Dr Argyro P Karanasiou
Senior Lecturer in Law
University of Greenwich, UK
1. The rise and fall of participatory democracy
Two decades ago, the revolutionary developments in ICT, facilitated new forms of participatory democracy (Blumler and Coleman, 2001) and carried the promise of direct and deliberative forms of governance (OECD 2003). The tremendous impact of the internet on civic life and the subsequent emergence of a transnational online public sphere (Cammaerts and von Audenhove, 2005), gave rise to new concepts of governance models (Carter et al, 2005; Welch et al, 2004) that were premised on web-mediated citizen-state interaction and encouraged an active citizenry (Parent, 2005). At the same time the emergence of new intermediaries, namely ICT corporations acting as gatekeepers enforcing public policies, gave rise to a new wave of techno-determinism (Langdon, 1977) that reshaped the political ecosystem: the “invisible handshake” (Birnhack and Elkin-Koren, 2003) between the state and the tech industry served well the interests of both, maintaining thereby political power and market dominance respectively. What once was the promise of an enabler for the active citizenry, soon morphed into an opportunity to profit from a rapid datafication of the citizens paired with additional surveillance mechanisms (Hintz and Brown, 2017). The Snowden revelations in 2013 and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 are indicative cases of severe blows to public life: their aftermath was a continuing sentiment of mistrust towards the state (Tavani et al, 2014; Cadwallard, 2017) that discouraged citizens from any active involvement with the commons.
2. Technology as a building block for demagogic populism
We are currently witnessing an era of great disillusionment with democracy and civic life: the Democracy Perception Index 2018 survey reports that 54% of citizens in modern democracies do not feel that their voice has an impact. The highest levels of dissatisfaction have been reported in Europe, which does not come as a surprise given the unstable political climate and several failed attempts to let the public decide on delicate (and legally disputable) political matters, carrying thereby all responsibility. In the last five years alone, European citizens were asked to vote on referenda, yet the results were not materialised: the Catalan independence referendum in 2017 was declared illegal, the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 led to major political turbulence and a series of deliberations currently ongoing, and the Greek Bail Out referendum in 2015 was bluntly disregarded by the government 3 days after the results were in. Added to this is the sharp increase of immigration, which is further credited as a key factor for the rise of the far-right parties in Europe (Halla et al. (2017) for Austria; Dustmann et al. (2016) for Denmark; Sekeris and Vasilakis (2016) for Greece; Brunner and Kuhn (2014) for Switzerland; Becker and Fetzer (2016) for the UK). The political sphere in Europe has massively transformed over the past decade and technology has a key role in this. The de-legitimisation of old governance intermediaries has provided fertile soil for techno-populism ideologies, namely bottom-up governance models that further de-politicisation (De Blasio et al, 2018). This is not posing a threat to democracy per se, but it certainly has the potential to set new paradigms in a disruptive manner (Bloom et al, 2019). Historically, however, demagogy has thrived on populism (Stanley, 2008) and techno-populism is not an exception. In this climate of growing scepticism and disappointment over-representation, technology is now being used to appeal to the citizens’ emotional responses and to reveal their vulnerabilities to demagogues. No doubt technology still bears an undeniable potential to support participatory democracy and enhance good governance, yet recent instances of AI serving as a means of mass manipulation and micro-targeting make this a missed opportunity.
Besides the obvious concerns over the grave privacy intrusions of such practices, there also additional implications for the individual’s autonomy, free will, and uninfluenced decision making, which are far more subtle and thus hardly measurable. Most importantly, the involvement of tech firms in data mining, behavioural analytics and micro-targeting with a view to facilitating governmental ambitions for control in exchange for market dominance is a trade-off that establishes an oligopoly of data market players whilst undermining the core essence of democracy: autonomy.
3. Outsourcing governance and accountability: AI as a means of addressing the trust deficit in modern politics and public administration.
The digital era furnishes European democracies with an unprecedented opportunity for participatory democracy: a mostly tech-savvy interconnected community of citizens paired with supporting legal infrastructure, as evidenced by the EU framework for the Digital Single Market. A 2017 Deloitte survey found that 85% of the UK population have access to a smartphone and this is poised to surpass 92% in the next 3 years. Yet at the same time, computational propaganda and the use of AI for micro-targeting and fake content generation and dissemination online have already impacted greatly political discourse.
Democracy has become a commercial product in the digital era: marketed for mass consumption and managed by private commercial entities who share clientele with political parties for profit. This has resulted in a trust deficit towards the state, which in turn has delegitimised traditional governance models. An interesting outcome of this is the paradox of citizens trusting AI-driven governance, even if this means limited accountability and transparency. In a 2019 survey by the Centre for Governance of Change at IE University, a quarter of the participants expressed a preference for policy decisions to be made by AI instead of politicians. As noted in the report this highlights the following paradox: “while the public is fearful of advancements in tech, particularly increased automation, one in four Europeans would prefer artificial intelligence to make important to decisions about the running of their country. In nations such as the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the percentage is even higher – one in every three. Amid the vagaries of Brexit and current questions around the European model of representative democracy, the results tellingly reflect significant levels of disillusion towards politicians.” At first glance, this is an alarming prospect, given the inherent bias (Binns 2017; Diakopoulos 2014), opacity (Pasquale 2015), and accountability diffusion (Karanasiou et al 2017) in automated decision making. It should, however, be seen as a natural result of a data-driven reality that has led to the amalgamation of consumers and voters in a hybrid of e-citizenry: in the same manner, the traditional forms of governance have given way to GovTech, which guarantees direct governance modelled on business principles and fueled by big data. Businesses have long been relying on algorithms to reach strategic decisions (e.g. in the hiring process), following practices that have been criticised on grounds of privacy intrusion and discrimination (Williams et al 2018) but undeniably hold great potential as well to maximise productivity and innovation (Makridakis 2017).
In a similar vein, many European countries welcome the involvement of start-ups in AI-enabled governance: take for example Fluicity, the French start-up running a citizen participation cross-regional platform, or Familio, the company behind the Danish messaging system between parents and nurseries. Yes, whereas the main goal of a business entity is profit-making, the public sector has a different bet to win when embracing new technologies: to provide good governance that sustains democracy through (i) accountability and (ii) transparency. As such, the reliance of public administration on machine learning and automated decision-making would not lead to a Kafkaesque dystopia, provided that legal mechanisms guaranteeing due process (Coglianese et al 2016) and intelligibility are in place. In this vein, the GDPR’s provisions for a right to an explanation (art 22) and information (art 15) on automated decision making provide some scrutiny tools, yet these are not sufficient (Wachter et al 2017) and need better and clearer legal grounding; a good example in this direction is the French Digital Republique Act (loi pour une Republique numerique no. 2016-1321), which paired with FOIAs allows for transparent AI-enabled public administration (Edwards et al 2018).
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