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20 September 2018| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.1438153

Digital identities: a chance for democracy?

What happens when the entity that issued your identification documents no longer exists? Are encrypted identities the solution to this and could they be a prerequisite for technologically enabled forms of enhanced participatory democracy, even at a global scale? And, if that is possible, are we all global citizens, as Diogenes and Kant claimed to be? On the 17 May 2018, Monique Morrow (the Humanized Internet) and Ingolf Pernice (director at the HIIG) invited various stakeholders to an interdisciplinary workshop “Digital Identity, Citizenship and Democracy in Europe” at the HIIG, in order to deliberate these, and similar questions regarding digital identity, global citizenship and the future of democracy. Konstantinos Tsakiliotis, student assistant at HIIG, gives an overview of the workshop.

Digital Identity

As an introduction, Ingolf Pernice referred to digital identities as possible stimulators for citizens’ engagement in politics and as a key-mechanism for establishing democratically legitimated regulation globally, in order to effectively address global challenges. Monique Morrow drew attention to the current situation of the refugees not being able to prove their identity without presenting physical documents in the registration process of local authorities. A digital identity could be the solution to this, she suggested. Using this tool would allow people to store their name, place and date of birth and education etc. and choose to share them with institutions and entities worldwide. Central to this notion is the idea that the individual should have control over their digital data.

The digital identity section of the day was enriched by the technological insights of Björn Scheuermann (HU Berlin, Director at the HIIG) concerning the application of blockchain technology in such a system. He pointed out that the blockchain provides a tamper-proof data storage, proof of the existence of a particular data record at a particular point in the past and the possibility of unrestricted public accessibility to all stored data. While these characteristics may be an advantage, there are also serious concerns with respect to data privacy and data authenticity. Where and how would the decryption key be kept? And why is storing a decryption key superior to carrying physical identity documents? When digital signatures are used, it is essential that the correct public key could be found. How can we ensure that the entity claiming to be the signer also owns the digital signature? What happens in cases when entities discover that their private key has been misappropriated in the past?

Transferring e-Identity solutions to the public domain

In the roundtable that followed, experts from different disciplines exchanged their views on the transfer of e-Identity solutions to the public domain. First, Philip Reuchlin referred to his experience in the citizenship-by-investment industry. In this sector consulting firms advise their clients on how to acquire a new citizenship by meeting certain – mostly financial, criteria. Accordingly, he characterised traditional citizenship as potentially unjust since it forms the basis of exclusion as per nationality: “Fate is decided by birth”. In his view, nation states are not the ideal institutional entity for solving problems that exceed their borders e.g. climate change. Instead, he suggested a “global identity broker” as a central identity provider that would ensure compatibility with state criteria in forming a supranational identity standard. Ingolf Pernice observed that such a system may indeed foster mobility, but also facilitates “citizenship shopping“. Philip Reuchlin admitted that the current system favours the wealthy, but that it was up to nation states themselves to decide on the criteria of citizenship. As Karl Steinacker from the UNHCR sharply put it, “my people cannot reach Malta, while yours end up exactly there”.

Andi Gross (former member of CoE Parliamentary Assembly) and the next speaker in the roundtable discussion, asserted that the only way to save democracy is to “transnationalise” it. He argued that a federative share of sovereignty across the global, continental, national, regional and communal levels is important in order to effectively address challenges at the appropriate level. The present system is a consultative one, not a decision-making mechanism. Further, he noted that technology may provide the tools but it cannot substitute democracy itself. Rather, legitimacy is the constituent basis of democracy. In that sense, the question is how to mobilise people to use their digital identities for establishing a transnational democracy.

The last speaker on the roundtable, Karl Steinacker, talked about UNHCR’s commitment to digital inclusion, particularly of refugees, stateless and other forcibly displaced persons. He maintained that providing a legal and digital identity to everybody is one of the outstanding challenges of the 21st century. He also noted that it would be counterintuitive to have a non-changeable identity. On the role of blockchain, he admitted to have been surprised by the new possibilities for “self-sovereign identity”, and asked “Does it mean that it is no longer the state that issues identities?” He gave the example of regions in the Middle East, where local communities issue them. The position of the UNHCR is that the identity system should be transferred to the public domain, allowing people to have agency over their data. After this, the group discussed examples of coordination in the public domain such as bank-issued common identities, and of trust failure in the central authorities, and data leaks. An open question remains how to define and distinguish data agency from data sovereignty.

Global Citizenship

The subject of the third discussion was global citizenship. Ingolf Pernice introduced this section by addressing the concept of citizenship throughout the centuries, and up to the digital age. Historically, citizenship referred to the privileges accorded to inhabitants by city authorities as opposed to rural populations who did not have similar privileges. Gradually, the idea evolved to encompass the legal status of people within a nation state as defined by their respective constitutions. The constitutional state was founded on co-citizens’ mutual promise of respect for the rule of law, human dignity and fundamental rights. In other words the constitution is the legal expression of their mutual solidarity. Yet, as a result of mobility and in particular of communication via the internet and cross-border social networks, societies are merging into a global one, and people’s awareness and interest in events, developments and policies in other parts of the world is rising. At the same time common global challenges are also emerging. Tackling these challenges effectively would not be possible without a constitutional framework for regulation on the global level. It includes defining the global status and responsibilities of citizens which is based on the inherent dignity of each individual, embracing human diversity regardless of nationalities. Finally, Ingolf Pernice linked the concept of global citizenship to multilevel constitutionalism, which can be defined as the allocation of constitutional power by the individual on authorities established at each level according to the type of challenges, so that they can be dealt with most effectively. Lars Viellechner responded that dignity, rather than citizenship is the appropriate concept at the global level since citizenship is based on exclusion. Ingolf Pernice answered with the vivid example that “only the residents of the moon would be excluded by global citizenship”. Further, he emphasised that public authority on the global level cannot be established without setting limitations on this power.

