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Governments Empower Citizens by Promoting Digital Rights

Two local governments have taken steps to make residents aware of their digital rights. Experts argue that cities actually have a responsibility to do so.

Fist made of illustrated light blue squares falling apart at the bottom over dark background.
The rapid rise of digital services and smart city technology has elevated concerns about privacy in the digital age and government’s role, even as cities from California to Texas take steps to make constituents aware of their digital rights.

Earlier this month, Long Beach, Calif., launched an improved version of its Digital Rights Platform, which shows constituents their data privacy and digital rights and information about how the city uses technologies while protecting digital rights.

“People’s digital rights are no different from their human or civil rights, except that they’re applied to how they interact with digital technologies — when you’re online, you’re still entitled to every right you enjoy offline,” said Will Greenberg, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in a written statement. The nonprofit organization defends civil liberties in the digital world.

Long Beach’s platform initially launched several years ago, to mitigate privacy concerns that came out of the 2020 launch of a smart city initiative, according to Long Beach CIO Lea Eriksen. When that initiative debuted, the Department of Innovation and Technology requested the City Council approve a set of data privacy guidelines to ensure digital rights would be protected, setting the stage for the initial platform launch. Its 2021 beta version has now been enhanced to offer information on 22 city technology uses, up from two, and an enhanced feedback module enabling continued engagement and platform improvements.
Screenshot of the Long Beach Digital Rights Platform. A section titled "Technologies" displays several images, like one of a smart lamp post, which can be selected for more information.
Screenshot of the Long Beach Digital Rights Platform.
The platform was created with partners California State University, Long Beach and Helpful Places. The latter made the Digital Trust for Places and Routines Guide App, which the city hosts.

“Start off with hiring great people to work on this,” Erikson said, by way of advice for other governments looking to launch a similar platform. “You have to start somewhere.”

The feedback module, according to Long Beach Data Privacy Analyst Omar Moncayo, was a priority for the city, as it empowered constituents with the ability to continually improve the platform and enhance their understanding of the city’s emerging technologies.

Another key part of the community engagement that informed the platform’s creation is city-conducted data walks, allowing residents to interact with smart city technologies the city is using in specific Long Beach neighborhoods — downtown, north Long Beach and Cambodia Town — to bring in perspectives from diverse communities. Another data walk is coming soon to west Long Beach.

Moncayo said the platform will be continually updated to include newly implemented external-facing technologies. The city is working to improve the user experience of its landing page, to reduce scrolling and relay information in a user-friendly way.

Working with the community and better understanding its needs and concerns enables the creation of a targeted transparency campaign, he said, to help combat mistrust in government. People may use the platform to learn what data their government is collecting and to what end.

Digital rights experts like Greenberg have commended the platform’s creation. Smart city technologies like cameras and public Wi-Fi hot spots can, he said, collect massive amounts of data — and raise questions about what’s taken in, how long it’s stored and who has access.

“To protect people’s rights, cities must provide transparent answers to these questions, and provide democratic control over how they’re governed,” Greenberg said.

He pointed to Long Beach’s Digital Rights Platform as a good example of answering most of those questions and providing civic transparency. He did note that there is room for increased transparency on this platform.

Boston, Mass., and Charlotte, N.C., have also partnered with Helpful Places to increase transparency around technology use, but this isn’t the only way cities are promoting digital rights.

In December, officials in Amarillo, Texas, passed a resolution providing a Digital Dignity, Rights and Privacy policy.

Rich Gagnon, CIO and assistant city manager, said work on the resolution began a year ago, sparked by a couple of reasons. First, he underlined an unprecedented change in the rate technology advances — not only with AI, although that has been a factor. Second, Gagnon said, his private-sector background showed him the importance of having a safe space for innovation — in government, that safe space must be created for residents.

“Everything is moving quickly,” Gagnon said. “So, how do you manage and adapt and adjust that rate of change — particularly in a local government context?”

The question, he said, drove the city to create a human-first framework to address changing technology needs, so innovation can happen using a safe, human-centered approach. To create it, Gagnon worked with a group called Digital Rights House — but directly with residents, too, to understand their concerns.

AI was a common one, which city officials looked to address as they roll out an ERP system that uses machine learning and an embedded generative AI tool on its website.

But residents also raised concerns about data security and sharing, and how the city is collaborating with other levels of government. With trust in government at an all-time low, a big part of the work, Gagnon said, is building trust through transparency, to create what he called a “conversational city.”

“How do we create an ongoing conversation with our residents?” Gagnon asked, underlining the importance of a continuous communication loop.

To make citizens aware of the resolution and how it will affect them, Gagnon is working with local groups that support tech innovation — and those that do not — to mitigate concerns. And at an organizational level, the city has restructured the former communication department, which now houses project management and engagement teams together, so innovation is done transparently.

For Amarillo, the resolution is the foundation for digital rights work. The city has also launched a Digital Navigator program and is educating residents on digital literacy. And to reach all residents, since Amarillo has a significant population of refugees, the program will have a focus on serving those populations’ unique needs.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.