Involvement in active citizenship through digital technologies

As Jiří Zlatuška states: “The concept of information society first appeared in the Norwegian-Coin report of the French government in 1975." This concept extended the understanding of technology to national sovereignty and citizenship, thus determining the perception of the information society in the European Union. If, for example, we read strategic documents from the USA that relate to the development of the information society, then it is possible to see the predominant level of the economic concept clearly - the state is trying to support the digital economy or build infrastructure.

The European concept is fundamentally different and may seem ineffective to some, which is undoubtedly true but brings other benefits in economic indicators. For documents from 1975 to the present, the key is that the citizen is put first. The information society is primarily a civil society. It is necessary to expand the portfolio of services through technologies, enabling broader participation in the operation of public administration and its control, supporting the feeling of security in the online environment, protecting it as a consumer, and educating it. Investment in companies, the single market, or infrastructure is always secondary.    

After all, it is a European environment in which the development of e-government is talked about in a standardized and massive way, as one of the tools for the possibility of greater involvement of people in public administration, reduction of bureaucratic burden for citizens, and better access to offices. Therefore, it is not primarily about electronic elections. This area is sometimes incorrectly simplified, but about openness, easier control, and a greater sense of democracy and citizenship as a particular active tool. The European citizen has a responsibility to the EU and is actively involved in its functioning and decision-making. The long-perceived so-called "democratic deficit" should be eliminated, and one of the possibilities is the use of digital technologies. Although it is not a panacea or a single solution, it is one of the essential and supported tools. 

An example is Estonia, which has been a long-standing leader in the digitalization of public administration. In addition to the possibility of starting a business online, elections via the Internet, or easy access to the so-called basic registers, there was the creation of the so-called e- Residency institute, to which Estonia gave the subtitle“New Digital Nation“. For 100 euros, a person can have something like digital citizenship set up, which will provide them with access to selected e-government services. What has been the subject of a relatively wide-ranging debate lately is what that citizenship means. It is a concept based essentially on the national ideas of the 19th century, and the tiny Baltic Republic is trying to grasp it in an unusual way. Though interest in the service is relatively high, it does not guarantee some fundamental rights, such as the right of residence or the right to vote, but instead serves for more accessible business.        

A vital issue in digitizing public administration and strengthening the position of digital elements is the debate on whether all citizens can access such services or whether they are activities that will manifest in information poverty or a digital divide between two groups of people. One will strengthen citizens, while the other will deny certain rights available to the first group.     

Digital poverty and the gap

The digital divide is a metaphor that shows the division between those that are digitally literate people and those that are not, with the ‘nots’ being thrown to the bottom of an ‘information abyss’. It is characteristic that the metaphor of the deep is relatively close-fitting. These are typically people who do not want to be educated in ICT or are not motivated to do so. They usually have a lower socioeconomic status and avoid many of the benefits of the information revolution. They may be more aware of its negative features, such as the loss of security, the absence of a familiar and stable world, impaired access to services and information, etc.   

The absence of digital competencies is, to some extent, cyclical - a large part of educational tools or activities are online, so it is difficult for these people to access them. And when they come to a course, they can often encounter a language and cultural environment far removed from them, so there is very little support for authentic learning.  

In general, it is possible to talk about the so-called primary digital divide, where it is true that a person does not have access to the technology needed to update their digital competence, and secondary, where they have the technology but can not adequately operate it. In principle, it cannot be said that the secondary digital divide is in any way better or milder than the primary. However, for example, in the school environment, much more attention is paid to material equipment than to education.    

The digital divide is also an important parameter when considering the digitization of public administration, or lifelong learning, which can lead to the paradoxical situation mentioned above - expanding the possibility of civic participation can mean a reduction in civic opportunities for some citizens and significantly deepening barriers between the information literate and illiterate.   

