Interview. We spoke with Taiwan's digital minister, Audrey Tang: 'The true spirit of "shared reality" is to allow everyone to transcend physical and time constraints and combine virtual and physical realities to create a space suitable for each other.'

Audrey Tang: In Taiwan’s digital democracy, people set the agenda

From the sunflower movement to government, from the development of digital democracy to her recent speech at Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit. Hacker, transgender and digital minister, Audrey Tang is a key figure to understand what Taiwan is today and what it represents, or can represent, on the international stage. Il manifesto met Tang in her office at the Executive Yuan in Taipei.

Minister Audrey Tang, how do the two words digital and democracy fit together?

I filmed a clip about bubble tea in which I explain this in depth. It’s an idea of democracy not as a fixed thing but rather as a social technology that everyone can innovate on. And the thing about digital is that it transcends space and time boundaries, so many concurrent innovations can happen coherently. If it’s about paper-based voting, for example, the latency is long, like once every four or two years. You can’t make people vote through paper every day. But it is just a matter of seconds to ask people to participate in the democratic process online.

Democracy improves as more people participate, you often said. How was Taiwan able to improve its people’s participation in democratic progress and what room for improvement still exists?

By making sure that people set an agenda, not just the government. Because too often online conversations are taken only as a consultative manner, in the sense that the Ministers already set an agenda and they just want input from the public. In this case people that will be affected as stakeholders will still provide some input, but the general public, they don’t really have any interest in that because it’s not immediately relevant. But through, for example, e-petitions and participatory vote attempts, people can set their own agenda, things they consider as important and maybe the government is still not aware of.

For example, 8,000 people petitioned for changing Taiwan’s time zone to +9 citing economical potential benefits, but the common value was that they wanted Taiwan to be perceived as more unique and they wanted people traveling maybe from Beijing to change their watch. But the other side pointed out that it would actually be a net economic loss. We calculated everything and we found out that yes, there would be a recurrent economic loss every year. But both sides of the e-petitioners all agreed that making Taiwan seen as more unique in the world is important. So, we spent our time doing collaboration meetings with both sides and in the end, we understood that maybe we could use the same budget we would have used to change the time zone to promote marriage equality, to make sure that our human rights record keeps improving as it dramatically has in the previous 40 years.

So, we can agree on what the petitioners say, but maybe we don’t agree on their prescriptions. I think this is a good example because it shows that open government means setting priorities on common values, not necessarily on implementations.

What was, and is, the role of digital and technology in fighting Covid-19 in Taiwan?

It plays an assistive role. Of course, the most important things are wearing masks, keeping social distance and making sure contact tracing works reliably. We have contributed, for example last year, by ensuring that people have fair access to masks so they don’t panic. This year we contributed by shortening contact tracing from over 24 hours to less than 24 minutes through an SMS-based system, 1922 SMS. We dramatically shortened the time in which Taiwan reached three-fourths of its people to get vaccinated by identifying people’s vaccine preferences and matching them with incoming shipments. The digital contribution is about making things more swift and also more safe. When people see that they can reliably get access to masks and vaccines they don’t panic. And this is as important as the actual supplies themselves.

In Italy we tend to think that giving more room to digital technologies in fighting the pandemic and using it for contact tracing could threaten privacy. Is this true or can we have systems that are both effective and privacy-friendly?

Of course, we have systems that we call privacy-enhancing technologies. Of course there are technologies that take privacy away but there are also technologies that add back privacy or even design privacy. For example, in Taiwan when you scan the QR code and send a SMS the telephone carrier does not know what those 15 digits mean, they’re kept somewhere else. The QR code maker does not know which venue you frequented and the venue’s owners do not know anything about you because you don’t give any data to them. Through a decentralized or multiparty storage none of the participants have the full data that can reconstitute your whereabouts. Only the contact-tracers can do that in a limited time window. After four weeks all the data is deleted. In this system people don’t have to give up their personal data to more centralized solutions. And of course if you prefer pen and paper and you trust the venue’s owner you can fill a form with your data. So it’s not a top-down thing that takes away choices, digital adds more privacy-enhancing choices.

Do you consider Taiwan a digital sovereign state from a data transmission perspective?

In terms of data transmission, we have traditionally been quite open in the sense that we’re OK to accept the kind of norms that the private sector brings to the table. If it’s a European operator it needs to obey the GDPR’s rules, if it’s an American one it has to follow the APEC cross-border privacy, which is less restrictive. But we don’t say a priori that we prefer GDPR rather than CBPR, so at this moment we have a very diverse situation in Taiwan regarding data transmission.

It looks to me that giants such as TSMC or Foxconn sometimes behave as diplomatic actors, for example in buying the Pfizer vaccine. What is the relationship between the state and the private sector in Taiwan?

