? Or has it always been like this?
It is maybe not surprising that many have started to doubt the legitimacy of democracy as a form of governance while at the same time repeating Churchill’s mantra, “that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” This is why, regardless of its many woes and imperfections, we continue to debate and discuss how to make democracy work for our digitally focused world, where communications to the thousands is possible just by clicking ‘send’ with the right hashtag but at the same time it’s difficult to get those people out to vote.
However, when debating what democracy means and what democracy is in the digital age, we tend to focus exclusively on the participatory side of democracy – that is, voters, politicians, protests, elections, or parliament. But as important the participatory aspect of democracy is, it is only one of several.
The separation of powers is a well established phenomena within the philosophy and practice of modern democratic states in Europe. The theory, ascribed to the French philosopher Montesquieu, describes how political power should be divided into three: the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive. These are the three pillars of democracy which our modern liberal democracies of Europe build on. Besides elections to delegate and determine power to political parties, the separation of powers is one of the key characteristics of liberal democracies.
When we discuss the effect of the Internet or any other technologies on democracy, the focus is often on the participatory side of democracy – how we can engage people, what effects fake news has on politics, or foreign election interference, etc. In other words, in terms of the separation of powers, it focuses only on the legislative branch within liberal democracies. But how about how digital technology is transforming the judicial or executive aspect of democracy? Those aspects of the information revolution that is bringing us Facebook and Twitter, as well as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence, are often overlooked.
For example, what is justice in the digital age and who has the right to dispense justice? The judicial system as we know it, there is due process and an impartial judge and one is innocent until proven guilty. But with the emergence of platforms that are becoming increasingly liable for their user’s content according not only to their terms and conditions, but also national law, it is the platforms that decide whether a behaviour or a post can stand or not. The algorithm that becomes a kind of judge – and the Facebook moderator serves the purpose of the supreme justice. What effect does this have on freedom of expression and sense of justice? Furthermore, the use of AI to help write judgments or even make judges less biased in their judgements  is a hot potato right now, as there is a big question: Is there any such thing as unbiased AI in the first place? An algorithm is simply a creation of a human, traditionally, white male nerds in Silicon Valley or similar settings. AI can be racist and sexist, even if it was not the aim of the technology, but simply the byproduct of the society it was created in. 
What about the executive system – the police, the prison, the traffic control? Technology is taking over, with upload filters flagging what may not be considered ‘legal content’ according to the terms and conditions of the site or national law. They become the police of the platform, stop your expression on its way out, and direct you to the artificial courtroom. It is the platform that can lock you out – effectively put you into a jail if you violate the ‘law’ of the platform. For some, to be locked out of your Facebook account deprives them of normal human interactions like contact with family and friends. That’s how central Facebook has become in people’s lives.
Who has the competency to create those algorithm and artificial intelligence to determine when the law and social norms are broken? How do we ensure legitimacy and neutrality? Who is liable when computer says ‘no’? These are the questions we need to answer when we discuss the future of democracy in the digital age. The separation of power, the legitimacy of roles, due process and competency is a big question we need to take into consideration. The debate about democracy in the digital age has many more faces than just participation and politicians that we need to take into account.
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