Digital Proxies – a potential new research area

(I can’t yet promise that no-one has thought of this before, but I hope it’s an original and worthwhile idea.)

What is a digital proxy?

A digital proxy would be someone who undertakes a citizen’s online affairs, principally around digital participatory or elective democracy, because the citizen cannot use the internet for some reason.

Where did this idea come from?

It crystallised at Democratic Sector Day (thanks Oliver and colleagues, Christian and other people at the Digital Participatory Democracy table!) from several sources:

  • My sister has needs such that she isn’t really able to deal with government and bureaucracy. So, with her permission, I do her tax returns, applications for tax credits and other state benefits, and any other tasks requiring digital, numeracy or literacy skills.
  • I also complete our father’s tax return, making sure that it benefits him as much as possible.
  • Our mother won’t go near the internet.
  • In UK parliamentary elections, people can nominate proxies to vote for them if they will be away from their constituencies on polling days. My brother nominated our mother as his voting proxy when he was serving in Bosnia, the first Gulf War etc.
  • I am very able to take part in digital democracy – I’m almost never away from at least one internet device. But what about
    • Those who can’t even afford a roof over their heads, let alone the most basic feature-phone?
    • People living in not-spots? (My prime example is friends who farm on the west coast of Arran. They can only get very patchy dial-up connections. It’s hard enough for them to do necessary tasks such as filling in DEFRA’s online forms. I doubt whether they have the time or patience for anything else online.
    • Physically disabled people who cannot afford screen-readers etc.
    • Any other people who cannot use the internet to interact with the ‘digital-first’/’digital by default’ state? Online voting isn’t that far away. In fact it was an option in Edinburgh’s 2013 community council elections. It is alleged that a majority of Universal Benefit claims will be made online.

So I think we digirati need to consider the sort of society we may be foisting on others who potentially cannot benefit from it. That idea isn’t new – the digital divide (wikipedia) concept has been around for years. But perhaps I’ve stumbled across a way of mitigating this chasm.

So what is that idea again?

With your permission, and following your instructions, your digital proxy (DP_ would represent you online, such as online voting for you, representing you in online participatory democracy events (such as tweeting your local councillor, commenting on government consultations, taking part in mini-publics, charettes, participatory budgeting etc). This may also extend to representing you in online dealings with financial, state and similar institutions.

Some questions (aka What could possibly go wrong?)

  • How would DPs be procured? Not every family has someone like me who has the skills and time to be their DP.
  • Would DPs need to be paid? If so, how would this be arranged? By results (e.g. tax refunds)? by time spent on the task?
  • Who would pay DPs?
  • What if you have not instructed the DP about an issue, especially if the DP believes that the issue is important? Should the DP act as he/she believes you would act?
  • Where are the boundaries? You might be able to take part in some online activities but not others, or be intermittently able to do so. (For example, you might have conditions so that more than 20 minutes in front of a monitor brings on migraines. Should your DP be able to take over after 15 minutes? Is that even practical?)
  • What if your DP and your ‘traditional’ proxies and representatives disagree?
  • How would you know to trust a DP?
  • What happens if your DP doesn’t do as you instruct?

No doubt there are many more issues.

Also, it’s quite possible that analogues from the analogue age, such as power of attorney legislation, could apply to digital doings. But PoA is a generally a specific instrument giving the attorney power over a person’s financial affairs if and when they do not have mental capacity. Similarly, proxy-voting legislation may already cover online voting. (If not, surely it’s easy to make it so.) I understand there’s some relevant research and activity in the-health area.

However, do we not need systems, training, monitoring, legislation and general research to ensure that DPing happens as well as it could? I think we do.

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One thought on “Digital Proxies – a potential new research area

  1. Pingback: Digital proxies – your online representatives? | A Manifesto for Digital Messiness

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