Today, the International Conference e-Society.mk which is being held for the 17th time this year and addresses the topic “Democracy in the digital age: challenges and opportunities”, was opened.
The opening session of e-Society.mk was addressed by the Executive Director of the Metamorphosis Foundation, Bardhyl Jashari, the Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the country Julian Vassalo, the Minister of Information Society and Administration Jeton Shaqiri, the USAID Representative in North Macedonia Erik Janowski and the senior e-Democracy expert at the Estonian e-Government Academy Kristina Mand.
Bardhyl Jashari, the Executive Director of Metamorphosis Foundation welcomed all the participants in the conference. He said that the conference e-Society.mk this year does not have a single priority topic that will mark the conference, but that Metamorphosis Foundation has decided to cover several topics.
Jashari said that the digital transformation has not only begun, but it requires a new way of thinking and a new way of working. Digitalization alone cannot be tackled and the challenges cannot be analyzed only in terms of technology, human rights or good governance. A horizontal integral approach is needed, he stressed in his address.
“We rarely talk about the digital transformation of democracy,” Jashari said, adding that the way democracy is practiced is changing.
He pointed out that in the beginning, in the 90s, we had high hopes that digital technologies would strengthen democracy and by the very nature of the Internet, it would bring more freedom and spread democracy. But then we entered a new phase of dystopian scenarios, in which we are today, where digital solutions are being marketed as a major challenge to democracy.
He said that artificial intelligence and algorithms pose a new risk to democracy, especially privacy and the misuse of personal data. But on the other hand, digital transformation provides very powerful tools for building democracy.
Jashari stressed that we must focus on human beings and the realization of human rights, while exploiting the potential of digital transformation requires a strategic approach, vision and cooperation between civil society, media, state institutions, academia, businesses and all others who can contribute.
“We need to work to establish transparency in the use of digital technologies and accountability in the management of artificial intelligence systems. We at Metamorphosis believe in this, but I will repeat that we can all do this together to get the best out of the digital transformation,” said Jashari.
The Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the country, Julian Vassalo, in his address referred to the transition that the European Union is making to the new digital world, pointing out, however, the challenges of control and discrimination that could arise with digital technologies.
On the one hand, they increase the opportunities for civic participation on digital platforms, they provide benefits such as online education and distance learning, but on the other hand, children and citizens’ privacy must be protected.
The most obvious challenge for the digital transformation, said Julian Vassalo, is disinformation. “Disinformation undermines society’s capacity to create momentum based on a pluralism of ideas,” Vassalo said. He said the EU is also making efforts in the Western Balkans region to help tackle disinformation but also acknowledged the key role that fact-checkers and the media play.
The Deputy Head of the EU Delegation in Skopje also pointed out the level of progress of digitalization in the country, such as the example of the national e-services portal, the digitalization of the public administration, the development of e-commerce, as well as the national ICT strategy of the country.
Vassalo said that additional efforts are needed to implement the national cyber security strategy, but also acknowledged the support that the country’s authorities have given for the introduction of media literacy in the educational process.
The USAID Representative Erik Janowski in his address focused on the Open Data Hackathon, which is held within the Conference e-Society.mk.
He said the Hackathon focused on open and transparent public institutions that are key to democracy. The citizens need to be informed in real time, so that they can demand responsibility from these institutions, he added.
Citizens can decide how to use open data, so new innovative solutions are needed to bring them closer to the citizens, he said, regarding the Open Data Hackathon that will be held in the coming days.
“I am pleased to see that this Hackathon is welcomed by IT professionals,” said Erik Janowski.
He told the participants that in the long run, their creativity and innovation will enable the improvement of the use of open data, adding that he is looking forward to hearing the results of this Hackathon.
The Minister of Information Society and Administration Jeton Shaqiri at the opening of the conference said that technology has the potential to improve democracy, to make it more efficient, more open, more transparent and more accessible to all of us.
Technological progress, Shaqiri said, is changing the way we seek information, communicate, and continue to learn, work and have fun. However, he mentioned that the technology could potentially be manipulated and abused and that is why the Ministry of Information Society and Administration is working with USAID on a program to improve cyber security in the country.
He mentioned that it is very important to draw the line between national security and protection of citizens’ personal data, adding that the anonymity provided by the Internet gives users the opportunity to express themselves freely, but we also see that users spread disinformation and try to abuse it.
Minister Shaqiri also focused on online media and their proper regulation, which is much more difficult than traditional media. He mentioned that greater involvement of stakeholders is needed in preventing the spread of fake news. “Critical literacy and media literacy are the most important tools we can use against disinformation,” he said.
e-Democracy expert Kristina Mand from e-Governance Academy Estonia, emphasized in her speech that the first thing we need to understand is how digital solutions serve democracy.
“We need to make sure that the ways we govern are democratic and we need to be aware that it can sometimes be threatened”, said Christina Mand, adding that digitalization depends on both the democratic culture of the country and the desire of citizens to contribute.
She said that the key words of good governance are civic activism, citizen involvement and interaction between citizens, the state, the media and businesses, emphasizing that the main difference between a democratic society that uses technology and an undemocratic one is freedom.
“Fantastic digital solutions may exist, but without that freedom, citizen productivity cannot be driven to contribute to society,” said Christina Mand.
The third thing she focused on in her speech was that we should not treat digital as something separate, but that we should look at things horizontally. “Whenever we think of new services, solutions, health changes, we need to think about how to integrate digitalisation into all of this,” she said. At the same time, we should be careful during the democratic digital development not to create digitally vulnerable groups, whose access to the Internet is limited, citizens who are socially disabled or are otherwise disabled to use social tools.
“Citizens’ involvement must be based on trust, but also on their skills and motivation. People have to be motivated to get involved, to give opinions, and we have to keep that in mind. Involvement does not mean that everyone’s opinion must be implemented or everyone must be satisfied, but that every opinion is taken into account and considered”, Mand said.
At the beginning of the International Conference e-Society.mk, Lauri Tabur, an expert from the Estonian Center for International Development, gave a lightning speech.
He said that digitalization is not a government issue, but that it is the goal of society.
Covid-19 encouraged many of us to focus on digitalisation, he said, citing the example of Estonia. Although most of the services offered by the government are digitalized, in Estonia people can be heard criticizing and demanding more from the government.
This practically means that digital services must be significantly updated, because otherwise we go back to the very beginning, to good intentions. Hence, in digitalization we must have a common goal that should be approached agilely step by step, not with long-term strategies, because technology is changing rapidly.
It all starts with understanding what we want to achieve with those services, he said.
Laurie Tabour emphasized that people do not primarily use digital services from governments, but business services from banks and telecommunications. He pointed out the example of Estonia, where every citizen receives a digital ID card free of charge from birth.
With this digital identification, residents can more easily obtain the services they require from institutions, as well as from banks and telecom operators.
Tabur emphasized that North Macedonia deserves its own success story regarding digitalization.