Digital democratic cities and the future of human rights online

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group New and emerging technologies, Thematic human rights issues

The title of the seventh edition of the Glion Human Rights Dialogue in late 2020, ‘Making digital technology work for human rights,’ was chosen deliberately. The organisers hoped that at the same time as considering the important threats to human rights posed by such technology, such as the emergence of ‘surveillance States’ and internet shutdowns, Glion VII would also – in a more positive sense – identify ways in which technology is being, and could be, placed at the service of rights. In that regard, Glion looked, in particular, at the potential of digital technology to promote economic and social rights such as the right to health, the right to education, and the right to food. Notwithstanding, when it came to the discussions on civil and political rights in the digital age, participants at Glion VII continued to focus, almost exclusively, on threats and challenges, such as the rapid spread of disinformation and hate speech, and voter manipulation, rather than on opportunities. While this was perhaps to be expected, considering the contemporary preponderance of news stories about, for example, the impacts of disinformation (‘fake news’) and conspiracy theories on the 2020 US elections and on American democracy in general, it nonetheless leaves an important question unanswered: namely, how can we seize the opportunities presented by digital technology to strengthen the enjoyment of civil and political rights, and to contribute to the global ‘fightback’ of democracy?

A recent paper by Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev for The Atlantic magazine, gives important clues as to how that question might eventually be answered. Entitled ‘How to put out democracy’s dumpster fire,’ (8 March 2021), the article considers how we might mobilise digital technology to rehabilitate and rejuvenate ‘civil society’ (understood in the broad sense of the word) in liberal democratic systems.

To tell this story, Applebaum and Pomerantsev went back to the founding of the United States, one of the world’s great democracies, to understand what made America’s experiment with democracy a success, especially when compared to contemporaneous – and failed – experiments in places like France. Based on the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (in particular, his classic ‘Democracy in America’) and his early 19th century travelling companion,

Gustave de Beaumont, Applebaum and Pomerantsev argued that the answer to the question of ‘[why] American democracy worked,’ did not only lie in the US constitution and its famous ‘checks and balances’ on political power, but also ‘in state, local, and even neighbourhood institutions,’ which permit ‘the Union to enjoy the power of a great republic and the security of a small one.’ Tocqueville especially liked what he called the ‘township institutions’ – the traditions of local democracy – that ‘give the people the taste for freedom and the art of being free.’

It was in these public squares and town halls that, despite ‘the vast empty spaces of their country’ [something Tocqueville called ‘the wilderness’], Americans met one another, made decisions together, and carried out projects together.’ Americans were good at democracy, Tocqueville believed, because they practiced democracy. They formed what he called ‘associations,’ the myriad organisations that we now call ‘civil society,’ and they did so everywhere:

Not only do [Americans] have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools […] Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.


As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite.

In the nearly two centuries since Tocqueville wrote these words, this concept of ‘civil society’ has spread to all four corners of the globe, and become one of the linchpins of the expansion of democratic forms of governance. And yet, according to Applebaum and Pomerantsev, ‘many of [these] institutions and habits have [today] deteriorated or disappeared.’ While this process of civil society decay – ‘the disappearance of clubs and committees, community and solidarity’ – has been going on for decades, it has rapidly accelerated over the past decade as social interactions have increasingly moved online. The rise of social media platforms, in particular, have led to a situation in which most Americans – and indeed most of the ‘peoples of the United Nations’ – now ‘experience the world through a lonely, personalised lens,’ and no longer ‘have much experience at all of township democracy.’

According to Applebaum and Pomerantsev, ‘with the wholesale transfer of so much entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce, and politics from the real world to the virtual world – a process recently accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic – many Americans have come to live in a nightmarish inversion of the Tocquevillian dream, a new sort of wilderness.’ Many modern Americans now seek camaraderie online, in a world defined not by friendship ‘but by anomie and alienation.’ Instead of participating in civic organisations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, ‘people join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on.’ Instead of entering a real-life public square or town hall, ‘they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.’