The concept of digital poverty is also very closely related to the idea of the digital divide. Jan van Dijk talks about four areas or dimensions of poverty, each of which needs to be approached in a different, specific way:  

  •  The psychological reason is the lack of any digital experience, caused by lack of interest or fear of new technologies, or rejection (it can affect, among others, the elderly, the illiterate, and many others). It is possible to see the critical role of the media or the school in this area because they can break down this psychological barrier. At the same time, it is paradoxical and problematic that we often witness the opposite movement. 
  • The material reason lies in the lack of material resources to acquire technologies that are perceived as the basis for digital competencies, which today is mainly a smartphone and/or a computer. Due to the validity of Moore's Law (the performance of chips at a constant price grows exponentially), the essential economic barrier is declining relatively quickly. At present, however, it is possible to encounter other potential material problems - for example, in the form of the user's refusal to acquire technology.     
  • Lack of digital skills is sometimes seen as a temporary phenomenon that is solved by buying a computer and connecting it to the network. However, such a simple solution to information poverty is not possible. It should be seen that part of digital competencies is, for example, information literacy, which can be developed only to a limited extent without any direct educational intervention. In this area, it is possible to see ample space for state educational strategies.  
  •  The usability of technology to address the real needs of individual users is another possible source of problems. In the Digcomp area, the fifth circuit is dedicated to this area. To acquire digital competencies, it is essential that the user can use technology to address their specific needs - work, entertainment, personal, study, or social. Van Dijk rightly shows that the massification of education can fail in not offering a genuinely individualized knowledge of the individual and his social context about identifying educational goals.

E-government

E-government refers to electronic governance, and perhaps that is why many people think of it primarily as a matter of elections via the Internet, a topic that is undoubtedly one of them. Still, at the same time, it is neither the most important nor the only one. To make the concept more transparent, we will Czech projects as examples.  

First of all, it is necessary to emphasize that a large part of e-government is implemented relatively covertly and is related to the overall process of digitizing state administration. Individual offices can share information (or exchange it in a monitored and standardized manner), which should reduce the overall administrative burden on office staff and increase the citizen's comfort. It does not have to bypass individual offices, but - ideally - a single submission. However, the data show that the number of officials is closely related to the company's maturity, and it is not possible to look for a reduction in the number of employees of a particular office or the state administration as a whole directly behind digitization. 

In this context, the so-called basic registers are essential - i.e. registers designated by law, from which other entities draw information. It is a register of persons, inhabitants, a register of rights, and obligations, and a register of territorial identification, addresses, and real estate. In addition, the state has other registers connected to the basic ones and completes the overall structure of the digitalization of state administration. These include, for example, vehicle and driver records, the commercial and insolvency register, the criminal record, etc. The state, therefore, maintains structured digital records with which the authorities can work. At the same time, however, access to them should be controlled - part of the data is public, and all citizens or companies must have access to it, part is private, and access to it requires a reason (for example, a citizen's or court request).   

From the point of view of digitalization of state administration, the key concepts that need to be considered are the data box and digital signature, which are the basis for communication with the government. The data box is a service that all legal entities must-have. It is optional for ordinary citizens and is used not only for sending digital documents but also for receiving them. In the Czech context, this is a paid service. Each record contains a unique identification of the recipient and sender, a timestamp, and is equipped with a mark that allows printing and physical registration of the document.      

The digital signature is a service that allows you to replace a handwritten signature on documents, its goal being to ensure the sender's authenticity (then the integrity of the message, non-repudiation, and timestamp). A distinction needs to be made between digital signatures, which can use free certificates, for example, and which can be encountered in everyday e-mail communication, and, importantly, stricter requirements for authorities to issue digital signature certificates. The fact that the sender must have a limited validity certificate is also a paid service. From a cryptographic point of view, a digital signature is based on asymmetric encryption. To use mail must be sent through an installed e-mail client such as MS Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird.

Among the current projects of state administration in the Czech Republic, it is necessary to mention the Citizen's Portal, which brings together a large part of e-government services towards this target group. It is built to work with different life situations, thus trying to be as accessible to citizens as possible. To log in to the system, use either a data box or a newly issued electronic ID card. 

