Taiwan works to build open systems

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Taiwan executive branch’s Join website to solicit the public’s views on policy is seen on a smartphone.

With the internet facilitating the spread of massive volumes of information, attempts are underway to use various features of digital technology to realize open and democratic societies.

Along the way, though, the political process has been distorted by people using social media and other sites. The public and politicians will need to compromise to find solutions in this digital age.

Direct voice

Plastic straws are no longer offered at eateries in Taiwan after environmental protection authorities prohibited their use in 2019.

A major force behind the ban was a post on a government-run website by a high school student demanding that plastic straws be banned because she was worried about the negative impact they have on the environment.

Taiwan’s executive branch, the Executive Yuan, operates two websites to gather residents’ opinions. Join solicits views about policies, while vTaiwan is made for people to comment on legislative affairs.

The cumulative number of nonunique users of Join has surpassed 10 million. If a proposal on Join garners support from 5,000 or more people, the Executive Yuan is required to take up the matter and publish the subsequent discussions.

The Executive Yuan has replied to more than 90 proposals, averaging two to three per month.

“The public has obtained the right to set the political agenda, which used to be mainly in the hands of the administration and interest groups,” said Zach Huang, a senior executive officer in the office of Digital Minister Audrey Tang at the Executive Yuan.

The Join and vTaiwan sites were created in 2014 by the administration of then President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) to gain public support, after opposition to a bill with conciliatory policies toward China ballooned on the internet and protesters, mainly students, occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature.

The current administration of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party largely developed the sites as a symbol of residents’ participation in politics. Huang stressed that the websites have strengthened Taiwan’s democracy.

Accountability required

The Executive Yuan has a department specializing in digital technology affairs with about 20 staff members.

The two websites have systems in place to deter abusive comments. Users must input their email address and mobile phone number to post proposals, so the administrative authorities can identify commenters.

Also, users are prohibited from posting intimidating comments and cannot post replies to other people’s comments. This prevents arguments from breaking out on the sites.

Administrators respect the intentions behind the proposals and also place importance on securing fairness.

A proposal to ban the use of naphthalene, which is used in products such as air fresheners, was posted last year on the Join site, citing health problems caused by the chemical.

The Executive Yuan decided to ban the use of naphthalene in limited areas, such as public restrooms. The decision took into account that only about 2-3% of people are said to be negatively affected by the chemical as well as the interests of related businesses.

Online systems set up to solicit opinions from the public have been implemented in many countries. However, there are few precedents that encourage people to carefully consider policies and engage in responsible public debates. In this regard, Taiwan is an outlier.

In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration set up a website to receive petitions. The site was flooded with extremist opinions, such as people clamoring for deporting certain entertainers and demands to designate India and Pakistan as state sponsors of terrorism.

The current administration of President Joe Biden took down the site.

Chile’s Senate created a virtual senate in 2003 to collect opinions about bills under deliberation, but the site is now barely used. In 2004, the virtual senate sought opinions on about 40 bills, but that number fell to four in 2019.

Digitizing legislation

In Britain, which is seen as a model of parliamentary democracy, some say that digital technology can contribute to political reform. Such calls likely came about because of the country’s tumultuous exit from the European Union.

A British think tank called Demos in autumn last year proposed that bills be digitized and bundled by policy and then discussed.

The organization believes that digitization of the huge volume of data related to laws can make the legislative process more efficient and lawmakers can quickly respond to the demands of the times.

The proposal calls for lawmakers to vote for or against bundles of bills, not individual bills.

For example, for policies involving a large range of laws such as measures to cope with climate change, the proposed system makes it easier to implement large-scale policy changes.

In a bid to remedy contradictions among laws, lawmakers may consider details more carefully and be willing to make compromises.

The plan envisions it becoming more difficult for lawmakers to take extreme stances on policies — for both proponents and detractors — and the bundles of bills will be passed even if a majority of lawmakers do not support specific, individual bills.

Jon Nash, a political scientist and computer engineering expert who compiled the Demos proposal, said that in today’s large-scale and complicated societies, legislative procedures that were instituted sometimes hundreds of years ago are inefficient. Nash said computing technologies should be utilized for democracy.

Regarding Brexit, the British government left everything to a national referendum over whether the United Kingdom would leave the EU. After the vote, Parliament had difficulty adopting a draft agreement with the EU, and Britain faced the possibility of leaving the bloc without any agreement.

The Demos proposal aims to prevent such confusion in the future.

The torrent of digital technologies that has thrown democracies into tumult is now encroaching on people’s daily lives.