Strengthening Democracy and Protecting Civic Rights in the Digital Era
April 26, 2019
For government to be responsive, and inclusive, a robust enabling environment that protects fundamental rights and democratic institutions is critical. However, there are various factors that are changing and challenging democratic processes. One of them is the evolving role of digital media, which has profoundly impacted the relationship between governments and the citizens they serve. In many ways it has empowered citizens with more information and enabled governments to improve transparency and accountability. Yet, challenges including fake news, biased systems and the growing assaults on privacy are gradually contributing to the erosion of democratic spaces, in addition to persisting threats to democracy such as attacks on civil society and media. As a result, countries need to identify policy tools that can help protect against these complex challenges. This note identifies some approaches that OGP members can adopt to address threats to democratic rights and institutions, including from misuse of digital technologies. The OGP Steering Committee, led by Co-Chairs the Government of Canada and Nathaniel Heller, are committed to delivering and supporting others to deliver on this collective agenda.
The OGP Global Summit as an action-forcing moment
OGP and the upcoming global summit will provide a platform to inspire collective action to protect democratic participation and create meaningful impact. The Summit will bring together a group of governments and stakeholders keen to drive forward both international and domestic action to strengthen democratic institutions, and protect against digital threats to democratic institutions. Actions could include:
- Lead by example on inclusive co-creation models
OGP members, especially those on the Steering Committee, have the responsibility to lead by example by institutionalizing OGP multistakeholder forums that protect the space for civil society to participate in policy making. At the end of 2018, 63 OGP members had Multistakeholder Forums that anchor their domestic OGP processes. OGP members are also encouraged to make progress on the OGP Participation and Co-Creation Standards, which provide a set of milestones to deepen government-civil society engagement in OGP.
- Advance OGP commitments that protect democratic institutions and rights
OGP action plans provide a unique platform for governments to work closely with civil society to translate policy ideas into concrete action that strengthens democratic institutions and protects citizens’ rights in the face of digital transformation. OGP could also complement efforts made at other multilateral forums like the OECD, the Community of Democracies, the Freedom Online Coalition, the G7, and more, by linking these to the domestic co-creation process and informing follow up action. Civic space commitments in action plans can ensure that conversations around protecting democracy are not just limited to tweets and treaties but address the gap between commitment and delivery, and involve civil society. Please refer to the menu of commitments in the appendix below for commitment ideas that you could adapt to your country context.
By taking these actions you could be part of an emerging coalition of OGP members leading a global conversation to promote democratic rights and protect dialogue in this evolving digital era. Signal an action you would like to announce and join a group of OGP countries who will meet at the Summit to discuss how to advance these issues through global diplomacy, policy innovation and financial support.
Menu of suggested commitments for your OGP Action Plan
Several OGP countries have had to tackle emerging issues around misuse of digital media and the related adverse impacts on democratic participation, including, surveillance, disinformation, misinformation (“fake news”), privacy invasion, hate speech, targeted attacks. At the same time, civic rights and the space for dialogue need to be defended against threats. Some areas that could benefit from commitments include:
- Data rights and privacy: There are important standards that are emerging to inform national and regional policies around data rights, use, storage and broader implications on privacy (e.g., the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation or the Council of Europe’s Convention 108+, recently updated to include guidelines on data protection). In OGP, Australia, Denmark and Portugal are among the countries that have made commitments related to this issue.
- OGP example: Australia committed to “build and maintain public trust to address concerns about data sharing and release,” including to “improve privacy and personal information protections in using and sharing data.”
- Sample commitment: Harmonize data privacy laws across levels of government in your country (regional treaties where applicable, federal, provincial/state). Develop data protection legal frameworks that take into account specific conditions for data processing and disclosure of personal data, in addition to giving rights to the individual to control what is accessed, stored and shared, applicable to both businesses and public bodies.