The social credit system in China

A controversial topic is that personal data protection is closely related to the Chinese system of social credit. It is based on the idea that the state has a large amount of information about its inhabitants that can be easily used to calculate certain social reliability. This number will show how good the citizens are. There is dissent in China, but at the same time, there is a relatively clear idea of ​​what a good citizen looks like, and a substantial part of the country's population approves of it. We must also point out that the Chinese state spends the most money in the world on its internal security (that is, on protection against anti-communist or anti- centralist tendencies). Therefore, a project introduced in 2014 began its intensive test operation in 2018 and is to be fully implemented in 2021.       

The personal social credit of each citizen can dynamically decrease and increase depending on how he behaves and whether he complies with all regulations. Specifically, the following criteria are monitored

  • Compliance with legislation, including offenses.
  • Economic behavior, especially the payment of taxes, all accounts, the presence of loans, etc.
  • Social behavior, i.e. who a person associates with, who form the circle of their acquaintances, or whether they refuse to work for the state (e.g. war, also participated in the secret services or the police). 
  • The way digital technologies are used (playing games, using inappropriate software, time spent on social networks, etc.).

If we look at these criteria, we can make two points. First of all, the calculation of credit is not methodologically transparent. It uses common tactics of totalitarian regimes, creating a sense of fundamental insecurity of what may and may not be followed, what will be followed by a reward, what punishment, or what information the state has available. In other words, the introduction of such a not very clear system contributes significantly to the discipline of the population.  

The second point is that no less critical states and private companies have a large amount of data on citizens. In democratic states, two essential principles apply. The first is that, although the state has a lot of information about the citizen, it does not allow easy access or aggregation. Setting up good accessibility of data for different actors is essential. The second principle is that state and corporate information is not shared (outside court orders). China flagrantly breaks through both of these approaches - it uses both state registries and, above all, data from companies directly or indirectly controlled by the Communist Party (Alibaba Group and Tencent) to obtain data.

For example, almost everyone uses WeChat, operated by Tencent, to communicate in China. So if you want to “talk" to someone who is not reliable enough according to the Social Credit System, your credit automatically decreases. Similarly, almost all payments for services are made through Alipay, which the Alibaba Group operates. According to this, it is clear where, for example, a person moves on a bicycle, what he buys, what he reads, what services he subscribes to, etc. The system is gradually learning to work with increasing data, with the most media-visible camera systems with automatic face detection.      

China is an interesting phenomenon - its technology companies are perfectly connected with the state administration, which creates an ideal business environment. There is no need to respect copyright, controlled competition, education adapted to the needs of companies, etc. What may seem like technological sophistication in the case of China is usually more of a tool for raising money (for something invented initially by someone else) or control, that is, power.

What is social credit for the citizens of China important for? Again, this is not entirely clear, but we know that it leads to a reduction in the ability to travel (outside the country, province) or use business class in transport. It affects the availability and provision of financial services and their conditions (loan, mortgage, bank account…). There is further talk of the impact on the availability of services and housing, or a reduction in the availability of education or work.     

If a person reaches a low credit score, the system is set up to make an escape from it difficult. So if someone tries to avoid discipline, they are gradually punished by decay to the social bottom, from which it is impossible to get out, and by the fact that almost no one will want to meet them. The combination of social and economic exclusion, the inability to obtain housing and work, is complemented by the dimension of travel restrictions, which will completely crush the person.   

At the same time, the whole system is represented by the regime as just the opposite - it is an effort to support the good, responsible citizens, to set the rules of civil society so that a large country can live together happily. In reality, however, it is a combination of coercion and supervision that will make it possible for the Communist Party to identify all problematic people and their social networks much more quickly. Any opposition activity is challenging. China has a long-standing problem with systemic corruption, which is likely to be reflected in this area. 

The digitization of state administration and calculation of various credits are also relevant topics in Western countries. However, the key to a free society is to find ways to set up the sharing of personal data and information from various sources. On the other hand, it will bring the necessary benefits for citizens (there are many suggestions that authorities should circulate data, not citizens), but at the same time operate in a democratic society. Therefore, for such a system to work outside the legislative environment, it will also be essential to set the whole of humanity in confidence in a democratically functioning state, which may not be evident at all in times of hybrid wars. At the same time, it shows how dangerous and powerful technologies can be if a totalitarian state power uses them.

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