As the digital world readies for the golden age of web3, the opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens rings more true today than at any time in the classic novel’s 160-year exisitence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Case in point is the Internet. It holds such a positon of importance that many compare it to the human body’s circulatory system. Experiences connected by hyperlinks transcending race, gender and status are instantly pumped around the world, enabling equal access to common resources and services. But this beautiful, essential life force is not without an all-too-real dark side.
User communities holding specific values easily find one another and form digital settlements following the convenience of transnational platforms. Studies show they soon engage in patterns of behavior intensifying confrontation and rivalry. The power asymmetry brought about by information centralization also leads to concerns of surveillance by the state and other government actors. At the same time, totalitarian regimes are taking the opportunity to redefine democratic freedom as “democracy under regulation” and “freedom within walls,” twisting the Internet into a stick that controls others and points at every corner.
This is essentially a Battle of Helm’s Deep between “digital totalitarianism” and “digital democracy”. As the global democratic camp strives to turn back the tide of centralization and polarization, passive is turned into active and a new model of governance created.
A bright and shining example involves pandemic management over the past two years. The “Mask Map” at the onset of COVID-19 centered on a government-released application programming interface (API) providing real-time stock information at pharmacies. Complementary measures included g0v civic technology community using the open API of the National Health Insurance Administration to create hundreds of applications. This cutting-edge approach relieved people’s anxiety and facilitated a good cycle of “protecting Taiwan and helping the world.”
Similarly, the need to record contact information when entering and leaving public places enabled the “1922 SMS Contact Tracing” to be developed and deployed in the shortest time possible. This fast, installation-free design also emerged from the g0v community. Completing contact tracing registration was silky smooth and also took into account privacy – anyone can check whether they have been queried by contact tracing personnel in the past 28 days by entering a registered mobile phone number.
These changes were ushered in with a decisive start via the 318 Movement in 2014. The world saw firsthand a prototype of digital democracy: Effective, direct actions made under the auspices of professional guidance and augmented civic technology. After the movement achieved its initial aims, the Executive Yuan invited the civic community to set up various platforms allowing the public to participate directly and assume the role of a force for innovation in policymaking.
Since 2016, each ministry has set up an “open government liaison” as a window for interministerial cooperation and as a communication bridge between the public sector and the people. On “join.gov.tw”, the online participation platform for public policy, anyone can initiate a proposal. And as long as more than 5,000 users second a proposal, the Open Government Liaison will invite stakeholders to hold cross-sector collaborative meetings to discuss ways of incorporating ideas into government decision-making. In this way, even members of the younger generation without the right to vote have the opportunity to develop entirely new policies.
In addition to making policy suggestions, the private sector directly participates in co-creation. The Presidential Hackathon, which is an important vehicle for advancing digital public construction, has been held for five consecutive years. It has welcomed thousands of social entrepreneurs, civil servants and teams from dozens of countries, with each edition seeing five outstanding teams selected and awarded by the president upon conclusion of the event.
Taiwan’s experience has shown that digital democracy is not a castle in the sky, but rather a kingdom of heaven. The crucial point is that governments must trust the people to present ideas and express opinions on policy reform as part and pacel of daily life. The beauty is that any country can adopt the same approach, make the government decision-making process transparent and use collaborative tools to assist, so scattered public opinion can be transformed into a continuous cycle of People-Public-Private partnerships (PPPP).
What has been tried over the years in Taiwan is more than just a democratic experiment in a single country, but a common goal of global partners. In 2022, I signed the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” with representatives of 60 countries, formally expanding PPPP as a shared value for democratic allies.
In the declaration, countries with similar ideas jointly pledge to promote the openness and interoperability of the digital economy in a pluralistic and inclusive way, and to use a multistakeholder governance approach to build the Internet into a resilient structure strengthening mutual trust and protections of freedon and human rights.
Simply put, the declaration emphasizes the multiparty connections of “networks,” as well as the distributed structure of the “Internet”, which is both decentralized and interdependent. It can be seen that the strategy for digital development is not to issue licenses or to supervise, but to construct a “democratic network” in the Internet to promote innovation based on shared values.
The DIGI⁺ program of the Executive Yuan over the past six years has exactly the same intent as the declaration. DIGI stands for Digitization, Innovation, Governance and Inclusion. It lays the foundation for digital development, and integrates the spirit of diversity and integration. Improving the quality of digital services, promoting information security resilience and industrial development, and meeting the challenges of cross-border data governance, DIGI also includes Taiwan’s 20 national languages as part of digital inclusion.
Starting this year, we formally proposed the vision for the next phase: “Plurality”. Just like the Internet, which is composed of diverse network topologies, communities of all sizes can set up unique spaces and initiate action agendas, eliminating the restrictions of venues and time, allowing multiple choices and solutions to coexist harmoniously in creating mutually suitable interactive formats.
As an extension of a diverse society, the various groups in the multiverse remain autonomous and interconnected. The soon-to-be-established Ministry of Digital Affairs, or moda, will also expand the multiverse by “co-creating” the common vision and “integrating” the feelings of all parties through resilience building and open thinking. There is no question the best of times can be experienced through Taiwan’s model of “inclusive co-creation.”