How can citizen voices advance digital rights?

A report from a year-long programme of work funded by the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights

The digitalisation of our cities raises critical questions about the quality of life and the democracy that we want our cities to ensure. Developing resources for supporting municipal officials to design better technology for their cities in inclusive and democratic ways is something that needs more development and that is likely to be a growing trend in coming years. Citizen Voices for Digital Rights responded to the need to open up the debates on digitalisation processes and digital rights to the participation of the wider public so that these processes can be improved. 

To learn more on the project, read our article here.

Key takeaways

The four key points illustrated below will be critical issues to address for cities that want to develop their digital strategies in open and participatory ways. These digital strategies can in fact be understood from a democratic point of view as a key tool for advancing digital rights; and digital literacy should be framed as a condition for the ability of more people to critically partake in the digital transformation.

  • Digital Literacy, Access and Empowerment

The importance of digital literacy, access and empowerment was emphasised most strongly throughout the project. In a rapidly digitising world, participants stated that it is a fundamental right not only to have access to technology, digital tools, and the Internet, but also to have the knowledge and confidence to use them in a safe, secure, and beneficial way. This is a fundamental right that could be protected and promoted by governance organisations and institutions.Acquiring a good level of digital literacy was considered a pre-condition for developing the knowledge and being able to recognise where and when citizens’ digital rights are being infringed, and which systems and institutions they can trust and address to demand for justice.

  • The Role of the Municipalities in Advancing Digital Rights

Municipalities have a key role to play in advancing digital rights especially in raising awareness among citizens about what these rights are and how to claim them. For this to happen cities need to build better capacity, more confidence and skills among the municipality administration itself. Finding innovative and participatory governance solutions is critical to ensure that the task of advancing digital rights is not simply left to the individuals. Many residents in our programme highlighted the need for designing broader 'systems of accountability', which included municipal but also national and EU level systems of governance.

  • Transparency, Privacy and Accountability

Throughout the project, a clear need emerged for citizens to have more visibility on the use of their digital data, including by governments, and better mechanisms for holding data gathering entities to account. Privacy was discussed as an area where more awareness is needed. Many participants mentioned that people often do not pay much attention to securing their personal information for the sake of enjoying popular digital platforms, particularly due to a lack of understanding of the full implications of accepting the terms and conditions for digital services or a lack of alternative options. This lack of knowledge implies that accepting the existing terms and conditions becomes the default choice. Helping people to take their privacy seriously without inhibiting their access to digital platforms and services for leisure or work was identified as a key challenge.

  • Centering people's voices and the role of the lived experience:

Public participation and engagement were considered by participants to be at the centre of digitalisation processes to ensure strategies are developed in ways that advance digital rights. Participatory processes should be embedded in the design of cities’ digitalisation strategies from the onset - rather than being an afterthought - and properly resourced. As recent studies have shown: “(...) the ‘smartness’ of a (smart city) project is directly related to the level and nature of participation from people.”

A project funded by the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights

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