The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to speed up our online lives. But is this for the best?

What would the lockdowns have looked like 15 years ago?

For starters, the internet was much slower, few had the equipment for video chat, we did not have smartphones and social media was still in its infancy. Online services that have proved essential, such as shopping deliveries, were only starting to get off the ground. And not to mention entertainment- YouTube was only born in 2005, and Netflix was still shipping DVDs instead of streaming.

While there is no doubt COVID-19 is a black swan that presents a huge health risk and is doing huge damage to our economies and societies, it could have been so much worse. And we can partially thank digitization for that. In 2020, we have both the connectivity and the digital tools in place to ensure a large part of the workforce can telework, children can continue their education remotely, consumers can shop online, and people with symptoms can consult a health professional from home. And for politicians, we can negotiate, debate and vote on legislation from a distance.

While we were already in the midst of a digital revolution for at least two decades, the pandemic has forced us to move more of our lives online faster. But is this for the better? What should we take with us from our lockdown experiences, and what should we leave only for emergencies?

Being thrown into this situation has given us a lot to think about, not least for how to transition our democracies to an online world.

For instance, for years we have been talking about online voting, with only a few countries such as Estonia having attempted this. Over the past months though, the European Parliament has been testing different ways for MEPs to vote remotely during the lockdown. Starting off with more archaic methods involving printing, signing, and scanning our ballots, we have now developed an online voting app.

So does this mean we can now roll this out for elections? Probably not yet. It is one thing to have 705 MEPs vote online, and another to hold nation-wide online elections.

Even if we get past the technical difficulties, voting in person will always be an important part of the democratic process and a civic ritual. But we have to recognize the opportunities that also lie in digitalizing elections. We often talk about the need to connect better with young people and engage them more in politics. Online voting is a great way to increase participation of this new generation of digital natives.

Beyond elections though, we have seen already how digitalization and social media have brought citizens closer to their representatives and enabled new types of social movements. Citizens can voice their opinions more easily to the highest levels of government, and a simple hashtag can turn into an international campaign. During the lockdown, there has been a greater move of politics online through public streaming of webinars and normalizing online face-to-face meetings. I believe that this is bridging the gap between politicians and our electorates by making politics more transparent and inclusive, and opening more channels of communication.

To make these opportunities a permanent reality that all can benefit from, we need to also consider a few obstacles.

The first is the digital divide. In Europe, we still have a number of digital divides in terms of digital literacy, broadband quality and affordability, and general preparedness of countries (i.e. e-government infrastructures). These divides fall along the following axes: urban-rural, young-old, and north-south. Europe still has much to do in filling these gaps.

Secondly, if we move the democratic process online, we need to make sure that it is well-protected from cybercrime. The COVID crisis has reminded us that cybercrime is still very much a reality. Email “phishing” attacks spiked by over 600% in Europe since the end of February, and new types of cyber-attacks, such as “Zoom bombings”, have emerged. Cybersecurity was a big issue even before the pandemic, and it will be even more urgent in the post-COVID digital age.

And finally, as we move the debate online, we need to enable an environment where citizens can get trustworthy information by tackling fake news. The EU’s work on this through the Democracy Action Plan will be an important way to ensure a better informed and transparent online civic and political space.

While the pandemic has had many devastating effects, it has also propelled us a few years ahead when it comes to digitalization. For politics, we have already started to see changes. Now it is time to reflect on how we can better use technology for our democracy.

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