The tech giants

Further contributing to this decline in the social and democratic role of ‘civil society’ has been the growing dominance, in the digital world, of a few corporate technology giants (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter). In the age of these giants, conversation and social interaction ‘is governed not by established customs and traditions in service of democracy, but by rules set by a few for-profit companies in service of their needs and revenues.’ Instead of the procedural norms that guide a real-life town hall meeting, designed to promote mutual-understanding, empathy, compromise and common ground, today’s digital conversation ‘is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising […] The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive – and often the most duplicitous – participants are amplified. Reasonable, rational, and nuanced voices are much harder to hear. Radicalisation spreads quickly.’ People feel powerless ‘because they are.’

Applebaum and Pomerantsev present a compelling case that in this new social wilderness, democracy is becoming impossible. ‘If one half of the country can’t hear the other, [then we] can no longer have shared institutions […] We can’t compromise. We can’t make collective decisions.’ In such an ‘enfeebled democracy,’ as Tocqueville warned, ‘each person, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.’

Revitalising civil society and democracy in the digital age

After describing the challenges to civil society and thus to democracy in the digital age, Applebaum and Pomerantsev then propose a series of elegant solutions or paths forward – ideas that, if implemented by States, could transform the internet from a technology that threatens and undermines democratic rights and values, to one that promotes and reinforces them. According to the authors, notwithstanding all the challenges thrown up by digital technology over the past ten years, such solutions ‘lie within our grasp.’

They argue, for example, that we know alternatives to the current status quo are possible – ‘because we used to have them.’ Before private commercial platforms definitively took over, online public-interest projects briefly flourished. In 2002, the Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig helped create the Creative Commons license, allowing programmers to make their inventions available to anyone online. Wikipedia, which still operates under such a license, offers is a glimpse of the internet that might have been: ‘a not-for-profit, collaborative space where disparate people follow a common set of norms as to what constitutes evidence and truth, helped along by public-spirited moderators.’ Applebaum and Pomerantsev also point to the work of a Brazilian lawyer, Ronaldo Lemos, who, between 2007 to 2014, used a simple online tool to allow Brazilians from all classes and professions to help write an ‘internet bill of rights.’

However, these early efforts to build an open and empowering internet, a technology that would work for human rights and empower individual rights-holders, were soon eclipsed by the emergence of, and the tactics employed by, the major platforms. An open system, in which anyone could introduce innovations in the best traditions of civil society, gave way to a model that was controlled, top-down and homogeneous. ‘The experience of using the internet shifted from active to passive.’ After Facebook introduced its News Feed, for example, users no longer simply searched the site but were provided a constant stream of information, tailored to what the algorithm thought they wanted to read. ‘As a few companies came to control the market, they used their monopoly power to undermine competitors, track users across the internet, collect massive troves of data, and dominate advertising.’

Another reason for cautious optimism is that radical realignments of the ‘rules of the game,’ to fix broken systems in furtherance of economic, social, civil and political rights, have happened before. Once example, shared in the article, is late 19th century America, a ‘country […] condemned to monopoly capitalism, financial crisis, deep inequality, a loss of trust in institutions, and political violence.’ After the 25th President, William McKinley, was murdered, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt – who denounced the ‘unfair money-getting’ that created a ‘small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power’ – rewrote the rules. He broke up monopolies to make the economy fairer, returning power to small businesses and entrepreneurs. He enacted protections for working people. And he created the national parks, public spaces for all to enjoy.

In this sense, according to Applebaum and Pomerantsev, the current digital status quo has returned American society to the 1890s. ‘Once again, we have a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful people whose obligations are to themselves, and perhaps to their shareholders, but not to the greater good.’

A third cause for hope, identified in the article, is that the internet is, unsurprisingly, ‘not the first promising technology to have quickly turned dystopian.’

