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Digital democracy

Article by Catherine Stihler

October 19, 2021

Digital democracy

For digital democracy to succeed across the world, we need an open reformation in our democratic systems, practices and mindset. Far from radical, this is essential if we are to promote liberal democracy and open societies across the globe.


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that new ways of doing things are possible – if not preferable – and open access, data and content have played a critical role from developing a vaccine in record speed to citizen science initiatives tackling the virus in local communities. At Creative Commons we are proud of the part we play in enabling sharing in the public interest through our open licenses, creating open access to knowledge, culture, research and data worldwide. The Open COVID Pledge, freeing thousands of patents to be used in the fight against the virus, is just one example of our leadership in opening up knowledge for public good.[1]


Across the world, our digital lives have enabled us to continue working and living when our physical world has been closed or limited. And now as we slowly return to a new normal, what can we learn from what we have just experienced to promote the benefits of digital democracy in the support of open societies across our world?


Digital democracy and human rights

Contained in the G7 Open Societies statement from July is the commitment to “protect digital civic space” through “capacity building and ensur[ing] that the design and application of new technologies reflect our shared values, respect human rights and international law, promote diversity and embed principles of public safety”.[2] Taking human rights and international law, if digital democracy is to succeed human rights on-line and off-line must be protected and promoted. For what is legal off-line should be legal on-line and by default what is illegal off-line should be illegal on-line, where this supports democratic values. To protect individual human rights, digital democracy and an open society, we need to ensure that human rights today reflect our digital reality particularly as we seek to balance privacy with progress, our data rights with innovation.


Article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear – ‘everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and share in scientific advancement and its benefits’. On culture, during lockdown only those with internet access could enjoy a cultural life and even then it was limited to what collections galleries and museums could legally take place on-line. With internet access no longer available in public libraries, the poorest and most vulnerable were left even more isolated than before. Only those that could afford to subscribe to certain content channels could view the latest films or consume up to date content – a life line when we were locked down. Yet the benefits of open scientific research could be clearly evidenced during the pandemic when sharing research and open data literally helped save countless lives. Not only did official scientific research, the majority of which was publicly funded with an open access requirement, illustrate the impact of open practices but citizen driven open initiatives to understand and tackle the virus contributed to local understanding and decision-making. It is a tragedy that open research sharing did not go further to open patent sharing and so once again the Global South suffers.


Two thoughts stem from here – where institutions and individuals were familiar with open practices and principles on-line, where trained individuals could volunteer or public funding supported, their application evidenced impact and results with scientific breakthroughs such as vaccines in record time. Those organisations that did not have the skills, resources or where the practices were not part of the culture and mindset, clearly lost out. Museums who digitised stayed accessible, those who did not remained closed. If we can learn anything from the pandemic and apply it to digital democracy, it is that for digital democracy to succeed and for an open society to flourish, we need digital skills, data skills, an open culture, clear communication and most importantly resources to support these actions. In a data driven society, digital democracy for open societies will only succeed if there is trust in the technology and its benefits.



In China we see the opposite of digital democracy – digital autocracy. I remember visiting China in 2008 being made aware that we were clearly being observed as foreigners. Fast forward to 2021 and there is no need for humans to be involved in day-to-day surveillance when cameras and biometric facial recognition can observe both foreigners and the population as a whole. The Chinese state-run biometric facial recognition technology holds data that controls an entire population in real time. No other country has this level of surveillance conducted by the state. Jaywalk in the street and a camera can pick up your indiscretion and ping you on your phone as a warning. If a multiple offender, it could potentially lead to a low social scoring, affecting job opportunities, an entire family’s standing in the eyes of the state or worse still, arrest.


For many Chinese, this is not a violation of human rights but about the state’s responsibility for their individual personal safety. For many the state’s intervention is welcomed by those where safety comes before freedom. For outsiders looking in this appears the epitome of Big Brother, the Orwellian control of a population with chilling effects. Yet as we condemn China, the UK and many G7 democracies use similar technology which has led to wrongful convictions and poor decision-making, affecting prisoners, asylum seekers and people of colour. If we are to succeed in creating technology, as the G7 has described, which respects human rights and the rule of law we will need to lead on creating trusted open and accountable systems, with a human hand of care looking after the public’s interest. Currently there is a rash of regulation hurtling towards policymakers – some in the name of on-line safety which could have the chilling effect of stifling free speech, banning on-line content which would otherwise be legal off-line and detrimentally affecting individual human rights and freedom of expression. Proposals in Australia, according to Digital Rights Watch, could see new laws which would allow for hacking into your computer, your online accounts and any networks you had been in contact with.[3] This would happen without you knowing or even without requiring a warrant. Clearly the on-line/offline human rights issue will become increasingly important as regulation is considered by Parliaments across the world.


Open Reformation in practice

To be a leader in digital democracy, we need to be aware of the complexity and trade-offs required both to defend and promote open societies. It is no coincidence that just as summer holidays ended and schools returned, there was an announcement by the Chinese Government that they would be restricting the amount of time minors played video games to an hour a day on Fridays, weekends and holidays.[4] Many parents with teenage kids, me included, on the surface could not agree more about limiting screen time. But surely that is a parent’s job, not the state’s? Gaming today, what you eat tomorrow? Digital democracy could help society collectively find an alternative inclusive approach to this issue opposite to autocracy, using open, inclusive methods to reach consensus and make decisions. During the pandemic Taiwan has stood out on using digital democracy to empower citizens and promote an open society.


