Digital citizenship: Are e-rights the ties that bind?

In this emerging age of e-government and digital democracy, there is an issue around the evolving nature of citizenship in an online world. Citizenship entails a social contract between governments and their citizens. The essence of this contact is to shape the expectations and actions of both parties – in terms of both personal rights and collective responsibilities.

The assertion of rights in today’s society is obvious enough. Issues ranging from same sex marriage to linguistic education in Quebec schools are framed as fundamental matters of rights (within Canada’s Charter of Rights). There are calls for an environmental bill of rights, a health care patient’s bill of rights, and stronger protection for privacy rights. Perhaps most prominent in the digital world is the assertion of traditional property rights by many artists and the recording industry.

This notion of rights also fits well with the service emphasis of so much of the focus on e-government. Governments aspire to be citizen-centric, just as people expect efficient and responsive government organizations. At the federal level, the new agency Service Canada will attempt to oblige. Locally, municipalities strive to create a new citizen response system based on a 311 telephone code for all non-emergency services. Is such convenience not a reasonable right of residency in a 21st century community?

Recently, this discourse of rights has been proposed as an explicit dimension of e-government by a coalition of European cities ( This organization argues that four types of “e-rights” should be ensured by a new European e-Charter — rights to accessibility, rights to education and training, rights to information and rights to participation.

At first glance, the logic behind such an agenda would seem irrefutable. Not only is it consistent with so many other sectors of activity, but this package of rights helps to frame the basis of a response to the digital divide. Left to market forces or one’s inherited social standing, the benefits from networked societies are likely to become increasingly polarized. People should thus be accorded more rights to extend fairness and equality into the digital realm.

But this movement neglects the other side of the coin – namely, the duties that accompany citizenship. Political leaders – and the public – seem far less interested in defining a set of new responsibilities to coincide with a revised social contract for a more digital era.

A decline of personal and public responsibilities is undoubtedly a more contested proposition. While governments today may be overtly less demanding of citizens in some instances, some observers would note that, in many aspects of our lives, more self-autonomy is often demanded of individuals and organizations.

Indeed, a shift to self-governance is in many ways consistent with the vision of the Internet as an empowering and liberating infrastructure that threatens traditional hierarchy and authority. People are less deferential – and more trusting of their peers than their leaders. More often than not, this new world view resonates particularly well with younger generations.

The explosion of music downloading and file sharing online is a good illustration. With industry estimates of more than 2.6 billion files of music, film and other artistic endeavours shared each month over the Internet, it would seem that many people (certainly not just the young) are prepared to reconsider their own definition of appropriate behaviour in cyberspace. While recording companies may be technically correct to assert their rights, the recent launch of 261 lawsuits against online perpetrators has all the markings of a losing proposition.

It is difficult to envision a more compelling indication of changing attitudes and expectations than such an open and widespread redrawing of the line between what constitutes unlawful and acceptable behaviour. The global explosion in counterfeit goods is another case in point. Although these examples constitute consumer behaviour, upholding the legal boundaries of the market is also a public interest issue – one made all the more difficult when such boundaries appear increasingly open to reinterpretation.

Governments can only act when they are reasonably certain of a moral authority granted to them by the public. Implicit in this authority is a reasonable balance between rights and duties. What may disrupt this balance is whether the current fixation with rights and service erodes the public sector’s capacity to facilitate not only personal choice but also collective action. Such is the challenge of digital citizenship – and the implications are huge for most sectors of activity.

In this emerging century, e-government seems predicated on what the public sector can do for citizens. Perhaps it is time to also ask the reverse.

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