Digitization brings a new world order. Is the Netherlands ready for this?

Column – “The Netherlands is a digibetocracy!” Does Arjen Lubach have a point here? He explained this qualification in his program Zondag met Lubach: “We are controlled by people who don’t understand computers and digital security.” I can agree with that. Although I think the situation is even less rosy than he suggests.

Tech companies, in fact data companies, have now firmly established themselves in the human needs for communication and entertainment. That is why they are now turning to finance, especially payment services. Next up is mobility, an area that provides a lot of attractive data about people and their mobility needs. After that, we don’t have to wait long before the status of our health is next. The data about our health makes us even more dependent on the data companies.

Who will determine our lives in the future? Do we still have enough influence ourselves or will it be the data companies that seize power? Or, is there still a chance of a properly functioning government that understands what digitization is and what influence it has? And who can regulate and protect us?

Why a Digibetocracy?

There are many developments that are a direct or indirect consequence of digitization. These developments can take place due to a lack of understanding and knowledge of this matter. Due to a lack of knowledge and affinity, there is no question of a coherent policy, this is becoming more tangible by the day. Think about these things, among other things.

Digitization & coronacrisis

The corona crisis alone has made the lack of understanding for digitization painfully clear. An incoherent number of online initiatives, such as: corona app, corona dashboard, corona information site, a separate website for appointments, and the like. In addition, the vaccinations had to be done by the GGDs, using dozens of different systems. And recently the weekly disruptions at the GGD and RIVM to digitally register and arrange everything related to the corona pandemic.

Lack of empathy for online behavior

Who doesn’t get annoyed by the cookie messages that force or entice users to accept cookies and thereby jeopardize their privacy? Those messages are a result of a law drawn up by the governments, without any empathy for the online behavior of users. The PSD2 law is now added to this.

Unsafe Online Activities

The impotence – or is it unwillingness? – to force companies to keep their online activities safe and not to victimize citizens. From the way they send emails with links in them, to using the right security software for their systems.

Online anonymity

By the online anonymity intact, the undermining of society is facilitated. And has the internet become a sanctuary for far too many criminal activities in the form of, among other things, fake news, hate emails, fraud, cybercrime, hacking, phishing, identity theft and much more.

The current privacy law

The current privacy law is more of an obstacle than a protection for the online world. From tracking down cybercriminals to coordinating treatment of patients by practitioners and much more, it is hampered by this.

Laws without regard for automation

Laws are passed without knowledge of and taking into account the possibilities of automation. This ignores the consequences for implementation and enforcement. Think, for example, of failed automation projects at the Tax Authorities, the UWV or the CBR, of which citizens subsequently become victims. In addition, research has shown that dozens of government sites are unsafe and can therefore also harm citizens.

Representatives & social media

Our representatives do not know how to use social media. Only a limited number of them actively use social media to communicate with voters. The only goal they seem to have is to be present with their own account to profile themselves. There is no question of a relationship with the voter along this route.

Digital poverty

The present digital poverty of about 3 million citizens hardly gets any serious attention.

Set the right priorities

It starts with our parliamentary democracy itself, which is already well past its date. The system that was once devised about 150 years ago no longer fits in today. Too much has changed over the years for that. Look at the future and all the changes that are taking place, such as individualisation, migration and digitalisation. Then the demands that we have to make of politicians and the ministers are different from those that are still used today.

We live in a country that is doing well economically and that has a leading position in certain areas of digitization. Think of the role of companies such as ASML, NXP or Booking.com. Or in the field of cybersecurity, or our Fintech systems, such as by Adyen. The digital know-how of Dutch companies is not bad and deserves all the support they need to play a role on the global stage. Certainly something to be proud of for a small country. It’s not up to the business community when it comes to digitization.

The other side of the digital coin

But there is also another side to the digital coin. The government has released a multi-billion dollar fund, with which it wants to stimulate investment in the development and production of digital products, among other things. That’s fine, but for the time being she forgets to pay the required attention to society. The digitization of society does not happen automatically and certainly not flawlessly. Citizens are left to their own devices far too much. The impact of digitization on almost all areas of our society, and therefore on citizens, should cause us great concern. In this area, much revolves around the role of the government, and it falls horribly short here.

The government has little control over what happens in the digital society. She also lacks understanding of how things that lead to eruptions in the physical world are prepared online. Such as demonstrations or riots. She also has no control over interest groups that group themselves online, form their opinions and possibly turn against the government. Think of Black Lives Matter, climate children, nursing staff, farmers, the yellow vests, and many others. She herself tries to reach citizens with a multitude of websites and messages. As a result, citizens no longer see the forest for the trees. The input of the government and its related agencies is fragmented, unclear, ad hoc and also not always safe enough.

Digitization and society do not wait for the government. As a result, there is growing disruption in various areas.

What can the government do about it?

The big question is therefore what the government can do to regain control of digital developments in order to prevent further undermining of society.

In order to disprove Arjen Lubach’s opinion, the politicians, and therefore also the government, will have to take steps to make the influence of digitization their own. Serious attention is needed for digitization. These are tasks that the government has neglected to date.

Serious work on the following points is a start.

  • Bringing knowledge of and experience with digitization within the government and parliament.
  • Giving every citizen a digital identity.
  • With comprehensible steps and information, we ensure greater digital security for citizens.
  • Setting up a Ministry of Digital Affairs is inevitable if we want to take the digitization of society seriously.
  • Setting up a citizens’ platform to better protect citizens, to securely facilitate crucial services and to present payment systems in a clear manner.
  • With a different view of privacy, on the one hand, better protecting citizens and, on the other, no longer facilitating the malicious.
  • Setting up a citizen-friendly and safe messaging service, with which all citizens can be reached directly at any time and anywhere (as part of the citizen platform).
  • Ensure the availability of an online infrastructure for all citizens, possibly free of charge.
  • Responsibility for the content of messages lies with the operators of platforms and hosting parties.
  • Limit the power of data companies; stimulating a European approach and legislation for this.
  • Adapted legislation and regulations are required in many areas that do justice to the characteristics of digitization.
  • All this can only be achieved with a more decisive government. The political system must be adapted to the demands of today’s fast and digital age.

Much more work to be done

These are the most important points, but there is much more work to be done for the government. Now is the time to also look at what is needed to give the digitizing society and its citizens a secure and stable basis. In addition to a lot of attention for technology and the various digital developments.

By making the citizens’ platform available, many of the points mentioned could be addressed quickly and effectively. At the same time, it would help citizens better understand the digital society.

2024 will be a benchmark!

The fact that the investigations by the police have attracted a lot of attention in the publicity is well deserved. However, this should not give the impression that the Netherlands has or is beginning to gain control of the digital world. On the contrary, because the government is lagging behind, the citizens do indeed end up in Lubach’s digibetocracy!

It is high time that the government pays attention to its citizens and what digitization does to them. Citizens experience the negative consequences of digitization every day. As a result, society has already been disrupted in various areas.

Digitization is creating a new world order. One in which national borders have a different meaning and which, partly because of this, requires a specific, appropriate approach. The consequences for citizens and society do not seem to have reached the government yet.

In the book 2024, The Netherlands 40 years after George Orwell’s 1984 (affiliate) I offer options on how both citizens and government can get a grip on the digitizing society. The approach described also offers opportunities to close the gap that has arisen between government and citizens and to remove much of the existing mistrust.

2024 will be the year in which it becomes clear whether society is able to deal with digitization and the Netherlands as a digibetocracy seems to be able to come to an end.


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