Updating the Rules for the Digital Age

Isabella Wilkinson

On Thursday, 3 December, the European Commission (EC) presented the European Democracy Action Plan, a roadmap that proposes policy measures for bolstering democratic resilience to emerging digital threats, in addition to outlining initiatives for harnessing the opportunities for governance presented by digital transformation (read the full text here). As it stands, the Action Plan is based on three main pillars: promoting free and fair elections, strengthening media freedom and pluralism, and countering disinformation.

Crucially, the announcement of the plan gives democracy and governance practitioners and scholars a glimpse into what it means – on paper – to update democratic rules, norms, and institutions for the digital age. Although it is in early stages, the plan is an ideal case in point: with the right institutions, regulation and normative “buy-in” to digital democracy, the disruptive innovation of democratic governance and society as we know it is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it offers unique opportunities for demcoratic consolidation in a year that’s demonstrated the urgency of digital democratic renewal.

This Action Plan is a decisive step in the digital transformation of European and global democracies that looks both outward — to countering digital threats — and inward — to the digital renewal of core norms, processes, and institutions of democratic governance, such as an empowered civil society, the legitimate rule of law, and avenues for meaningful participation. It has won global praise from forward-thinking, liberal democracies – and no doubt has ruffled some feathers among global authoritarians.

Specifically, the plan proposes a roadmap for “going digital in the European way, in full respect of fundamental principles,” according to Vice President for Values and Transparency in the EC Věra Jourová. Most importantly, it announces the EU’s intention to strongly regulate sponsored political content and advertisements in online spaces, bolster the Code of Practice on Disinformation among other measures geared to digitally securing elections, digitally empowering civil society and media landscapes, and clamping down on digital authoritarian encroachment. The plan bolsters the regulatory and normative foundation for the recent Digital Services Act (DSA), a proposed package of legislative reform designed to regulate Big Tech, enforce data-sharing and promote platform accountability, among other measures. (Among much buzz on Twitter, this is the most helpful thread explaining the Action Plan and how it connects to the DSA).

The beauty of the plan is that it is by no means the trailblazing effort in the digital transformation of democracies worldwide. It builds on momentum for the digital transformation of democracy, which has been years in the making. European countries like Estonia (the digital democracy trailblazer, with internet voting, hyper-secure elections, a comprehensive e-governance model, and more digital signatures generated in one year alone than the entire EU, ever) and Sweden (a little more analogue, but the country wins global plaudits for world-leading levels of digital readiness, rooted in good governance, people-first innovation and investment in cutting-edge technologies) have established themselves as pioneers in the development of digital tools for democratic governance. Within international organizations, digital roadmaps for transforming governance have gained urgency: namely, the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation from June this year proposes steps for advancing stakeholder engagement in rebuilding a more inclusive, equitable, and safe digital world in the post-COVID era. Further, the EU’s own Pandemic Recovery Plan to “repair and prepare for the next generation” is anchored in two key priorities for building forward better: sustainability and digital transformation.

The EC’s roadmap arrives at a decisive moment for global democracy. It is nearly impossible to capture the diversity and depth of the hurdles facing democratic consolidation and democratisation. The US 2020 presidential election demonstrated with newfound urgency that vectors of democratic erosion – originating from malign authoritarians within and outside of US borders – are only exacerbated and accelerated by digital platforms (and when existing platforms bump shoulders to clamp down on hate speech, new platforms specifically designed to advance violently disruptive political agendas emerge). Across the Atlantic, while Europe’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the power of digital tools to improve and maintain governance, the past few months have also revealed with urgency the spoilers that digital transformation heralds for confidence in government and trust in emerging technology (the British NHS’s track-and-trace app is a “master class in mismanagement”).

Approaching digital disruption from a theory-based perspective, we can mobilise the core theories of demcoratic consolidation to understand the ways in which the EC’s plan seeks to renew, strengthen, and bolster democratic norms and institutions, in addition to the very notion of meaningful participation. Drawing on Professors Linz and Stepan’s approach, democratic consolidation must take root across society’s main “arenas” – economic society, civil society, political culture, bureaucracy, and rule of law – on three levels: behaviourally, attitudinally, and constitutionally. Democratic consolidation is a formal and informal process, unfolding on paper and in the minds of voters, continually developing in multiple arenas, among multiple actors, following multiple concurrent timelines. Digital tools may help democracies consolidate faster and more meaningfully – or generate malign disruption and amplify democratic backsliding.

In other words, digitally innovating democracy is both another frontier of consolidation and a ubiquitous transformation of governance that requires a steady hand and a future-ready mentality. Leveraging digital innovation, the EC’s plan aims to make democracy “the only game in town” by going on the defensive (against abuses of privacy, data, and markets by big tech, for one, and against digital authoritarian meddling in elections) and the offensive (giving civil society, media, and electoral administrators the support, regulation and tools they need to use digital innovation to their competitive advantage against rising democratic decay). Whether the plan achieves its ambitious goals is another matter entirely, particularly with the growing presence of Big Tech lobbyists in Brussels and democratic disillusionment among European leaders like Hungary’s Orban and Poland’s Duda. 

What matters right now is that the plan is a long-awaited step in the right direction. Democracy’s transition from the analogue to the digital world presents an unthinkable plethora of challenges to practitioners in Europe and the rest of the world. However, these transitions may also present us with new, exciting frontiers for democratic renewal. Scholars and practitioners alike should pay the EC’s plan the attention it undoubtedly deserves.

Isabella Wilkinson is a recent graduate from the Democracy and Governance master’s program at Georgetown University. Wilkinson is also a Policy and Research Associate at the Portulans Institute.