How does technological governance shape democracy?

Am and MetzlerHeidrun Åm & Ingrid Metzler

In our recent article in Policy & Politics, we explore debates about “digital contact tracing apps” in Norway and Austria, i.e. apps developed to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed what we dubbed a ‘technology-centred comparison’: following the development of these apps throughout each stage as they were designed, launched, assessed, contested, stabilised, and redesigned. At each of these stages, we explored which actors shaped these developments and how.

We were keen on developing a better understanding of what governance through apps means for democracy and power. Technology plays an important role in the governance of society. The Covid-19 pandemic with its use of face masks, vaccines, and contact tracing apps is an illustrative example. Still, technology doesn’t get much attention in policy studies. There exists scholarship on the governance of technologies, but less attention is paid to how power is exerted through technologies.

Our article compares the app in Austria and the Smittestopp app in Norway. Initially, these two contact tracing apps differed substantially. Different groups of actors envisioned and developed each app. In Austria, the civil society actors Red Cross spearheaded their app’s development. In Norway, familiar bureaucratic state actors such as the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) played a central role. The apps were also designed to solve different policy problems: as a contact diary in Austria, and as a policy evaluation device in Norway.

Nevertheless, initial visions became contested in both countries. Increasingly, policy convergences appeared — both in terms of the issues that were raised and the actors who had a voice in these debates. ‘Data protection’ became a major public issue. IT experts emerged as important voices of ‘the public.’ When redesigned versions of the apps stabilised, both apps built upon the ‘Google/Apple Exposure Notification’ (GAEN) framework. Notably, Apple and Google enshrined several standards into the use of this framework. For example, they would not allow apps in their play stores that generated data for authorities. Thus, the standards were simultaneously technical, ethical, and political – or: constitutional.

Why constitutional? It is important to discuss what Google and Apple’s power in defining data infrastructures means for democracy. Traditionally, citizen’s rights and duties are defined in constitutions. In our article, we introduce the concept ‘citizenship-by-design’ to describe the —arguably new — phenomenon that citizen’s rights and duties become defined through and inscribed in technologies. In the end, it was Google and Apple who defined which data state authorities could gather, not the other way around.

Our research lays the groundwork for a future research agenda that investigates the implications of these technologies for the distribution of political power and responsibilities.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics

Ingrid Metzler and Heidrun Åm (2022) How the governance of and through digital contact tracing technologies shapes geographies of power Policy and Politics

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

The implications of COVID-19 for concepts and practices of citizenship

Global Public Policy studies

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.


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