Antje Wiener (FAcSS) provided some insights on the concept of agency in Global International Relations Theory. She discussed the access various stakeholders have to negotiations about norms at national, regional or global levels. For this, the question of who has access is a precondition for the agency of the governed. The concept of agency is inter alia based on the public philosophy that if a measure affects all it must be approved by all. In principle the agency of the governed must therefore be accessible to all. In this context, the information technology can both serve as a data-source and as a stage for global interaction between various stakeholders. Antje Wiener also clarified that stakeholders are those expressing their objections to breaches of norms. On the split of citizenship into identity and belonging, she stated that the former is always given while the latter evolves through practice.

The last speaker in this section, Lars Viellechner, discussed the example of ICANN as a body of global governance. He asserted that this type of governance suffers a legitimacy deficit that may be cured by the transnational dimension of fundamental rights. On the one hand, while they protect the liberties of the involved parties from infringements by the ICANN, they do, on the other hand, provide for participation in the allocation of the domain names and prevent arbitrariness. This is reflected in the ways ICANN resolves disputes. Lars Viellechner considers private international law to be an effective instrument to this end. However, the constitutional import of panelists’ decisions is contested from within. He concluded that this type of global governance based on transnational fundamental rights would lead to a deep transformation of democracy at the national level, while established institutions of representative government may be weakened in favor of national, international, supranational courts and dispute resolution providers.

Global Constitutionalism and the future of democracy

The last section of the workshop evolved around global constitutionalism and the future of democracy. Daniel Gasteiger talked about the effective protection of human rights and the perspectives of e-democracy. He stressed that without proof of identity an estimated 1.1 billion people are deprived of access to universal human rights. In his opinion, the issuing of legal identities should not be vested exclusively on governments, since they often lack the resources to guarantee universal reach, and some of them pursue discriminatory policies against certain communities. Blockchain-based identity offers a potential solution as it enables the decentralised issuing of legal identities by various trusted actors. He further referred to the cooperative eID+ project between Procivis and the government of the Canton of Schaffhausen in Switzerland. Referring to e-voting, he pointed out that digital technology has the potential to enhance democratic participation at a reduced cost, whereas a secure technological infrastructure has to guarantee the “one-person, one-vote rule” and the anonymity of the voters.

Thorsten Thiel contributed some considerations on the actual challenges that democracy faces, the interface with digitalisation and how the concept of identity/citizenship and democracy can be enhanced through digital identity. Political developments such as immigration, the erosion of trust in the established regimes and the general crisis of democracy due to slow decision-making mechanisms, the non-accountability of the elites and the growing skepticism towards elections are all challenges we currently face. He noted, that from the early utopian expectation regarding the internet’s role in fostering democracy, the debate has moved to combating the dangers brought by fake news and echo-chambers. With regard to the discourse on citizenship/identity, he distinguished three main aspects: the issue of identification regarding the selection of those able to participate actively (be it voter registers or social security systems) identity in the sense of belonging as a condition for building trust, and thirdly, the “identity as citizenship” which gives the concept of citizenship a more active dimension connected to collective action. In the discussion afterwards, he considered the concept of global citizenship a philosophical question, where the internet is not necessarily an issue. Ingolf Pernice responded that this project is not about resolving the problem of democracy. The idea would rather be that if people are registered with a digital identity, regardless of their nationality, they could more easily establish and participate in democratic processes at the global level. Karl Steinacker noted that regulatory powers should work at a faster pace to address urgent present issues.

The last contribution in the workshop by Nicolas K. Blanchard focused on explaining the system of random-sample-voting: It functions by sampling a smaller set of people from the global population that is verifiably representative. They are then provided with a secure voting interface through which they can vote on a single YES/NO issue. After the voting period, the election data is automatically updated and can be freely audited by any agent or group of citizens. The system mathematically guarantees multiple properties under reasonable assumptions. The voting happens online using numbers from secure ballots distributed to the sampled group, and can last for an extended period of time. According to him, the system is secure and end-to-end verifiable, with voters being able to check that their vote was counted correctly and that the tally is accurate. The logic behind that is that a reduced number of voters may be motivated to make a well-informed decision, if they are allocated more responsibility. Apart from that, the influence of advertising campaigns would be lower due to the equally lower investment return: fewer, better-informed and harder-to-manipulate voters.

The issues discussed above provide the theoretical fundament for the HIIG’s project “Digital Identity, Citizenship & Democracy in Europe” co-funded by the Mercator Foundation’s Advocate Europe 2018 ideas competition. It is supported by a broad network of partners from academia, business and civil society. In addition to Düsseldorf Institute for Internet and Democracy, these include the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB), the Swiss Procivis AG, the Institut de Recherche Informatique Fondamentale (IRIF) in Paris and the NGO The Humanized Internet (THI). The project focuses on the development of a prototype for e-voting and e-polling based upon digital identity and RSV to be tested in a commune of the Ruhr region. It combines existing technologies (e.g., blockchain-based identity solutions, Random-Sample Voting, e-participation platforms) to create a secure, private, easy-to-use and inclusive system that fosters European citizens’ participation in European political processes.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Konstantinos Tsakiliotis

Former Student Assistant: Global Constitutionalism and the Internet

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