- Internet access and control: Making internet access inclusive (addressing barriers to affordability and accessibility for disadvantaged communities and geographically isolated regions), but also setting up robust frameworks to prevent manipulation, digital government surveillance, preserve net neutrality (e.g., EU net neutrality rules), as well as safeguard against internet censorship and arbitrary shutdowns. With regard to “internet censorship,” any commitment needs to ensure that content-based restrictions meet international standards for freedom of expression. Countries that have OGP commitments related to these topics include Côte d’Ivoire, Italy, Latvia, among others.
- OGP example: Latvia committed to take forward the development of e-services and open public internet access points to promote the use of e-services thus reducing costs and administrative burdens for citizens, companies and public administration. Italy adopted a commitment on spreading its Charter of Internet Rights. These measures, approved by its legislature in 2015, included efforts such as encouraging the public and officials to recognise the links between on and offline rights, including basic civil liberties such as assembly.
- Sample commitment: In accordance with international standards for the freedom of expression, establish legal frameworks that specify rights of users to access/use/receive content over the internet, and safeguard or specify conditions under which internet service providers or other private actors can control or price internet content/ applications/protocol.
- Responsible and ethical AI and open algorithms: While this is an emerging topic, it is one that a lot of OGP countries have begun initiating policy conversations on, especially around ethics of AI, how AI can be made more open and human-centric, how to manage impact. Discussions among the Digital 9 countries (membership of OGP is one of the core criteria of the D9 charter), G7 discussions, and bilateral agreements such as between Canada and France provide a good starting point for this discussion. In OGP, countries that have similar commitments include France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.
- OGP example: France committed to “improving transparency of public algorithms and source codes,” more specifically to “develop a methodology in collaboration with administrations for opening algorithms and codes contained in their information systems.” Canada committed to develop a government directive “to set rules on how departments can use AI ethically to make decisions.”
- Sample commitment: Proactively design consultation mechanisms for public feedback into design and implementation of AI strategies. Implementation of these strategies should not violate any human rights principles or international conventions.
- Tackling challenges of disinformation and “fake news”: Various jurisdictions have begun exploring policy measures that could help tackle disinformation and misuse of social media platforms online. For example, the UK parliamentary committee’s report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ calls for policy measures such as mandating social media companies take down known sources of harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation. That said, experts on civic rights frameworks such as ICNL emphasize that while disinformation / fake news is a problem, the legal framework must ensure that the government is not the arbiter of what is the “truth.” Content should be independently reviewed and should not be taken down unless the government meets the three requirements for restrictions on the freedom of expression.
- Sample commitment: OGP members mandate social media companies to adhere to codes of conduct that require them to report the misuse or manipulation of their platforms. These companies should work closely with academics, civil society, governments to identify and review malicious content.
- Protecting freedom of association: Analysis of international indicators and OGP commitments by OGP’s Global Report shows that 40 percent of OGP members have noteworthy challenges around freedom of association and that over half of all members (56 percent) have the potential to ambitiously adopt freedom of association commitments in their action plans. In fact. Across OGP members, almost two-thirds, enable civil society organizations to operate without registration restrictions. Countries with commitments to improve enabling environment for civil society include Bulgaria, El Salvador, Kenya, Latvia, Ukraine, among others.
- OGP example: Canada included a commitment to improve their information flows on the regulation of charities in a timely manner, and to engage them to ensure rules around tax and other revenue activities are fair, open, and easily accessible.
- Sample commitment: Streamline the process of registration for CSOs to make it easier for CSOs to operate without administrative burdens, and make access to public funding equitable for all CSOs. Develop and implement OGP commitments – and transparency reforms more broadly – using the “do-no-harm” principle, taking steps to ensure that transparency measures are in line with international frameworks and inadvertently do not adversely impact space for civil society to operate.
- Protecting freedom of assembly: Similarly, analysis by OGP’s Global Report has found that between a third and half of OGP countries have notable interference with the right to peaceful assembly.
- OGP example: Ukraine developed a draft law titled “On Procedure of Organising and Conducting Peaceful Events”. Various ministries – from Justice and the Interior as well as the Cabinet of Ministers – were actively engaged in the process.
