French National Assembly set up a special Digital Committee

In a recent critique of the draft legislation, Wojcicki sought to defend her company’s opposition by claiming: “Creativity has long been a guiding force in my life.”

Overall, the work of rebuilding and transforming government for the digital age is only just beginning. Governments remain organized according to political and bureaucratic imperatives, not according to what makes the most sense to citizens.”  It could be in the light of the recent political developments in France that American and Australian professors Andrew Leigh and Robert Atkinson made this accurate observation. And yet their quote actually dates back to 2001, when scholars early underlined the benefits of citizens-focused e-governments in the article the Next Phase of Digital Government.

Almost 13 years later, the French National Assembly understood the need to tackle digital challenges by setting up an ad hoc Committee on rights and liberties at the digital age. Cybercrime, open data, right to be forgotten, and privacy rules… all those hot topics have already been subject to controversial debates within the French Hemicycle each time Members of Parliament were asked to discuss very diverse legislative proposals, such as the military planning law, the proposed law against prostitution or the bill on geolocation. Until now, however, French legislators were lacking a general approach on digital issues, impeding them to legislate in a consistent manner. This loophole is likely to be filled with the creation of this new digital Committee which met for the first time on June 11 and will continue meeting every two weeks until the end of the legislative period (2017).

When digital innovation drives political innovation

By nature, digital economy is cross-sectorial and in permanent change. In order to understand and discuss the complexity of digital issues, French MPs quickly realized that they should adopt a different way of working than the composition of a usual Parliamentary committee. They decided that the committee will be composed of parliamentarians as well as representatives of the civil society recognized for their expertise in the digital sector. Along with 13 Members of Parliament representing the usual political parties, the ad hoc Committee will then be composed in unprecedented ways of 13 personnalités qualifiées with a particularly high profile. The Committee indeed put together a renowned lawyer specialized in digital economy, Christiane Feral-Schuhl ; the co-founder of the association for the defense of online rights “La Quadrature du net”, Philippe Aigrain ; a telecom engineer, Godefroy Beauvaillet ; a professor, member of the Supreme Council of Literary and Artistic property, Valérie-Laure Benabou ; a magistrate from the Court of Appeal, Myriam Quemener ; a member of the French regulator for Telecommunications (ARCEP) Henri Verdier, and maybe more surprising Edwy Plenel, a famous journalist, president and director of the online investigative and opinion journal Mediapart and former editor of Le Monde. The latter has been recently very vocal in defending a tax regime for online newspapers equivalent to the one in application for printed press.

Once installed, the 26 members of the Committee will elaborate recommendations, define a policy-framework and a working method with a view to publish their first report by spring 2015. They will work transparently and in a collaborative mindset, with the use of online tools to enable citizens to take part in the discussion. The Committee already defined two working paths: the first one on issues related to the protection of private life and personal data, and a second one on digital freedom, such as net neutrality. Among the first controversial topics that the Committee would like to address: the possibility to organize a hearing of Edward Snowden, the former NSA agent known for revealing details of classified US government surveillance program.

A key pioneering initiative?

The French Committee is not exactly a brand-new initiative. The German Bundestag already set up in February a Committee on the Digital Agenda dedicated to “discuss the various aspects of digitalisation and networking from interdisciplinary perspectives, and act decisively to determine the direction of digital change”. The United-Kingdom set in 2013 a Commission on Digital Democracy, but rather with a view to “reconcile representative democracy with the technological revolution”. Hence, the originality of the approach of the French National Assembly is to directly tackle the current hottest topics of digital economy while involving representatives of civil society in its decision-making. This could well inspire other Member States of the European Union, especially as a certain number of European dossiers (and in particular the data protection package and the connected continent package) will require practical implementation after their adoption at EU level.