If ever there was an open reformation approach, Taiwan is its embodiment. Yet, their success is hugely down to leadership and that of one inspiring, wise and radical individual, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s first ever digital minister. Tang understands technology. She is a free software programmer and in line with her open values makes herself available for interviews, conferences, summits and podcasts. She took the time recently to talk to Creative Commons in our Open Minds podcast where her passion and enthusiasm for open content licensing shines through.[5] Her approach is often described as ‘radical transparency’ but her direct openness has benefited the world, helping to understand what open can empower and change.


Taiwan is both walking the walk and talking the talk driven both by geopolitical necessity but also reckoning that society has changed and democracy needs to reflect a new reality. In a recent interview for Noema, Tang quotes the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen who said “Before, democracy was a showdown between two opposing values. Now, democracy is a conversation among many diverse values.” This is why vTaiwan (virtual Taiwan) has at its core the belief that “the government and the citizens must have the same information so that there is a trustworthy basis for public conversation”.[6] Open information helped Taiwan during the pandemic whilst the UK Government struggled with the very concept of open sharing information and data. If the UK is to promote open methods, information available to the government must be available to citizens, warts and all. What Taiwan teaches us is that to be effective in digital democracy technical understanding is critical. Taiwan’s success is down to their leadership and what open software enables. There are very few governments across the globe with a free software developer at the helm of digital policy-making and yet with Web 2.0 (mobile, social and the cloud) moving to Web 3.0 (Sir Tim Berners Lee coined the Semantic Web) (edge computing, AI and decentralised networks) we need to bridge the knowledge and culture gap before it becomes a chasm.[7]


Open digital tools


To be a leader in digital democracy we need to place open digital tools at the heart of government decision-making. These tools, freely accessible to use, are also more cost effective compared to their proprietary alternatives. Huge amounts of data and knowledge remain locked away even after a decade of open government initiatives.[8] Often this is not by design; data does not talk to data, lack of interoperability between systems creates barriers and for the vast majority of civil servants and government ministers who are not data specialists this world is alien, complex and ironically feels so far from open that for the majority it feels in accessible, closed and elitist. This leads to those who understand this world to be evangelical concerning its benefits and whilst those who do not are at best ambivalent at worst hostile. For digital democracy to succeed and open societies to flourish we need a ladder of engagement making the world of Web 3 mainstream and accessible. This will help dispel myths, create understanding and foster trust.


Digital Open Champions (DoCs)

What if, barring reasons of national security, that all UK Government data were openly licensed in the same format and then promoted by those departments for citizen use or even cross departmental collaboration and experimentation? What if there’s a new leadership/coordination of data scientist/ethics driven civil servants, (the US announced a similar idea), who can communicate with a lay audience – let’s call them Digital Open Champions (DoCs)?[9] A fast track of young, student recruits who can navigate this virtual world supported by their political masters. This could be painted as a recruitment exercise to attract a new, enthusiastic and change-driven cohort who want government to be run for the people by the people, with data at its centre. Mirroring Code for America’s volunteering leadership work, DoCs would not just be recruited in central government but in local government helping communities and volunteers create solutions to local problems.[10] DoCs would form the first remote and distributed cross departmental team breaking silos in central, local and devolved governments. However, part of their role, similar to the not for profit world, would be not just technical proficiency but also communication for impact and change.


Storytelling and Ethics

Freeing the data is one step, communicating clearly and effectively the potential usage is another. Just like in the not for profit world, impact stories would determine success and create more budget relieving resources for even greater open reformation. This open reformation would also consider aspects of content, data and knowledge from an equity and ethical lens – creating the first ethical data collective separate from government, but which individuals could opt into if they desired as a trusted source of learning and inspiration. As social media platforms are forced to become interoperable – whether that is due to anti-trust or through platform regulation – users potentially could take their data and apply it where they want for the causes they care about and Web 3 will allow this to happen whilst preserving privacy. Could Web 3 be the key to unlock digital democracy benefiting citizens, parliaments and governments and by default promote open societies?



We are only at the beginning of this journey, but by considering the power of open data, content and sharing as it empowers digital democracy in support of open society principles, we are at a moment where open tools stand in defence of our central belief in democracy where:

  • Global Britain has the potential to showcase the use of open software, openly licensed content, research and data, as a leading player in the open reformation by both leading at home through Digital Open Champions but promoting abroad through FCDO support.
  • Open tools championed by the FCDO can promote an open global research space for the global public good.
  • Design and application of new technologies can reflect our shared democratic and ethical values.
  • Open technologies can help deliver a shared future, supporting healthy democracies and open societies across our world.


Catherine Stihler is CEO of Creative Commons (CC), the global organisation behind the legal tools which powers the open web. As an international leader in the open movement, Catherine has served as CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation and spent two decades as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Scotland leading on copyright reform and tech. She is currently the elected Chair of the governing body of the University of St Andrews, having been the 52nd Rector and in 2018 she received an honorary doctorate for her contribution to the university. In 2019 she received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday honors list for political service.


[1] For more information see:

[2] Cabinet Office, G7 2021 Open Societies Statement, July 2021,

[3] Digital Rights Watch, Australia’s New Mass Surveillance Mandate, September 2021,

[4] Vincent Ni, China cuts amount of time minors can spend playing online video games, The Guardian, August 2021

[5] Creative Commons, Open Minds Podcast: Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, July 2021 ,

[6] vTaiwan, see website:

[7] Fabric Ventures, What Is Web 3.0 & Why It Matters, December 2019,

[8] Open Government Partnership (OGP), see website:; Open Data Charter, see website:; and Open Data Barometer, Global Report, Fourth Edition, May 2017,

[9] U.S. General Services Administration, Biden Administration Launches U.S. Digital Corps to Recruit the Next Generation of Technology Talent to Federal Service, August 2021,

[10] For more information see:

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