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Democracy Digitized: A Collision Course or a Collaborative Conquest?

Rajkumar Rajkumar
22 Jan 2024

Imagine a world where voting takes a single click, government services arrive at your doorstep with AI precision, and citizens debate policy on virtual town squares. This is the utopian promise of digitisation for democracy: efficiency, transparency, and participation at our fingertips. Yet, as we rush towards this digital Eden, a chilling question lingers: are we paving the path to a more robust, inclusive democracy, or are we unwittingly constructing a gilded cage?

To answer this, we must first acknowledge the seductive power of the digital carrot. Gone are the days of long queues and paper trails. Imagine Anita, a single mother working two jobs, casting her vote on her lunch break, her voice seamlessly woven into the tapestry of national decisions. Or envision Rajanna, a farmer in a remote village, receiving weather alerts and crop subsidies directly on his phone, empowering him to navigate the vagaries of nature. These are the dividends of a well-orchestrated digital symphony that promises to democratise access and amplify citizen voices. But wait, before we get lost in the techno-utopian serenade, let's tune into the ominous bassline of potential pitfalls.

Centralisation whispers a seductive tune, promising efficiency but harbouring the risk of a single conductor controlling the entire orchestra. Data, the lifeblood of this digital ecosystem, can become a weapon wielded by governments or tech giants to silence dissent and manipulate opinion. Algorithms, the invisible hand of digital decision-making, can be riddled with biases, perpetuating inequalities and drowning out marginalised voices. "Increasingly, security means giving up the ability to end this digital Panopticon without permission", warns a British blogger, science fiction author, and activist who often writes about technology, digital rights, and civil liberties.

And then there's the spectre of privacy, like a watchful ghost in the machine. Every click, every swipe, and every online interaction leaves a digital footprint susceptible to the gaze of onlookers. As Arundhati Roy poignantly states, "The line between private and public in the digital realm is now almost nonexistent." This erosion of privacy can chill dissent, turning citizens into silent players in a rigged game.

These are not mere dystopian nightmares but cautionary whispers of cases like India's Aadhaar program. This national biometric ID system is often cited as a cautionary tale. While it aimed to improve service delivery and reduce fraud, concerns have been raised about data privacy, the potential for misuse by the union government, and its impact on the autonomy of Indian states. Protests and legal challenges have highlighted the tension between digitisation and federalism, where a centralised biometric database raises concerns about government overreach. Or think of the global scourge of online disinformation, swaying elections and turning social media into battlegrounds of misinformation.

People need to be careful when rulers take the lead in making things digital without the public's informed consent. While digitisation is just one tool for effective governance, it risks transforming into a potent weapon that fosters excessive centralisation of power. The authenticity of the source code for our Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) remains uncertain, causing even technologists to grapple with concerns about potential malicious code and backdoors. In the digital world, 'backdoors' refer to secret ways or methods that allow someone to access a computer system or software without going through the usual security checks. It's like a hidden entrance that can be exploited, and it's often considered a security risk.

Beyond vulnerability to hacking, there is a significant risk that these machines could be manipulated to generate specific outcomes with tailored data at any chosen time and location. Despite acknowledging these realities, the question persists: should we entrust these machines with the critical task of determining the fate of our democracy?

In a federal nation like India, centralisation of control and interpretation of digital technology for public policy can lead to the collapse of democracy through several pathways:

Power shift: It concentrates power in the hands of the union government, undermining the autonomy and bargaining power of states and local communities. This can lead to top-down decision-making that neglects regional needs and priorities.

Data privacy and surveillance: Extensive data collection by the central government can generate mistrust and fear among citizens, stifling dissent and undermining their right to privacy. This can create a chilling effect on political participation and engagement.

Misinformation and manipulation: Algorithmically driven platforms and centralised control over information can facilitate the spread of misinformation and disinformation, swaying public opinion and undermining informed democratic discourse. This can make elections unfair and manipulate voters.

Unequal development and inequity: Digitised policies and resource allocation decisions made at the centre can exacerbate inequalities between developed and less developed regions. This can lead to resentment, marginalisation, and, potentially, secessionist movements.

Erosion of accountability and transparency: Centralised control makes it harder for citizens to hold government officials accountable for their actions. This can lead to corruption, abuse of power, and further erosion of trust in democratic institutions.
Hindering diversity and inclusion: Centralised digital systems can exclude marginalised groups lacking technological access or facing language and cultural barriers. This can prevent their voices from being heard and their needs from being addressed in policymaking.

But fear not, for amidst the digital din, hope echoes. Like fireflies in the darkness, countless initiatives illuminate a path towards a more collaborative future. Decentralisation is the rallying cry, empowering citizens to manage their data and participate in decision-making at a local level. Transparency becomes the shield against algorithmic bias, demanding open-source platforms and rigorous audits. And data rights become the sword, empowering individuals to reclaim control over their digital footprints.

In this digital tango, democracy and technology can become graceful dance partners, not adversaries locked in a death grip. We must strive for this future, not one where citizens are mere spectators in a digital play but one where they are the co-authors, directors, and stars of their own democratic destiny.

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations does not explicitly address digital technologies, its core principles regarding the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, participation in government, and freedom from discrimination extend to the online domain. These rights remain crucial for upholding democratic principles in formulating digital policies.

Remember, technology is not a predetermined fate but a malleable tool waiting to be shaped by our collective will. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." In this digital age, let us be the architects of our own technological enlightenment, shaping a future where democracy doesn't cower before the digital behemoth but dances alongside it, hand in hand, towards a brighter, more inclusive dawn.

So, the next time you click that vote button or scroll through your newsfeed, remember that you are not just a passive consumer of the digital age but a potential co-creator. Let us choose collaboration over control, transparency over obscurity, and participation over apathy. Only then can we ensure that digitisation becomes not a collision course with democracy but a collaborative conquest, forging a future where technology amplifies, not diminishes, the voices of the people. The collective determination of the people of India must steadfastly oppose the union government's attempts to manipulate digitisation as a means to centralise power and dismantle the federal structure.

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