In the early 20th century, radio was greeted with as much enthusiasm as the internet is in the early 21st. However, as has also become the fate of digital technology and social media, the first to understand and seek to leverage the power of this new medium were authoritarian leaders and others wishing to suppress human rights through hate, propaganda and social control. In the Soviet Union, for example, radio speakers in apartments and on street corners blared Communist propaganda, while in Germany, the Nazis introduced the Volksempfänger, a cheap wireless radio, to broadcast Hitler’s speeches.

Yet democrats, human rights activists and social reformers did not give up on radio. Instead, they reimagined what radio broadcasting could look like and how this new technology could be placed at the service of human rights, rather than undermine them.

One such reformer was John Reith in the UK, who began to look for an alternative future for radio, a future where this important new medium was controlled neither by the State, as it was in dictatorships, nor by polarising, profit-seeking companies. Reith’s idea was public radio, funded by taxpayers but independent of the government. It would not only ‘inform, educate and entertain,’ it would facilitate democracy by bringing society together:

The voice of the leaders of thought or action coming to the fireside; the news of the world at the ear of the rustic […] the facts of great issues, hitherto distorted by partisan interpretation, now put directly and clearly before them; a return of the City-State of old.

This vision of a radio broadcaster that could create a cohesive, yet pluralistic national conversation, eventually became the BBC, and Reith its first Director-General.

Taking inspiration from people like Reith, today others have begun to consider how the internet and social media might be similarly put at the service of human rights and democracy.  Among them is Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts. As explained in The Atlantic article, Zuckerman has sought to reimagine social media as a tool to serve the public interest, by promoting civil discourse rather than simply absorbing users’ attention and data. He believes that ‘if at least a part of the internet becomes a place where partisan groups argue about specific problems, not a place where people show off and parade their identities, it could transform people’s understanding of and interaction with the digital world.’ This could potentially return people to the feeling of democratic participation and civic duty that once inspired the citizens of newly democratic America. ‘Instead of making people angry, participation in online forums can give them the same civic thrill that town halls or social clubs once did.’

Versions of this idea already exist. For example, Front Porch Forum, a Vermont-based site, is used by roughly a quarter of the state’s residents for all sorts of community activity, from natural disaster response to job hunting, as well as civic discussion. One important element of this public forum is that all users are ‘real’ and have to sign up using real Vermont addresses. ‘When you go on the site, you interact with your actual neighbours, not online avatars.’

Such moderated ‘public service social media’ can’t be created for free. It needs funding, just like the BBC. Zuckerman suggests raising money through a tax on online advertising: ‘That money is going to go into a fund that is analogous to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And it’s going to be available for people who want to try different ideas of what online communities, online spaces could look like.’

Digital democratic cities

As the foregoing suggests, making digital technology work for human rights, for civil society, and for democracy, will require UN member States, as duty-bearers, to radically reconceptualise the digital world and how rights-holders interact with it. The current piecemeal approach of employing (often belatedly and ineffectively) regulation or corporate self-regulation to mitigate specific online harms, is not enough. Rather, if governments are serious about placing digital technology at the service of civil and political rights, and of democracy, they should be open to new, radical ideas similar to those that led to the creation of public service broadcasters for radio and television in the 20th century. As Applebaum and Pomerantsev contend:

This is not just a matter of taking down content or even of removing a President’s Twitter feed. Rather, it is about ‘thinking big’ and reimagining the design and structure of online spaces, so that citizens, businesses and political actors have better incentives, more choices and more rights.

But what might ‘thinking big’ mean in practice?

Just as John Reith once looked at radio as a way to re-create the ‘City State of old,’ Eli Pariser, a co-founder of Avaaz, and Talia Stroud, Director of the Center for Media Engagement, argue that we should think of cyberspace as an urban environment. According to this view:

Nobody wants to live in a city where everything is owned by a few giant corporations, consisting of nothing but malls and billboards – yet that is essentially what the internet has become. To flourish, democratic cities need parks and libraries, department stores and street markets, schools and police stations, sidewalks and art galleries. As the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs wrote, the best urban design helps people interact with one another, and the best architecture facilitates the best conversation. The same is true of the internet.

