Civic Tech or Civic Business? Digital technology will not help democracy without adopting its foundations

This blog originally appeared on RegardsCitoyens.org and has been translated by Pierre Chrzanowski and Samuel Goëta (Open Knowledge France).

Civil society did not wait for the buzzword “Civic Tech” to implement digital technology to serve democratic innovation. But since the boom of this trendy term, there have been many initiatives claiming to belong to what it entitles as a concept without respecting the very basic principles of democracy.

Digital technology is not democratic in itself. Its simple use would not be enough to magically manage the essential democratic stakes, quite the contrary. Having a blind faith in technology opens the door to a loss of sovereignty and democratic control. There is a reason why the global “Open Government” movement has found its foundations in the Open Data dynamic and the collaborative governance of the Internet, themselves deeply tightened to the principles of democratic transparency, public deliberation and open source communities. It would not be acceptable if the digital transition of democratic life were to come along with the creation of lucrative monopolies whose mechanisms would be hidden from society. This digital transition must therefore at the very least scrupulously respect the level of transparency and sovereignty of our democratic heritage.

The Open Government Partnership global summit in Paris was a new opportunity to observe the public authorities boast, support and proudly announce the use, or even promote the tools of several “Civic Business” startups who specifically refuse to apply these democratic principles. Some of these companies, like Cap Collective (a startup also leading Parlement & Citoyens, that sells its proprietary consultation tool to the French government for most of its participatory initiatives), even claimed for years, for purely advertising purposes, to adhere to the principles of transparency and openness, but in reality never applied them. This is the reason why it seems urgent today to reaffirm that any democratic digital project needs to be based on open source code, ensuring diversity, transparency, participation and collaboration which are the very principles governing “Open Government.”

While Regards Citoyens is not primarily dedicated to the promotion of free software (many organizations such as April or Framasoft are already doing so well at the national level), it is at the heart of our statutes as well as in all our projects. It is not a question of taking a dogmatic, purist or even a technical posture. It is more of an ethical position. Since its beginnings and until today, democracy has had to equip itself with tools such as the collaborative counting of votes, official newspapers and public deliberations to ensure a minimum of transparency and equal access to public life and provide a sufficient level of trust to citizens. It is essential that these same principles now apply to digital tools who aim at accompanying public institutions in our modern democracy.

If “code is law,” only free software can ensure transparency and collective governance of this code, both essential in regards to trust in these new “laws.” That’s the whole issue of the transparency of algorithms that participate in public decision-making. Publishing the data generated as open data is also necessary, but as Valentin Chaput very well says “retrospectively publishing a dataset from a non-auditable platform is not a sufficient guarantee that the data has not been manipulated”. On NosDeputes.fr (Regards Citoyens’ Parliamentary monitoring website) and its visualizations of parliamentary activities, for example, it is crucial that anyone can check that our algorithms do not implement any discriminatory treatment for a specific MP or political group.

To gloriously invite world-renowned and fervent advocates of commons and free software such as Lawrence Lessig, Audrey Tang, Pablo Soto, Rufus Pollock or mySociety, while promoting initiatives that refuse to apply these principles, is purely and simply called “open-washing.” The fact that the French secretary in charge of digital affairs can organize and animate an international overview of Civic Tech during the OGP summit, while France is only represented by an initiative which is also the only one of the panel that sells proprietary software, is particularly caricatural, and shares a disastrous image for France among these international ambassadors of digital democracy.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the use of digital tools to support democracy is incompatible with any form of remuneration for Civic Tech actors! The same way we advocate for a fair compensation for elected officials and that we support that many policy makers have relatively low income in comparison with their responsibilities, we consider the remuneration of developers and animators of Civic Tech tools as a major issue. This debate must however not forget that democracy lives mostly based on volunteering. For instance, political activists getting involved in an electoral campaign knowing they will never be elected, or citizens mobilized during months to influence a political decision.

Unfortunately too often, Civic Businesses dogmatically reproduce usual economic models, forgetting about the space and the issues in which they operate, exempting themselves from essential democratic values. By reproducing authoritarian models of startups and other sorts of incubators, Civic Tech may unleash cronyism, conflicts of interests, and actors who only want to enrich and empower themselves. However, many companies have well understood there are business models out there compatible with an open governance, with the production and use of free software, and with the transparency of algorithms.

Everyone can be open! Simply applying the same requirements of exemplarity and transparency to our own structures is enough. Our workshop dedicated to Transparency applied to NGOs during the OGP summit was most illustrative in this matter and included many key actions, simple but essential, with which civil society can engage: free software and open data obviously, but also apply a more horizontal open governance, by for instance publishing detailed accounts, declaration of interests of representatives, minutes of meetings or also opening to oversight or the participation of all to meetings and ongoing works… So many opening actions that can become beneficial to structures who implement them and without which (at least) the growing French Civic Tech may sadly lose its soul.

Digital technology will not renew democracy by feeding distrust with more transparency.