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the CNIL calls for vigilance

It's a catchy word that's handy but has pretty fuzzy outlines. In the family of civic tech (“Civic technologies”), there are both platforms for online petitions and citizen mobilization, independent of public authorities, as well as more institutional tools for participatory budgets and consultation.

If we add the technologies for electoral purposes – to customize, for example, the messages sent by the parties to the voters – (pol tech), the tools deployed by governments to improve their operations or the transparency of public policies (tech gov), and social networks, where part of the political debate is now played out, one obtains a teeming and disparate ecosystem where the economic models are as varied as the profiles of the actors.

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Published this Monday, December 9, the notebook entitled Civic tech, data and Demos, that the National Commission for Informatics and Liberties (CNIL) devotes to civic technologies, draws a welcome panorama, especially as it intervenes in a particular context. From the movement of “yellow vests”, part of social networks, to the great online debate organized by the government, the past year marked a turning point in the use of civic technologies, increasingly present in the democratic debate.

It has in fact brought visibility to questions that have been running for ten years: how to guarantee confidence in the protection of personal data and the loyalty of the software used? What value to give to online participation when part of the population is not represented? How to analyze it? What role should it play in the political decision-making process and, ultimately, the exercise of power?

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Data “sensitive” to enhanced protection

If it does not provide definitive answers to these questions, the guarantor of the protection of personal data illuminates the ethical and political issues of online democracy, and delivers a series of recommendations for “To guarantee an environment of trust” and reinforce good practices.

Since May 2018, the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulates the use of political data considered as “Sensitive”. For example, a political party may not use personal data without the explicit consent of the person concerned. However, the procedures are not always respected and many questions remain. Thus the organization of an online democratic debate is subject to imperatives that may seem contradictory: it is necessary at the same time to preserve the anonymity of the participants while guaranteeing the collection of sufficient information to authenticate them.

The big debate remains an example of what not to do. The choice of the organizers to ask the participants only their postal code prevented any authentication and led to an instrumentalisation of the consultation by interest groups. Conversely, in the referendum on the privatization of Groupe ADP (formerly Aéroports de Paris), the publication of the signatories may dissuade citizens from participating.

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Like the polling booth in a polling station, “Civic technologies must allow people to express themselves freely without the burden of social pressure,” recalls the group of experts of the CNIL. While Emmanuel Macron declared himself a supporter, in January, of a “Gradual exit from anonymity” on the Internet, the regulator defends the use of “pseudonymity” and urges players to outlaw the indexing of participations on search engines. To go further, she recommends exploring the use of trusted third parties and the decentralized management of identities so that the sponsor of a consultation can authenticate the participants without identifying them.

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“Civic technologies are not neutral”

How can it be ensured that the presentation of the debates or the ranking of contributions is not likely to influence the participants? Because “Civic technologies are not neutral”, the CNIL invites the actors to think of tools respectful of the private life “From their conception”, giving priority to clear information on the consultation process and the rights of users.

In the debate between open software supporters and owners of proprietary software, the regulator does not decide, but says that “The opening of the platform code and participation data is a guarantee to allow auditability of algorithmic processing”. “We are not in the injunction in favor of this or that economic model, specifies Régis Chatellier, one of the authors of the document. But any actor who deals with the personal data is subject to the RGPD and must know that it can be controlled, where he could be asked access to the code of the algorithm. “

The CNIL also recommends that “To federate to harmonize their practices and go towards the coconstruction of a code of conduct” which defines good practices. Such a charter, binding for those who adhere to it, would represent a “Positive signal” sent to citizens and sponsors.

A little over a year after the revelations about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is time for distrust of social networks. While a large number of communities recognize using Facebook to interact with their inhabitants, the CNIL warns public stakeholders against the risk of dependence on companies whose data processing rules they do not know. moderation or display. It also invites to proscribe their recourse to authenticate the participants to a consultation.

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Risk of exclusion

Beyond the technical aspects, the impact and the effectiveness of the tools are also questioned. While e-democracy is often put forward for its ability to renew audiences for consultations, the danger is indeed there.“Exclude from political processes whole sections of the population”, because of the profound inequalities in access to digital technology, the CNIL recommends that public authorities develop a civic technological education so that civic tech do not do democracy “An expert case”.

Faced with the risk of “Technological solutionism”, the authors of the notebook recommend to systematically combine “Online and face-to-face devices”or even explore innovative formats of participation, modeled on the citizen convention for ecological transition. With a motto: if technology offers opportunities for democratic innovation, it must remain above all a means at the service of political decision.

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