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The emergency of digital solutionism

The term “digital solutionism” was introduced in 2013 by Evgenj Morozov to indicate an approach advocating the use and diffusion of digital systems and applications as a tool for solving problems that are essentially social and actually need first and foremost a political answer. Obviously, these solutions are proposed – usually accompanied by a wise communication strategy – because some actors, who certainly do not lack the resources necessary to influence public opinion, benefit from it, economically or otherwise. The common citizen, who is often unprepared in the digital field, is easily persuaded. Only after some time he realizes that what he thought was a future of freedom looks more like a cage, not even a golden one.

States of necessity, those situations in which some unforeseen circumstance forces us to face exceptional problems, are a privileged scenario for digital solutionism. In these cases, in fact, the limited availability of resources and the need to “hurry up” press and push to accelerate decisions.

The health emergency we are currently experiencing is a model from this point of view. Since a few weeks, media have been talking more and more intensely about deploying contact tracing apps on citizens’ phones, for the purpose of quickly identifying who has been in contact with those who have been tested as by the virus.

Since the tracing of people’s movements and relations is highly invasive of privacy, institutions most alert to civil liberties and democracy have immediately raised concerns. Internationally, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has listed a number of principles that must be respected to defend civil rights during health crises. In Europe, the European Digital Rights has called on governments to respect fundamental rights in the management of COVID-19. In addition, the European Data Protection Board has issued a statement on the use of personal data in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic. Finally, the non-governmental association Algorithm Watch recalled the cautions to be adopted in the use of automatic decision-making systems to combat COVID-19.

The European association of university departments and IT research centers of I am the president of, Informatics Europe, has also published a recommendation with guidelines on the use of digital technologies for the control of COVID-19 infection.

All of these position statements underline the delicacy and caution that are needed to operate in this area. In particular, the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union (GDPR) have been recalled. The former requires that any restriction of fundamental rights be “temporary, limited, and controlled”, while the latter allows exceptions in the processing of personal data only for “necessary, appropriate and proportional measures”.

These are extremely necessary declarations since, taking inspiration from what already implemented for social control through digital infrastructures since some years – but in cultures based on principles other than Western ones, in these days in Europe declarations that invoke the use of this kind of solutions have intensified. And in Italy the Transport and Telecommunications Committee of the Chamber of Deputies will have hearings on the matter later this week.

The fundamental point is not so much the technical feasibility of these solutions, since informatics research in the field of cryptography offers a real arsenal of sophisticated tools.

The critical point is the need, in order for technical solutions to be truly effective, to combine them with adequate health policy measures. It should be emphasized that in Far East countries, where approaches of this type have been used successfully leveraging a different culture, it was essential to have designed and prepared, having gained experience during the previous SARS epidemics, measures and resources to respond adequately to the infection outburst. It is a problem similar to that of many many other scenarios: technological solutions (now increasingly digital) are never resolutive unless they are compatible with the socio-organizational scenario, provided with adequate financial and material resources, and supported by political will.

If these elements are missing, what remains is just the sale of our personal data, hence of our freedom, hence of democracy.

Author: Enrico Nardelli – University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’

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