Council Proposal on ECI’s Digital Dimension Would Severely Damage ECI Instrument!

2018-09-10 News

The option to use individual Online Collection Systems (iOCS) for ECIs is widely adopted by ECI organizers and it significantly contributes to improving the efficiency of the online signature collection in the ECI process. And yet Council has suggested banning iOCS, while the EU Commission and the European Parliament have proposed to maintain the legal option for iOCS. Banning iOCS would imply a lack of choice for ECI organizers and destroy valuable civil society resources that have been developed over the past years. This could result in considerable damage to the digital dimension of the ECI. The online dimension is key for the successful implementation of the ECI instrument, writes Carsten Berg, Director of The ECI Campaign. 

The possibility to collect ECI signatures online across the EU through Online Collection Systems (OCS) is one of the most fundamental elements necessary to making the ECI instrument successful. In practice, most ECI signatures are collected online (more than 62%). Problems with the online collection of statements of support “hamper the chances for the initiative to reach the 1-million threshold of statements of support and consequently the overall functioning of the ECI instrument” (European Commission 2017:  30).  Against this backdrop the Commission has proposed to:  a) maintain the legal provision for “individual Online Collection Systems” (i-OCS); and b) to transform the current Commission OCS into a “centralized Online Collection System” (c-OCS).  In other words, according to the Commission, ECI organizers should continue to have the right to either set up their own i-OCS or make use of the c-OCS. Civil society actors involved in the ECI community agree with the Commission’s position on both counts.

Council’s proposal would tremendously reduce the ECI’s digital dimension as future ECIs would no longer be able to benefit from the digital structures and resources co-created by civil society over the past years. Unfortunately, the Council did not consult stakeholders before publishing its suggestion. First NGOs have already indicated that they would no longer use the ECI if they were unable to make use of the i-OCS known as “openECI”, which is provided by the ECI civil society community to ECI organizers free of charge.

Some History on the ECI’s digital dimension
It is worth remembering that the original Commission proposal for the ECI regulation in 2010 did not foresee any online participation features. It was only thanks to the European Parliament and civil society stakeholders that a digital dimension was ultimately introduced into the current ECI regulation. It is equally worth remembering the immense initial difficulties with the Commission’s OCS in the first years of the ECI, despite huge financial investments of more than one million EUR just for the Commission’s OCS setup. At the same time, formerly responsible Commissioner Maros Sefcovic apologized to ECI organizers and extended the deadline for the first registered ECIs by six months. Thanks to his enormous efforts and with the strong support of Francisco Garcia Moran, then Director General of DG Digit, and Gilles Feith of the Luxembourg government, a temporary solution could be found to the problem of lack of hosting space for the OCS, a solution which is still active today.

iOCS in practice: open ECI
As a result of the above-mentioned difficulties, in 2015 an additional, so-called individual online collection system (iOCs), was set up: openECI. OpenECI remains the only user- and campaign-friendly independent software alternative to the official Online Collection System (OCS) provided by the Commission. It respects all legal ECI requirements, is available in all official EU languages, and has been certified for ECI use by the respective national authority where the server is located. Unfortunately, the Commission does not offer its own servers to i-OCS, which causes extra hosting costs for the server. Despite these extra costs, openECI has been widely used by ECIs since its launch (including the successful ECI ‘Ban Glyphosate’) which is another strong indicator for the demand of ECI organizers for i-OCS.

A vital difference to the existing Commission’s OCS is that openECI has been designed and implemented by IT experts who are experienced ECI campaigners from the ECIs ‘Right2Water’ and ‘EndEcocide’. Using their own campaigning experience, they built the system to include all of the options sophisticated campaigns need to maximize their chances of ECI success and keep supporters’ data safe and secure at the same time. As the system is constantly being used by ECI organizers, openECI is organically updated and further improved. ECI organizers appreciate how flexibly the openECI software can be implemented according to campaigners’ needs. At the same time, the Commission’s software has also been improved, based both on the experience of ECIs as well as on the feedback shared by openECI. Both OCS-communities acknowledge and respect each other, aiming to learn from each other and help build stronger systems for future ECIs.

The simple fact that there are two different systems has a stimulating effect on the digital quality of both systems and thus on the overall development of the online dimension of the ECI instrument. Such a plurality of OCS offers citizens a free choice which can be understood as an expression of “digital self-determination” as it decreases asymmetries in relation to access to digital communication channels. In an increasingly “digital age”, it is important to avoid well-known problems caused by monopolized structures by using online platforms. Such a diversity of OCS is more beneficial to the ECI instrument as a whole than a monopoly structure in which the Commission would exclusively provide a tool and decide on its further development.

Council’s demand for a simplification of the OCS
The Council argues that banning iOCS “would simplify the procedure for both organisers and national authorities”. While it is true that it would slightly simplify this ECI sub-procedure if national authorities would no longer need to certify any OCS, it is important to stress that the administrative work connected to certifying has been very modest and negligible compared to the damage that would be caused by a ban on i-OCS. In practice, next to Luxembourg, only Germany has certified an Online Collection System (in total only ten times within six years).
There was one attempt to certify an iOCS in Italy but the competent national authority could not deliver (see the report here). A recent EP study on the implementation of the ECI has confirmed that the Member States’ administrative investments in ECI implementation are generally low: “the administrative costs for the ECI are marginal at the EU and Member State-level” (EP Commissioned ECI Study 2018: 40).

One significant way to simplify the certification process and to reduce the administrative burdens for Member States (and for ECI organizers) would be to revise the technical rules of i-OCS . These rules are laid down in a technical Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1179/2011. Proposals in 2015 by the Austrian, German and Luxembourg governments to improve and adjust these technical rules for i-OCS and the Commission OCS have not yet been implemented. However, the current Commission proposal explicitly opens an avenue to modifying this.

Conclusion
From the information presented above one can conclude that individual online collection systems increase the efficiency of the ECI as a whole in two dimensions: a) the technical aspects of the OCS are specifically improved according to ECI organizers’ needs; and b) systemic improvements emerge and lead to increased OCS quality; thanks to the diversity and healthy competition of digital approaches, overall progress in the online collection systems is fostered.

Generally speaking, there are reasons to have the certification procedure of an OCS centralised (instead of 27 authorities being on stand-by), as long as it does not mean that there is only one official centralized OCS, which would abolish the freedom of choice of ECI organizers and destroy the existing ECI digital infrastructure already produced by civil society based on iOCS.

In practice, i-OCS are actively used by ECI organizers. Since its inception in 2015, more than 30% of all launched ECIs have used iOCS with an increasing trend. There is not only a clear demand for i-OCS on the part of ECI organizers, but there is overwhelming support from citizens. More than two-thirds of the participants in the Commission’s public consultation asked to keep the i-OCS as an additional option next to the centralized OCS provided by the Commission (Commission Staff Working Document: 34). This is the right approach to further develop and exhaust the ECI’s digital potential in the future with stakeholders in the field.