Machiavelli Confronts 21st Century Digital Technology

6 January 2010

This is the title of the paper resulting from the interdisciplicary collaboration between computer scientists and social scientists, last November in Dagstuhl. The full version is available on SSRN at:

The topic of the seminar was “Network Democracy” and for five days, we discussed tools for representation, direct democracy, power, trasnparency and democratic institutions. This was a refreshing break form the traditional “e-voting = e-democracy” caricature.

The gap between computer and social scientists was initialy wide, and for a few days we concentrated on formulating questions that communities want to ask each other (see appendix 1). A few examples include:

  • Computer to social scientists about Conflicting Values. What are prime examples where democratic values come in conflict with each other? What types of conflicts are inherent in democratic systems? Is the integrity of technical systems the key requirement for edemocracy solutions? Is it more important than privacy? Is availability more important than both? What are the social dangers for democracy in a network society?
  • Social to computer scientists about Privacy and Surveillance. How will future technologies enable all branches of government to discover what citizens and other residents are doing, thinking and saying? To what extent can existing and new privacy and security technologies limit the government’s ability to know more about the public than the public wants to reveal? Can privacy technologies help both enhance and protect the democratic process (e.g. by preventing widespread disclosure of the names of persons signing petitions in a way that could lead to subsequent harassment because of their support of a controversial measure – at the same time as allowing dissemination of information that the wider public would like to know, such as how many people signed the petition and their broad demographic characteristics, but not their individual identities)?

One of the most insightul remarks, and by far my favorite:

“Technologies may be used to cement existing power relations or offer merely an ineffectual ‘play democracy’. Technologies may disadvantage certain groups and worsen power imbalances (e.g. some types of surveillance technologies). Political forces may seek widespread deployment of such technologies or try to limit their use.”


One Response to “Machiavelli Confronts 21st Century Digital Technology”

  1. Stephan Engberg said


    Point on

    Just noted your blog – as always insightfull and competent.

    In connection with the topic, this quote from FP7 Security Research Roadmapping is worth noting

    “In the above, security and dependability were discussed as though they are always evaluated from a
    balanced point of view. But it is important to recognize and address the challenges that arise when
    commercial players explicitly DO NOT WANT other stakeholders to have security, regarding it as
    being in their interest to prevent this for purposes of control and profit. (An example is when providers of payment cards integrate themselves in commercial transactions between commercial entities instead of incorporating security features such as Digital Cash or other means to reduce risk and enable trustworthy transactions. The service providers thus become the primary source of risk as is seen with identity fraud related to credit cards and data collectors.) In fact, one finds these kinds of potential conflicts when the issues of Empowerment and Dependability are disregarded or omitted for commercial purposes. For example, in DRM, infrastructure channels, and “trusted party” identity schemes, and “trusted computing” products whose goal is less about the protection of the actual user’s interests but more about safeguarding the assets of major suppliers of infotainment and functional

    Such conflict of interest problems have research dimensions (we need to ensure the potential
    availability of trustworthy solutions), a market dimension (someone needs to bring trustworthy
    solutions to market) and a regulatory dimension (if the market does not solve security problems
    themselves, regulatory steps have to be considered). In fact, market and security by design approaches need to be to be the primary focus as moving to regulatory means in security can often lead to unbalanced approaches in which the main risks are left to regulatory protection alone, and situations in which enforcement proves in practice difficult or even impossible. Focussing on ensuring that liabilityis relocated to those able to deal with the problems is much more effective.

    In summary, Empowerment and Dependability are closely interrelated issues, and focussing on Citizen Empowerment in fact helps to address the concerns of all stakeholders.”
    Page 14

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