Speech by Terry Davis
Council of Europe Secretary General
At the Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy Madrid, Spain, 15 October 2008
Let me begin by saying that I do not think that there is any such thing as electronic democracy, just as there is no such thing as paper democracy. There are democracies on paper, of course, but that is another matter entirely.
We may speak of e-voting, e-campaigning, e-administration and any other e-words which may come to your mind, but democracy is simply democracy.
Democracy means that people are freely electing their government. The emphasis is on the word “freely”. There are several conditions which must be met to guarantee this freedom in practice, and these conditions are valid and invariable regardless of whether people vote with their hands, with ballot papers or through their computers and blackberries. Most, if not all, of these essential conditions for a genuine democracy are codified in the European Convention on Human Rights.
What technology has changed is the environment in which the democratic process takes place. The use of the internet has had a dramatic influence on every aspect of our lives, and the political process is no exception.
In all these areas – and this is the lesson the Council of Europe has also learned through our campaigns against racism, trafficking in human beings, cybercrime and the sexual abuse of children – the new information technology brings both opportunities and risks.
In the case of the political process, technology can help people to have more and better information, and help them to make more informed choices. On the other hand, the abundance of information also leads to confusion. We can have so much information that we suffer from mental indigestion. It may be a paradox, but too much information can result in greater ignorance.
Similarly, technology may have a positive impact on the participation of people in the democratic process, and facilitate different stages in this process, including the actual vote itself. On the other hand, for this to happen, we must secure an open, reliable and secure access to the Internet for everyone. A gap between electronic haves and electronic have-nots is a reality and a real threat to democracy.
Democracy also requires trust. In all our countries, we observe a tendency for governments to collect and store an increasing amount of data on people. There is a genuine and legitimate public concern about how this data is handled and how it is used. This concern in turn has an impact on the readiness of the people to use new information technology in the democratic process.
This will be one of the most important issues addressed during the European Dialogue on Internet Governance which will be hosted by the Council of Europe next week. The Dialogue will emphasise the specific European approach to the relationship between security, privacy, and openness. The idea is to go beyond the perception that these are conflicting concepts. Rather, we will look at them as principles which can be simultaneously promoted and can even reinforce each other.
The key is to strike the right balance between regulation and freedom. We need to regulate because of the risks, but excessive intervention restricts the openness and the freedom inherent in the new information technologies, and it diminishes the benefits which they may bring to the democratic process.
This balance is reflected in a draft recommendation on e-democracy, which the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is expected to adopt in the near future.
New technologies are also at work at this conference. The cameras you see around belong to Catch 21, a London - based internet television channel. Catch 21 is run by young people, for young people. They have produced a video, which will be shown later, about young people and their views about democracy in the electronic age. Catch 21 will also be filming this event and will produce a video which will be put on You Tube.
In conclusion, I would say that new information technologies offer tremendous opportunities, but they are not, in themselves, a miracle cure for the democratic challenges we face in many of our countries, and which have been the subject of our discussions at previous meetings of this Forum. If people are so uninterested and so disillusioned about politics that they do not bother to turn up and vote, they are not going to change their views merely because they can vote with a click rather than a ballot paper.
The fact is that high tech is no antidote to low trust.