Modern Citizenship Means Being Online


For much of our history property ownership was an essential prerequisite to exercise your full rights as a citizen, but now you need an internet connection! To be a citizen can mean a variety of things. At its most basic it is merely a synonym for being a national of a particular country, thus possessing a right of abode. As a consequence of mass migration the question of what it means to be a citizen in this sense is of burning importance at the current time. But the broader concept of a citizen is actually very old, dating back to the ancient Greeks and is closely related to the idea of freedom and political agency.

Later, being a citizen to the ancient Romans meant not being a slave and this idea carries potent implications to the present time. In Renaissance Europe the idea of a citizen was linked military service for your city or state, where you may be expected to serve part-time in a militia or reserve force. As today, much debate took place in seventeenth century England as to the definition of a citizen and whether everyone should enjoy the same rights. The highest level almost always involved the ownership of substantial property and conferred Parliamentary voting rights. At the bottom and often regarded as foregoing citizenship were the poor who received alms or worked for wages (much less common in pre-industrial societies) The emerging idea of a citizen being of independent means is an important one and is acutely relevant today. Crucially, very few definitions at that time included women, unless they were also property holders by widowhood or inheritance.

If citizen is a word plagued by ambiguity then the associated citizenship suffers similar problems. Again, it could mean simply the state of being a citizen, but that gets us little further forward. It is more useful to consider citizenship as a process; of how we take our part as an active member of society. On that basis, citizenship implies that we have various rights and responsibilities, some of which may be withdrawn permanently or temporarily. For example we may consider prisoners as being citizens, but of lesser kind without some rights, such as the ability to vote in elections (though this is being reviewed). In general, as societies developed, so the concept of the rights possessed by a citizen have similarly evolved. In modern western democratic states citizenship brings with it not only a right (or responsibility) to vote, but rights to welfare, education, health care, security etc. This means the necessity for the state to ensure that its people possess the knowledge, skills and means to take advantage of their rights and responsibilities. Moreover citizens must have the confidence to use the knowledge and skills effectively. The responsibilities of citizenship have also evolved, becoming ever more complex. If we take a wider view of citizenship as being actively involved in politics (in its broader sense, not just party based) the situation is similarly involved with a plethora of campaigns which may easily straddle international and even continental boundaries.

A crucial fact about modern citizenship will now become clear. Whereas in earlier times the necessity of property ownership or militia service was a crucial prerequisite for citizenship, today it is independent access to the internet and the required skills to use such access. Just consider the sheer range of activites which can only take place on the internet. Firstly, political engagement. The e-petition system to Parliament is an obvious instance where political engagement is dependent upon such access. But many political parties and pressure groups communicate with their members by email or social media updates. Without internet access such engagement is now almost impossible. This is also true for political debate, much of which is now conducted in social media. In particular opinions from non-traditional sources which may be disregarded or even actively suppressed by mainstream media sources are frequently articulated on social media platforms.

But what about your rights as a citizen. If you need to claim the new controversial Universal Credit the default is to claim online and non-IT help is only there to assist you with that process. To earn a living (back to personal independence) means getting a job. In past times local and national press carried extensive pages of job advertisements which have now all but disappeared. Likewise it is now common practice amongst major employers to only accept online applications, normally via an in-house or outsourced application system. All communication with you for interviews, job offers, references and so on will be conducted electronically. This gives a mockery to the sometimes heard accusation ‘you haven’t got a job but you can surf the web’ or equally ‘funny how these refugees all manage to escape with mobile phones or tablets’. Leaving aside the patent absurdity of these accusations, (if you run then your device will obviously be mobile!) the ridiculous nature of the accusations will now be clear.

Ill-informed and prejudiced comments by people seeking to criticize the unemployed or refugees is hurtful and dispiriting. But much more damaging is the fact that Government tacitly fosters such opinions by refusing to acknowledge and support this essential aspect of modern citizenship. Take the e-petition system. Despite being heralded as a breakthrough in citizen participation, the reality is that even petitions which easily exceed the trigger point for debate may not be scheduled or, if it is, will be held in the secondary chamber of Westminster Hall. In closing libraries rather than evolving them into community information and internet access/support centres the Government is discarding an opportunity for support in this vital area. Our own Government is not alone. One proposal put forward in Germany was to make refugees pay part of the cost of their asylum costs by seizing and selling their assets such as phones and tables, thus depriving them of the very means of accessing the resources they require to be integrated functioning citizens. The Government places much emphasis on the internet for commercial and security uses but it is about time they gave equal emphasis to digital citizenship. Judging by the lack of interest which they display on issues of citizenship in the real world I will not hold my breath!

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