Every year, the human rights organization CIVICUS, with around 20 regional partners conduct research about freedom and civic space. Taiwan has been rated as “completely open” for three consecutive years. We are the only Asian country with that distinction, and the sole Asian green light on this year’s CIVICUS Monitor.
How did we come so far on the path of democratization? The key factor is that the internet in Taiwan has developed alongside democratization. Between the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the presidential election in ‘96, we saw the popularization of PCs and the World Wide Web in a span of 10 years. For Taiwanese people, democracy is like a social technology—it can only be enriched through the joint efforts of all.
Therefore, our government insists that broadband is a human right. Through digital infrastructure, we reduce the cost for civic technologies. Our network infrastructure allows everyone to broadcast live from Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s highest peak. We believe that a completely open and uncensored environment with free speech is perfect for letting digital democracy flourish.
With our 23 million citizens using the Internet as a space for democracy, we have combated the pandemic with no lockdowns and the infodemic with no takedowns. For instance, in late 2019, when news about the pandemic just started, this prosocial social media platform allowed timely response to early warnings.
In the face of global challenges, digital democracy has proven to be the most effective solution. The SMS-based contact tracing system is a great example.
To eliminate community transmission, contact tracing must be done rapidly and effectively. Inaccurate information will put us in the dilemma of having to choose between protecting privacy and preventing the pandemic; rolling out a mandatory government app would only backfire. So instead of centralizing contact-tracing data or yielding control to multinational corporations, we sought social-sector solutions “with” the people.
Earlier this year, civic technologists in the g0v community invented a mechanism of contact tracing based on text messages; we worked across sectors with telecom carriers to deploy the “1922 SMS” contact tracing system in a week.
By scanning a QR code with your phone’s built-in camera and sending a toll-free text message, people can keep track of their itineraries. This allows contact tracers to confirm the footprints of infected people and their contacts, without revealing any private information to venue owners.
This collaboration cannot happen without strong trust across sectors. Of course, we need to bridge the digital gap for the elderly and visually impaired — so contact tracing can still be done through measures such as handwriting and stamping.
When contact tracers apply for information about certain phone numbers, they submit requests through this platform to browse them. The phone number holder can then reverse-audit contact tracers’ requests and activities. All records are deleted after 28 days.
Because this civic tech originated from a community that has always valued personal data sovereignty, we can respond to new challenges with timely improvements. For instance, text messages sent to 1922 were discovered by a judge assessing a police search warrant. Fortunately, the multiparty design prevented the police from accessing the mapping between the random codes and specific venues.
The judge denied the warrant and publicly questioned the legality of wiretapping texts sent to 1922. Following discussions, the Ministry of Justice concluded that the 1922 SMS does not constitute communication under the Communication Security and Surveillance Act and, therefore, should not be repurposed for law enforcement, keeping the original civic intent intact.
“Rule by the people” is the original intent of democracy. In the face of global threats such as the pandemic and disinformation, our Taiwan Model shows to the world this “people-public-private partnership” — with the people — can shape a digital democracy.
Trusting citizens to participate in policymaking can form shared goals, develop innovative solutions, and contribute to the world. Thank you.
On the digital public infrastructures: Just like how reliable infrastructure makes our lives safer and more convenient, public infrastructure in the digital realm does the same for democracy.
As an example, in 2015, civic technologists invented Airbox, a low-cost air quality tracker. Airbox is now in a variety of places, from schools to household balconies. Citizen science supplemented the government’s limited capacity and exemplified data stewardship and environmental education. The following year, the government initiated the Civil IoT Taiwan program, the first time we classified infrastructure budget into the digital realm. Originally, there were 2,000 Airbox devices islandwide; now there are tens of thousands.
The next step after data sharing is forming shared goals through assistive intelligence. For instance, people largely welcomed Uber’s entry to Taiwan in 2015, but it also triggered taxi driver discontent. With the assistance of the g0v community, the government utilized the pol.is system to invite stakeholders to exchange views, and we have learned that shared values are hiding in plain sight. For example, safety is a shared value on which all parties agree, and the rough consensus is that drivers need to have professional licenses, purchase insurance, and pay taxes – all ratified in the Diversified Taxi Program of 2016.
The same idea can be applied to the discussion among countries. For instance, the AIT@40 Digital Dialogues in 2019 and the 2020 Cohack hackathon both used the Pol.is system. With a visualized spectrum of opinion, participants can see where they stand compared with others. Thus, people can reflect and co-create a “good enough” consensus.
Lastly, we need to institutionalize the rapid deployment of social innovations. Taiwan’s Presidential Hackathon has been held for four consecutive years. Each year, thousands of social entrepreneurs and public servants participate alongside teams from dozens of countries to contribute to our public digital infrastructure. Five teams each year receive this trophy, carrying the presidential promise of support in the next fiscal year.
To conclude, I urge all free countries to invest — like Taiwan does — in civic technologies to strengthen democracy. As I’ve said in our national statement: “To give no trust is to get no trust.” As democracies, we must trust our citizens — and #TaiwanCanHelp.