The Evolving Landscape of Digital Governance

Digital technology systems have emerged as one of the most important organizing structures of contemporary society. As a result, the challenge of governing social systems is increasingly overlapping with the challenge of governing digital technology, the scope of which is rapidly expanding through blockchain-related innovation and a general trend towards automation.

Governance is the process of applying any design feature or control mechanism that maintains and steers a system. Digital governance has a dual meaning. First, it refers to using digital tools to guide and manage personal lives, organizations, markets, and societies. The second, more common, meaning concerns the control and management of information technology (IT) systems: coordinating research and development, deploying and administering the necessary infrastructure, and provisioning digital services. The two meanings are distinct but increasingly intertwined as digital technologies have become instrumental to their own continued development.

Up until now, the key mechanisms of digital governance were spread between five partly overlapping areas:

1. Public sector governance, for example through:

  • Publicly funded research and development;
  • Digitization of public sector services (e-Government platforms);
  • IT-related legal frameworks, policy design, and regulatory interventions.

2. Corporate governance, for example through:

  • Firms that develop and operate digital infrastructure or administer commercially oriented digital service platforms, including the Big Tech companies;
  • IT-related public-private partnerships.

3. Digital platform governance beyond private companies, for example through:

  • Activities of trade associations that lobby governments;
  • User behavior which informs strategic choices by platform operators;
  • Experiments in participatory governance, such as platform cooperativism.

4. Internet governance beyond governments and private companies, for example through:

  • Multi-stakeholder governing bodies such as ICANN, IETF, and W3C;
  • Internet-focused think tanks and policy forums.

5. Free and open source software (FOSS) governance, for example through:

  • Coordinating the development and maintenance of popular FOSS technologies, mainly through formal organizations such as software foundations and private firms, but also informal coordination in distributed online communities.

More recently, although also partly overlapping with the previous five (as well as each other), two additional areas of digital governance have emerged that are worth highlighting. These are:

6. Blockchain network, smart contract, and decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) governance, for example through:

  • Rules inscribed in relevant software protocols (known as on-chain governance);
  • Rules and coordination external to software protocols (known as off-chain governance).

7. Automated governance, for example through:

  • Automated recordkeeping and real-time monitoring and control systems;
  • Automation of mechanical processes, especially in manufacturing, utilities, and logistics.

Combined with the prospect of something even vaguely resembling a generalized Artificial Intelligence, the governance of digital technology systems is no doubt one of the most critical political issues of our time. As the list above suggests, it involves a much broader set of mechanisms than those dominated by national governments and private corporations. Most importantly, it now includes public blockchain networks and smart contract based services which represent a major step towards administrative automation that’s more trust-minimized and censorship-resistant than similar functionality offered through centralized web platforms. [1]

Given the ever-growing stakes in the geopolitics of the Internet, it would be naïve to think that the pragmatism of entrenched interests will magically dissolve when presented with the idea of reorganizing the digital economy in a manner that empowers individuals at the expense of incumbent institutions. In other words, there will be no shortage of Realpolitik in the rapidly evolving landscape of digital governance. But despite the growing discontent and animosity, everyone involved would certainly benefit from a little less paranoia, a bit more cooperation, and a recognition that, on all fronts, there are human beings who have much more in common with each other than they might like to think. The world in the making will be home for them all.


[1] Govbase is a crowdsourced list of projects and tools in online governance. Importantly, it includes not just well-established tools for online coordination such as Discord, Discourse, Google Docs, and Zoom, but also many projects in the rapidly growing field of blockchain networks and smart contract based applications which aim to build more user-centric and community-driven alternatives to traditional web services. For more information on GovBase, see this overview by Joshua Tan and Michael Zargham.