The Role of Rights in the Transactional Civilization
Alois Paulin, 2011
Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government - CeDEM11, Krems,
Governing a society is the task of managing rights of the society’s members. This article focuses on the right as the most elementary entity of any civilized system and analyzes how such a system can be managed transactional using modern (web) technologies in a non-utopic fashion.
e-Government, Government as a Platform, Rights (concept)
The “government as a platform” idea, as most prominently advocated by Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly 2010) envisions the hegemony as a provider of infrastructure on which subjects can conduct their exchange of goods and services in a transactional manner. According to this idea, “Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.” (ibid)
The rediscovery and re-imagination of government however requires a fundamental understanding of the “what” and the “how” of modern government and the capability of translating those fundamental elements into a form, which is controllable by means of modern technology.
The right – a piece of information stored in a database
Rights are the fundamental legal relations between subjects and the hegemony within a governed society. Contrary to natural liberty, which can be exercised within natural borders (walls, rivers, gravity) and social liberty, which is limited with social borders (morals, habits, conventions), rights represent artificial liberty, which must be granted by the hegemony in order to exist.
By granting a right, the hegemony creates a virtual space of legal liberty, and promises the grantee not to interfere with the subject’s execution of the right. Eventually, the hegemony may promise to defend the right, which it does by establishing a defensive system of subjects who have the right to use repression in order to secure the given right (e.g. a police force, a judicial system, state attorneys, etc.).
Under civilized and peaceful conditions, a governmental system is often perceived as a network of rights, duties and obligations, wherein duties and obligations seem to be clear opposites of rights, making each term describing a separate condition. However, when analyzing the sociopolitical system, it becomes evident that duties and obligations are only virtual constructs that describe the padding, which separates the rights between two hierarchical conditions (Figure 1).
For example, let us assume a situation in which a subject – let’s call her Alice – drives her car on a highway. Having fulfilled all legal obligations, she has been granted the right of driving a motorized vehicle on public roads – this she can prove any time by showing her driver’s license. Alice’s right to drive on a highway is limited by her obligation not to drive under the influence of alcohol and the duty to drive less than 130 km/h. But Alice ignores her duties and speeds fully drunk at 160, when suddenly a police car appears in front of her and instructs her to stop. Out of the car steps Paul, who is a policeman, as Alice can tell from his uniform and badge, but Paul can prove his status at any time by demonstrating his license. As Paul observed that Alice crossed the borders of her right, he may execute his right to fine her and his right to use force and take her into custody, as she is obviously drunk. But instead Paul decides to take a bribe from Alice, thus crossing the borders of his rights as a public official. Unfortunately, Tom, who is observing traffic cams is not amused and complains to Paul’s superior Saul, as he knows that Saul has the right to fire Paul. But Saul does not execute his right to expel his friend Paul, thus Tom decides to complain to Inez, the inspector...
As we see from this example, if obligations are ignored, others may execute their rights, which can be perceived as sanctions. The true nature of rights is revealed when being confronted with a corrupt legal system in which the complaining subject has to undertake multiple actions along the hierarchy of rights in order to reach a (official) subject that is willing to execute his right to impose sanctions.
In order to grant a right, the hegemony (or responsible authority) must undertake a formal action in which it declares that the right is granted – which is done by issuing a decree or similar act. Without being based on a hegemonic act, a right cannot exist and whenever it comes to proving the existence of a right, this formal act is the document from which the right originates. In modern legal systems, which follow the “rule of law”, any right is granted according to a predefined and documented procedure, through which the granted right is inserted in an accessible manner.
Granted rights are at their most basic level simple information about the expressed decision of the person/committee/etc. in charge. This information is stored in a document, which is archived in some sort of database, from which it can be retrieved on demand. The role of databases in managing rights within a civilization is best demonstrated with the legal role of land registration in continental Europe: The land register or cadaster is a (publicly readable) database, which holds information about granted rights over land parcels. Only facts that are listed in the cadaster are legally recognized rights over the particular parcel and whoever trusts those facts may not suffer legal damages from relying on them. A subject, who claims to have contractually acquired rights over a particular parcel, must demand from the responsible authority to issue a decree that entitles the corresponding change in the database. However, the new right-holder of the estate will gain his right only when the right is published in the cadaster.
Unfortunately modern e-Gov solutions offer their services as sealed “black-box” products that expose only the GUI. Those products prevent citizens from accessing their functionality in an automated manner, which can result in a significant loss of time when the users wants to access larger quantities of data, e.g. when making systematic “freedom-of-information” requests (Paulin, 2010). Besides the limited functionality, the development and maintenance of such systems is extremely costly and when systematic changes are needed (e.g. when laws change) a complete new product must be designed.
Instead of web pages and “one-stop-shops”, the network of rights can be managed at the level where the information is stored – ergo at the database. In a previous article (Paulin, 2011) we demonstrated that existing ICT technologies and standards – namely PKCS#7, SQL and the XML technology stack could be used to establish a secure governmental platform that can be accessed by citizens programmatically through a standardized API. The “Secure SQL Server” (SecSS) as we named that technology is capable of managing read/write access to data stored in relational databases based on complex conditions (e.g. a citizen can change the ownership of his land, however only if is not mortgaged).
Providing flexible APIs would free the taxpayer from the costly burden of maintaining governmental portals and at the same time allow the tech-savvy citizen to release their creative potential and provide new and better “apps” to the public.
Transactional management of rights
A pitfall of modern e-Government solutions is that they focus on only one single task or only a predefined set of tasks. Consequently citizens have to deal with heterogeneous governmental web sites that offer access to information or services trough graphical user interfaces that do quickly become obsolete, are frequently useable trough only a limited number of runtime environments (“web browsers”) and offer only a predefined set of services. So-called “one-stop-shops” are no exception in this regard.
Fully transactional e-Gov services are composed of a layered technological stack that encompasses the graphical user interface (GUI) – the web page/form the user interacts with trough clicking and layered electronic interfaces (EI; which are the used hardware and software components), which transfer, verify and manipulate the data according to a coded procedure. After traversing multiple EIs the user’s request (which the user created usually by clicking through the GUI) will reach its final destination as a record in an electronic database in form of a piece of information.
- O'REILLY, Tim (2010): Government As a Platform.
- PAULIN, Alois (2010): Slovenia 404: on the e-readiness of modern public administration. V: M. Mertik (ur.), The proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Information Society and Information Technologies – ISIT 2010. Novo mesto: Fakulteta za informacijske študije
- PAULIN, Alois (2011): S SecSS-om do učinkovite e-vlade / More SecSS for Efficient e-Government (in Slovenian)