- Sample commitment: Any commitment in this area should include reference to international legal standards for assembly. One example is to develop open and streamlined processes for proactive dissemination of rules and restrictions on peaceful assembly, training of law enforcement personnel on interfacing with crowds and protestors, among other things.
- Protecting freedom of expression: Similarly, the Freedom House report finds that freedom of expression, including press freedom, has declined each year over the past 13 years, with sharper drops since 2012. Journalists are not only being directly attacked by authoritarian regimes, libel laws are increasingly being misused to target them.
- OGP example: Mongolia committed to amend the Law on National Broadcasting to meet international standards, to help ensure political and financial independence of the media. The commitments also sought to consult the media on the current limitations in the legal environment for free press. Croatia committed to strengthen protection mechanisms for journalists who speak out against censorship in their editorial offices.
- Sample commitment: Create policy tools that safeguard public news channels from domestic or foreign interference by ensuring legal autonomy, provide independent access to funding through public funding mechanisms like subsidies or tax relief.
- Defending human rights defenders: OGP IRM data shows that 11 countries have made commitments to strengthen human rights institutions, implementation of human rights conventions, and safeguarding activists and journalists from attacks. Countries with commitments related to this include Colombia, Jordan, Mexico, Montenegro.
- OGP example: Ireland committed to build a culture of whistleblowing and adopt national legislation to protect people speaking up. Uruguay, in its third action plan, is moving towards an open data approach to look at access to information, including human rights violations under the military dictatorship.
- Sample commitment: Implement strong whistleblower protection laws, frameworks or programs that protect human rights defenders. OGP members could also consider institutionalizing funds to support human rights defenders and activists (Eg. the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism). Other ideas include mandating collection of official open data (e.g., reports filed on killings, harassment, other forms of violence against civil society actors and the number of cases investigated and prosecuted).
- Improve civil society-state relations: Establish consultative strategies involving CSOs for the development of the CSO sector and for CSO-government relations.
- OGP example: Macedonia had eight commitments over three action plans on co-creating the strategy that would govern cooperation with civil society. One of the most recent commitments highlights the role of non-governmental stakeholders in supporting government efforts around delivery of public services.
- Sample commitment: Involve civil society in co-creating a cross-agency strategy; creating consultation processes for different policy areas to involve civil society groups with thematic expertise.
- Cross-cutting areas of action:
- Effective oversight and redress mechanisms – create independent bodies, vested with the necessary mandate and resources, that can provide proactive redress of violations such as offices of ombudsman or such as the EU’s GDPR, which allows citizens (and organizations acting on behalf of citizens) to file complaints in the event they believe their rights under the GDPR have been violated.
- Cross-regional diplomatic action – given the translational flows of information and functioning of corporate entities, cross-country initiatives may be more effective in tackling digital threats to democracy. For example, the G7’s Rapid Response Mechanism against election meddling and disinformation.
- “Do no Harm” test – In some cases, transparency efforts have unintentional consequences on civic space such as placing undue burden on the functioning of civil society through onerous reporting targeting specific groups or lobbying regulation that restricts the space for advocacy. To avoid this, ensure that any commitments that relates to functioning of civil society is analyzed by experts on international and domestic non-profit, human rights laws and frameworks.
Related OGP resources
- OGP’s 2018 paper on civic space – The Right Tools for the Right Job
- ICNL’s guide on commitments to improve the enabling environment for civil society organizations
OGP Global Report
Partners who can support commitment development and implementation
For any support for the development or implementation of commitments, please reach out to the OGP Support Unit (Please write to Tonu Basu at firstname.lastname@example.org). OGP’s partners and other expert organizations (a few listed below) can also provide advice and implementation support.
- Access Now
- Article 19
- Open Data Charter
- Oxford Internet Institute
- The Atlantic Council
- Human Rights Watch
- The Web Foundation
 This analysis is informed by analysis of OGP’s commitments and third-party indicators for OGP’s Global Report. It also includes feedback from partners including Natural Resource Governance Institute and the International Center for Not for Profit Law (ICNL).