The Pfizer case is a very interesting case because they involved not only economic actors but also Tzu Chi, a charity organization. The worldwide legitimacy of TSMC, Foxconn or Tzu Chi could in some cases be higher than that of our representatives, mostly in jurisdictions that do not offer recognition to Taiwan. Those very large multinational social actors or private actors carry a kind of gravitas and weight and, when added to Taiwan’s representatives from the government, affect a more bilateral negotiations status that can affect more effective contracts.

In China we are seeing a crackdown on digital platforms and big tech. Do you think this is the proper word to describe what’s happening in China and what is at stake in this process?

Objectively speaking, it’s a restriction. Those are certain functions that only the state government can do and they don’t accept a kind of co-governing relationship with those technology platforms. They want all the algorithms and digital codes to be obedient to the code of law that has to be spelled out as acceptable from the central government before the coders can actually implement something. So, it’s a way to look at internet governance from a domestic rule by law perspective, which is why sometimes people say China’s internet is a kind of an intranet because it’s missing some inherent values of the internet and a single organization does not peer with other providers and sets up its own rules. PRC is treating the digital space inside the great firewall as an intranet. Great and sophisticated, but still an intranet.

I think what is at stake is the ability to innovate and also something more. I make the example of Doctor Li Wenliang, whose message spread to Taiwan on December 31st in 2019 and literally saved the Taiwanese people because the very next day we started inspections in our airports. But exactly the same message in the PRC didn’t reach the people of Wuhan but rather only the police, who were called to “harmonize” him. Free speech and freedom of assembly are all hinged upon freedom of expression on the platforms that allow a kind of degree of private law and space. I don’t think that any jurisdiction says that this space is unlimited, but if everything needs to be pre-approved then the room for free speech and assembly is greatly diminished.

How willing are Taiwan and its private companies to participate in “democratic digital supply chains” leaving China out in the most sensitive areas such as technology?

In 2014 we already decided that in our 4G infrastructure we needed to be wary not from certain brands or companies but from certain politics. We didn’t ban any brand from the 4G infrastructure, but we were already wary of using brands coming from countries where authoritarian regimes are ruling. Because even if those brands can pass safety inspections, maybe they can be taken over the very next week through non-market forces, and governments can shape their leaderships. In this case we would need to re-evaluate everything, and in the long-term costs would be higher than building our infrastructure with other trusted partners such as Nokia. I think that in Taiwan we have a non-partisan consensus that we should not allow PRC components in our 4G and 5G infrastructure.

Is there a need to have further conversations about other industries and supply chains, for example in semiconductors?

I think that every jurisdiction needs to have its own conversation. I don’t think there is a kind of universal method to set the boundaries. And the boundaries also shift, based on the actual state taking over activities that we see. The limits of the private sector’s freedom are really worsened, or increased, depending on which side of the Great Wall are you staying. Well, let’s say those limits have deepened (a much more neutral word) in the past seven years, so I think that a continuous reassessment is needed.

What role could the metaverse play in digital democracy and diplomacy?

I think the true spirit of “shared reality” is to allow everyone to transcend physical and time constraints and combine virtual and physical realities to create a space suitable for each other. Only in this way can we fully experience the feeling of being present together, and then create the future together to become an autonomous and interconnected “Multiverse.”

Do you believe that Taiwan’s international space and recognition is increasing or decreasing? Can digital democracy work in strengthening Taiwan’s international relationships and partnerships?

There are two things. First is very practical: higher level officials are much more used to videoconference compared to two years ago. Previously, if I was attending a videoconference I usually met younger working level counterparts and if I wanted to meet my real counterparts I needed to travel and sometimes this was not always easy due to some diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. Now my counterparts are willing to make video conferences. So on this standpoint, freedom of movement and freedom to associate with my counterparts has greatly expanded in a very practical stance, also because my counterparts from other countries don’t need to fear retaliations.

In a more symbolic way, I think that Taiwan’s contribution in fighting the pandemic and “infodemic” really showed that there is a chance for democracies to deliver. This is crucial because if you listen to authoritarian governments there is this narrative that says that you need to sacrifice your freedom to assembly and speech for the greater good, especially in this special time during the pandemic. But Taiwan is a great counter-narrative because we didn’t give up any freedom and we did even better on the pandemic front. So people from around Asia and the world could and they did point Taiwan to pressure their governments to not give up democratic values, and this elevated Taiwan’s status.

Do you think that Taiwan’s digital model could be “exported” or applied somewhere else with the same good results?

Everyone who cares about public and digital participation can point to Taiwan as an example. We used to have absolute apathy on political engagement, the government was not trusted, the trust level was below 10% in 2014 and at that time nobody thought that collective intelligence could be a thing. But in seven years we became what people call a people-public-private partnership model. I think that other jurisdictions that maybe already enjoy some civic spaces can make the same commitment and invest in public infrastructures, in the digital realm and maybe within even less than seven years can pay dividends in public trust and participation. And building these infrastructures will also help to view things from a more long-term perspective. The key of long-termism is effective resolutions of positional conflicts in the short term.

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