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Transformation or transition?

Look back at the early days of digital enthusiasm, and you’ll find many assumptions. “Good things” (or opportunities) were often emphasised in digital literature back then; less good things (or risks) less so.

The last decade and a half have given us the chance to assess predictions voiced around the time of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, 2003/2005) against real outcomes. What’s happened since is almost always more complex, mixing the expected and the unexpected, the positive and negative (from whatever point of view), that which empowers and that which disempowers.

There’s been (and still is) much talk of “digital transformation”. But, even when it’s rapid and comprehensive ("transformational"), change is also gradual.  

It happens more rapidly and comprehensively in some places, for some people, than for others. And the process of transition from one thing to another is as important in determining what happens as the possibility of transformation (the potential end result). Plus: that process depends greatly on non-digital as well as digital context and experience.

I’ll come back to this theme when the blog returns after its summer break. This week, a look at one example of what I have in mind: political accountability.

Has digitalisation increased accountability?

The potential for digitalisation to increase accountability – especially of politics and government – was stressed a lot around the time of WSIS.  Three things were central to that idea:

  • that more data and more public information could and would be published;

  • that these could and would be scrutinised more widely, by more people, including civil society and journalists;

  • and that the internet would allow the findings of such scrutiny much wider circulation and therefore greater influence.

It would be harder, for these reasons, it was suggested, for governments (and other powerful actors) to control the narrative, to dictate what people read and understood about issues that affected them. This would, it was argued, increase transparency and accountability, and thereby should reduce corruption. The power that had been vested in investigative journalism would become available to all (or, at least, more).

That potential’s valid, and greater access to data has certainly enabled increased scrutiny of some decisions in some contexts, particularly where associated with laws requiring freedom of (public) information, but the picture’s complicated. Three major changes (or transitions) in the context first, and then four points at a more detailed level.


The first change/transition concerns the quantity of information/data that is or is potentially available, and the scope for scrutiny arising from that.  

It’s a commonplace in writing about the digital society that the volume of data that’s gathered, retained and exploited – by governments, businesses and other actors – is increasing almost exponentially.  

But superabundance doesn’t necessarily enable greater scrutiny. It can also make it easier for data managers to obscure what’s going on, to emphasise aspects of what’s happening that favour their own narratives. And it can make it harder for investigators to identify what’s problematic in a mass of information, which includes much that's or unrepresentative and some deliberately intended to mislead.

This is compounded by the way that online media have undermined the business models of investigative journalism in favour of cheaper content (like mining the Twittersphere).

Who needs to be accountable?

The second concerns changes in the power structures of societies: not just in who governs and how, but in who holds power over governments and citizens.

Many of the assumptions made about accountability two decades ago were concerned with governments (national and local). Less attention was paid to businesses, even those with high degrees of economic power. Very little to digital businesses, which were then ‘challengers’ emerging from beneath the radar.

Today, however, digital enterprises have become some of the most powerful cultural and actors, and thereby framers of political decision-making.  They're players that people feel, increasingly, should also be (and be held) accountable, for their exploitation of data, their role as intermediaries of public discourse, and their potential influence on politics, economics and society.  

Those businesses now hold more information about citizens and users than do governments. That suggests that they require scrutiny, but they’re less open to it: resistant to regulation, protected against liability in certain contexts and some jurisdictions, and reluctant to share information about their commercial operators or their algorithms.  

Who is accountable to whom?

And data cut both ways, particularly when superabundant. As well as opening governments to scrutiny by citizens, they open citizens to scrutiny by powerful actors, both governments and businesses. 

Even in the absence of surveillance, superabundant data give those actors the ability to understand, predict and manage the behaviour of individuals and communities to suit political or economic interests.  ‘Social credit’ systems, based on observation, can be developed and are beginning to be implemented.  They make citizens accountable to governments rather than vice versa.  

Managing data and accountability

Those broader trends affect the context for accountability – but many other aspects of the way digitalisation’s developed influence its practical potential. I’ll pick out four.

First, there’s an imbalance in power between those who hold and those who interrogate the information that’s available. Data are managed and exploited most effectively by those who have the power and resources needed for most effective use. That power can be exercised benignly and for public good but, where it’s not, investigative journalism (like political opposition) is always likely to be hamstrung by limited resources.

Second, data sources experience inherent bias and data outcomes are almost always open to different interpretations. What’s released’s by governments is important and so is how. Media management – establishing and controlling the narrative – is an increasingly important part of public information. Putting a positive ‘spin’ on what’s released’s a crucial part of process. Once that narrative has been established, it’s more difficult for contrary assessments to gain traction.

Third, new technologies are being used to hide as well as to reveal. Where they’re enacted, rules governing freedom of information expect the actions and decisions of those deemed accountable to be available for scrutiny as public records.  Of course, a lot of real decision-making has always gone on behind the scenes, but new technology has made that easier. The use of private email servers to conduct government business caused problems for both the last American administrations. The use of WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging by ministers and others is currently contentious in my country, especially where public procurement is concerned.

And fourth, regulators can be captured or their powers constrained – by partisan appointments to regulatory bodies, the weakening of judicial systems, populist rhetoric which emphasises the end while devaluing the means. The last two decades of digitalisation have also changed media production and consumption, undermining the economic model for investigative journalism (which is expensive, time-consuming and politically challenging).

Accountability is not just digital

Changes in the way that public information’s gathered, analysed and distributed provide opportunities for those in power as well as those who seek to scrutinise them. This isn’t just concerned with data (or statistics), but with ‘freedom of information’ generally. 

And it isn’t just a matter that is digital. Digitalisation doesn’t inherently encourage accountability, or discourage it. What matters – before, during and after digitalisation – is the institutional framework for governance.

More data can, like freedom of information, enable greater scrutiny, transparency and so accountability, but will only do so if the institutional framework’s appropriate and capable. Of course, that means it needs adjustment to digital ways of doing things, as the digital society evolves, and that adjustment needs to be continuous in step with the evolution of technology and platforms.

But ultimately, accountability’s derived from structures that aren’t digital: a culture within government that encourages transparency; ethical frameworks for decision-making that are generally respected; independent judicial institutions; a free press; sufficient resources within the media and civil society to investigate, interrogate and report evidence-based findings; the belief within the population that integrity’s important; a broadly shared understanding of what’s (at least most obviously) desirable or not.

Digitalisation can contribute to this, but to do so will require two things. First, the understanding that digitalisation in itself is not the answer. And second, that powerful digital players – in both government and business – open themselves to greater scrutiny. 

Next week: a summary, before the summer break, of how the COVID crisis may or may not have changed the trajectory towards a digital society.


Image by Jernej Furman via Flickr.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.