FAQs about digital rights in online public engagement

Data privacy and security are hot button news issues right now. You only have to look at recent reporting around Facebook’s fast and loose attitude towards people’s private data and the European Union’s response to data privacy issues in the form of the GDPR (General Data Privacy Regulation) to see these issues are finally receiving the attention they deserve.

Awareness around cybersecurity issues has led to rising public concerns about the safety of their data online. In fact, a recent report indicated more Americans are worried about their data privacy than losing their primary source of income. With more than half the global population on the internet these days, both public and private enterprises need to maintain an active online presence to continue to interact with their citizens and customers.

Public organizations, in particular, will benefit from providing their communities with a safe and secure space online. This builds trust and people feel free to share their opinions and participate in active civic engagement efforts. To this end, selecting a secure public engagement platform that prioritizes cybersecurity is an essential first step. There are globally accepted standards for information security management such as the ISO 27001 that require systems to undergo rigorous third-party audits prior to certification. Compliance with privacy regulations like the GDPR can also help identify a robust platform to meet data privacy needs and provide a greater sense of comfort with the online engagement space.

Public organizations will also undoubtedly need to prepare for questions from their citizens regarding their data privacy and security measures. Being transparent, informative and responsive to questions around privacy and security will increase the likelihood of community participation in online consultations.

Here are the most frequently asked questions from citizens regarding data privacy and security that organizations, including public organizations, may need to respond to when engaging their communities.

Frequently Asked Questions  

What personal data is collected and why?  

It is important to ensure broad participation from across the community. To do so, it is necessary to provide a safe space online to allow people to engage in productive discussions on the local issues that matter to them. This ensures a community-focussed approach to online engagement.

To achieve this, at a minimum, most public engagement efforts will require an individual’s name, email address and general location. Having to provide an email address prevents the creation of multiple accounts by those wishing to derail discussions or re-entry from those people who have been blocked from their account due to any asocial behavior. Collecting location data ensures that people are matched with the communities that they belong to.

If personal data is being collected more broadly than this, it is important that this is outlined and the reasons for collecting this data highlighted.

The personal information that is collected should never be displayed to other members of the community.

Is personal information shared with a third-party for marketing purposes?

Personal information on a public engagement platform should never be shared, under any circumstances, with a third-party for marketing purposes. All personal data collected is only for the government to ensure the right members are being engaged on relevant community projects. The correct approach here is to respect that people’s personal data is owned by them and no one else.

The public engagement platform selected should confirm that they do not share data with others for marketing purposes.

Can a copy of personal information collected thus far be provided?

For EU citizens, any personal information collected is their property. They have the right to contact any organization that collects their personal data and request a free electronic report of the types of information collected and how the data has been used. This is a right provided by the GDPR. For other citizens and governments, it is recommended to be better educated about a specific country’s data privacy laws, if any, to exert better control over the security of sensitive digital information.

For Canadians, information security is covered under two federal laws – Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), while personal information of Australian citizens is governed by the Privacy Law of 1988.

A citizen of the United States will have to determine their individual states’ privacy laws governing electronic data. There is currently no overarching federal law regarding data privacy but certain states have begun implementing legislation.

How to erase personal data from the platform?

For a citizen of the European Union (EU), the GDPR clearly states their right to withdraw consent at any time they choose. An EU citizen can reach out to the concerned party and request removal of their data. They are entitled to receive confirmation of the deletion.

Using a public-engagement platform that is GDPR-compliant assures the technical capacity for this right is upheld for citizens in all parts of the globe. This is definitely an area where leadership is important.

The GDPR is a landmark regulation that changes the face of data privacy laws worldwide. Other countries are currently considering revising or creating similar tighter regulations around citizen personal data security and privacy. A platform that is proactively compliant with data privacy regulations around the globe can provide users with a greater sense of comfort.

How to better protect online accounts?

It is highly recommended that users of any public engagement platforms follow best practices related to login information. Admins and general users will need to have stronger passwords in place and ensure they do not share it with others. Weak passwords can often be an easy entry point for hackers and strong passwords will help increase security.

The public engagement platform should enforce this.

How to report harassment online?

In an ideal world, all group discussions, whether offline or in-person, are civil and only healthy and productive conversations take place. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. All too often, we have seen discussions that go off topic, and devolve into name-calling and occasionally, harassment. This is inadequately addressed on common social media platforms where it takes a while before abusive individuals or trolls to be temporarily or permanently blocked. Meanwhile, the toxic atmosphere created by these individuals in discussion forums may prevent regular users from participating and sharing their much-needed voices to important issues.

Discussions that are moderated around-the-clock promote better engagement. Public engagement platform providers with a trained team of moderators that constantly evaluate discussions and comments for abusive language, trolls, harassment and people who intentionally derail conversations in a non-productive fashion help make the platform safer and more secure for citizens to participate.

Civic engagement platforms with a team of moderators permit users who feel harassed to flag a moderator immediately for assistance. This can ensure a timely review and an intervention if  required. Partnering with a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider will offer benefits of using an online community engagement platform without issues related to technology management or customer service.

How to avoid being blocked from the public engagement space?

Public engagement platforms are a means to activate communities and increase productive and transparent interactions between governments and their public. With this in mind, respectful opinions voiced – whether for or against a particular policy or decision – are welcome and represent the foundation of a democratic system.

However, to ensure a healthy discussion online, there are a few checks and balances in place. Platforms that monitor and moderate their comments section for basic etiquette are recommended for a better online experience. Moderators look for abusive language, trolls, bullying, defamation and other undesirable content.

An individual that believes they are blocked in error on a public engagement platform will need to reach out to a moderator to request re-entry and explain their case.

Governments that are community-focussed provide safe online spaces for their public to engage with them and educate them on the latest projects, issues, and concerns that affect their community. It is important to be able to respond promptly and in clear terms to questions surrounding data privacy and security of people’s personal data. Civic engagement platforms Platforms that are compliant with global standards and regulations such as ISO 27001 and the EU’s GDPR demonstrate a commitment to data privacy and security.

Photo:  Taskin Ashiq/Unsplash

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