How the internet is transforming democracy

By publishing data on government activity, and promoting interaction with and between citizens, digital technology is changing statecraft for the better

Timothy Kirkhope
Wednesday 12 December 2012 14:56 GMT
A Libyan girl uses a computer at a school organised by volunteers, Benghazi on June 1, 2011
A Libyan girl uses a computer at a school organised by volunteers, Benghazi on June 1, 2011 (Getty Images)

We are living in the Digital Age and in the same way that the internet can transform economies by allowing companies to work more efficiently, it can also change the relationship between governments and citizens - for the better.

The increased involvement of people in political debate is evident on an even greater scale on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The internet allows for greater freedom of expression, facilitating citizens' ability to challenge and criticise: a basic democratic right. These social media sites also have the power to actually bring democracy about - the Egyptian Revolution 2011 being a prime example.

Free access

MEPs use the internet, including social media, to keep constituents up to date on their work. My office updates my website regularly and I am inundated with emails on a daily basis from constituents asking for help and advice and I do my best to solve the problems using my influence as an MEP. I also receive many emails offering views on topical debates in Europe, all of which I take into account when I vote. This swift communication and exchange of views depends upon the internet.

Free access to online news means people are becoming better informed on current affairs. A free media has always played an important role in supporting democracy in Britain and it is now more accessible than ever before. I hope that the Leveson Inquiry can rebuild public confidence in the press and our politicians.

This digital age is empowering citizens. People, becoming more knowledgeable, can make informed decisions on matters ranging from their family's healthcare to travel. By putting public data online the government is becoming increasingly transparent and so more accountable which again works in the people's favour.

We must, however, be careful. This modern 'open-data' approach is not straightforward. The government must be in a position to guarantee where appropriate that online communications are secure and that they do not violate people's privacy. Much of my work in Brussels recently has been focusing on the issue of Data Protection.

I am a Shadow Rapporteur on both the Regulation and the Directive which are going through Parliamentary scrutiny at the moment. The Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee is leading on this and the indications are that a high level of data protection for citizens is gaining much support amongst Members. The approach we are taking will set new standards for all businesses, not just Facebook, Twitter and Google. The new regime will reverse the burden of proof - now it will be companies who will have to justify why they need to retain our data (and not the other way round as is common now).

This will, I'm sure, have a very positive impact on consumer confidence. There is still statistical data which shows that people are still afraid to do business on the internet which is a shame. The online experience worries a lot of us because we're not truly confident that the data we use (banking information, personal details etc.) is really safe.

If we can foster greater confidence in the system, people are more likely to embrace the internet as a place of information exchange. This is of utmost importance for by being online governments can function more efficiently. Everything can be done more quickly and cheaply online such as tax returns and the registering of businesses which at a time when funds are short is especially welcome. Switching to E-Procurement, for instance, could save 100 billion Euros a year!

Need for speed

In this age of digital democracy, it is clear that our public services need to improve. There are still too many regions in the UK which do not have high-speed broadband. This is stopping businesses from flourishing in many parts of the country. We are working with the UK government on this and had a meeting with Maria Miller in London earlier in the month to discuss these improvements. I have also personally been supporting the campaign for high-speed broadband in North Yorkshire, my constituency. On a European scale, we are working in Brussels on improving cross border digital services in order to create a Digital Single Market - an e-EU!

The European Citizens' Initiative was recently launched in Europe allowing EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies by calling on the commission to make a legislative proposal. An initiative must be backed by minimum 1 million citizens from a minimum of 7 EU countries in a variety of fields. The ECI is evidence of how the fast developing digital age is strengthening democracy in Europe.

These are all great challenges with new and important responsibilities for legislators and a new and exciting opportunity for citizens. This is why the ECI is so relevant and important as part of the democratic process.

Timothy Kirkhope is a British lawyer and politician, currently serving as Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber for the Conservative Party. He is Conservative spokesman on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home affairs

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