What is more, individual rights-holders should be active rather than passive inhabitants of this urban environment or digital cityscape. Polling conducted by Pariser and Stroud (covering 20 countries) suggests that people are eager for alternatives to Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, and – crucially – that they want to help invent or develop those alternatives. In other words, as with the Americans whom Tocqueville saw participating in town hall meetings, associations and other ‘township institutions,’ people today want to be involved, want to exert their civil and political rights in a meaningful way, want to contribute to community and society, and want to feel a tangible sense of democratic participation and control.

These points also came through clearly during a ‘virtual festival,’ organised by Pariser and Stroud in January of this year – and recounted in The Atlantic article. Described as a ‘dispatch from the future of digital public space,’ the event included discussions on how to build ad-free social media that doesn’t extract your data, how to design apps that filter out harassment on Twitter, how to build algorithms that favour online connection, empathy and understanding, and how to design online communities that favour evidence, calm and respect over disinformation, outrage and vitriol.

Building on the work of these pioneers, Applebaum and Pomerantsev propose the creation, in democratic States around the world, of ‘online democratic cities,’ providing a ‘digital public space.’

Such States could set up a fund for ‘public service social media,’ as proposed by Zuckerman, with money raised through taxes on digital giants. Money from the fund could be made available to ‘people who want to try different ideas of what online communities, online spaces could look like,’ helping to create vibrant civil society organisations and small businesses enterprises – in the words of Applebaum and Pomerantsev, ‘thousands of civil society groupings, sharing their ideas and opinions free of digital manipulation or distortion.’ This might include political parties and candidates, human rights NGOs, religious groups, environmental groups, single issue campaigns, educational institutions, medical organisations, and perhaps – according to Applebaum and Pomerantsev – even online courts where citizens could seek remedy for violations of their ‘digital rights.’

The people in this digital cityscape would be ‘real’ – with real names and addresses (as is the case with Vermont’s Front Porch Forum), and would be in charge of their own data. This would mean, according to Applebaum and Pomerantsev, that you ‘would be able to give medics all the information they need to help fight diseases, for example, but would also be guaranteed that these data couldn’t be repurposed.’ Beyond privacy, other rights too would be protected in digital democratic cities. The work of Pariser, Stroud and others gives a sense of the innovations that might be unleashed by the creation of such digital public spaces – innovations designed to make technology work for human rights such as ‘algorithms that favour online connection, empathy and understanding,’ and new forms of online community ‘that favour evidence, calm and respect over disinformation, outrage and vitriol.’

Beyond strengthening community and civil society at local and national levels, Applebaum and Pomerantsev also argue that the construction of such digital democratic cities and a ‘civically healthier internet,’ could boost democracy and rights globally by ‘[giving] us common cause with our old alliances,’ and by helping to build new ones:

Our relationships with Europe and with the democracies of Asia, which so often feel obsolete, would have a new centre and focus. Together we could create this technology, and together we could offer it to the world as an empowering alternative to China’s closed internet, and to Russia’s distorted disinformation machine. We would have something to offer beleaguered democrats, from Moscow to Minsk to Hong Kong: the hope of a more democratic public space.

In conclusion, yes, the onset of the digital world has brought with it great challenges for the enjoyment of human rights and for the functioning of democracy; yet it also offers immense opportunities. Thus far, the international community has tended to focus its attention on the former. As Applebaum and Pomerantsev have so convincingly argued, if we want to change that, if we want to place digital technology at the service of human rights and democracy, then we need to think big and consider radical reform, such as the design and construction of publicly owned digital democratic cities:

[The challenges posed by digital technology] are problems democracies have solved before. The solutions are in our history, in our DNA, in our own memories of how we have fixed broken systems in other eras. The internet was the future once, and it can be again, if we remember Reith and Roosevelt, Popper and Jacobs – if we apply the best of the past to the present.

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