The revolution is off the chain

Digital democracy bears the potential to revive the ageing form of government and bring power back to the people.

While various movements and thinkers all around the world are trying to make the idea feasible, a technical innovation from the banking sector could help making the breakthrough.

The Problem Why democracy is losing its legitimacy


Democracy is at crisis. 23 years after Francis Fukuyama announced The End of History - and thereby the ultimate victory of liberal democracy - things have gone a little differently from what the politics professor had imagined. After the majority of post-communist states had been treated more or less successfully with a shock therapy of democracy, it is revealed that not all the patients liked the medicine after all.


Russia enjoyed its new economic system but the current government looks like a freshly painted Politburo with exchanged personnel. China gradually imposed quasi-Manchester capitalism, but all executed by an autocratic corrupt elite that crushes every attempt of civil movement. And the Arab spring left one functioning parliament in Tunisia behind; most of the other dictators have been followed by lookalikes or sheer chaos.


There are plenty of reasons for that. Democratic development can take centuries and never follows one straight path. But it is hard to deny that democracy has lost some of its glamour. The USA suffers from an imperial overstretch and its two-party system established a self-reproducing plutocracy that mostly acts in favour of the upper crust. Nowadays, the formerly benevolent hegemony and showcase democracy stands out with an aggressive foreign policy and a deeply divided society, democratically legitimised.


"The modern generation of politicians thinks in four- or five-year cycles"


Meanwhile, Europe is governed by a parliament without the right to initiate legislation. The democratic deficit lately became obvious once again when the technocratic troika, mostly representing German and IMF interests, imposed bitter economic reforms on Greece with extremely little consideration to the people's vote on it. The cradle of democracy seems to have lost its balance.


Western democracies have degenerated over the past few decades because of two main problems: negative selection on its leaders and institutional block. While the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the first half of the last century had an outlook on what happens after they are out of office, the modern generation of politicians thinks in four- or five-year cycles. They say and do everything to assure their reelection.


This has not only led to a dangerous increase in debt because of election sweeteners, but also to an unholy alliance with the economy and media that backs favourable candidates. Short-term thinking is supported by the two chamber-system that either completely blocks important reforms in a lot of countries or waters them down just to completely go the opposite way after a few years when another party is in charge.


While this kind of policy led to economical and political stagnation in the Western world, Chinese autocratic capitalism and Putin's guided democracy had impressive successes which makes those systems more and more favourable for developing countries. Participation of the people seems to be irritating for leaders around the globe at this time. And Western representatives look like hypocrites when they urge for more democracy around the globe: electoral fraud, abuse of human rights and corruption have not only been a Third World problem lately.


A Solution How technology could fix democracy


So what does one do? Being subordinate to benevolent dictators who have more vision and can run long-term policies - but are even more corrupted - does not seem like a viable option. Another way would be an update for democracy. Improve it, instead of restricting it. Take it to the next level. More participation, more transparency and more influence for the people.


The idea of democracy has existed for over 2500 years now but no one has ever taken it to its fullest potential. Even the ancient Greeks, its inventors, only let 10% of the people decide at a time when it was hypothetically possible to include all of them in the decision-making. With the rise of modern territorial nation states, it has become less and less feasible to establish direct democracy. It is simply impossible to have several million people discuss an issue. The solution to that problem was representative democracy - people vote people who have more or less the same opinion to make decisions for them.


But modern technology could solve the problem of assembling a whole country and make the utopia of an all-inclusive democracy come true. The internet makes it possible to let people discuss and decide on any issue, no matter where they are. Digital democracy could give power back to the people and in the most extreme case be the end of professional politicians and parliamentarism. Less welfare cuts? Only one click away. Lower taxes? Send your draft legislation on your way to work. Stay in the EU? Decide during your coffee break.


"More democracy could lead to less democracy"


In theory it really is as simple as it sounds. One just needs to set up a platform similar to Facebook or Twitter, just without cat pics, where everyone has a digital identity and can post, discuss and decide on issues. Westminster Palace, Bundestag or the European Parliament could be museums reminding us of times where we gave all of our power to elected officials every few years, who then abused it. Politicians as the least popular professional group would simply cease to exist - everyone would become one.


In practice the whole thing is more complicated. The biggest issue is most definitely security. There is no such thing as a safe computer system. Every kind of encryption can be cracked, making eVoting a potential subject of massive election fraud. Conventional elections are not completely safe either or as Stalin once said: “It does not matter who casts the votes, it only matters who counts them”. But they are so decentralised and secured that they are only slightly biased, at least in developed countries. Or in other words: one sloppy counter will probably not turn an election.


The second major problem is demagogy. Aristotle already feared slick leaders could negatively influencing public opinion with skilled speech and populist positions. The will of the people is most certainly fallible, the democratic election of Hitler being the best example for that. Giving people, who are inexperienced and uneducated in politics, a say in every matter could make a political system more prone to produce populist decisions. More democracy might lead to less democracy in the end by electing tyrants or abolishing basic rights.


Nonetheless, activists all across the globe campaign for more participation and transparency, a lot of them using the internet for their purposes. Disenchantment with politics and voters apathy have become a problem and literally putting politics back into people's hands by making them vote via their smartphones is a spark of hope to re-engage them.


The Movements eParticipation around the world


The first movement that had considerable success with this was the Pirate Party. It was founded in 2006 in Sweden as a spin-off of the illegal file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay. It aims to reform copyright and patent law as well as to generate more transparency in the political process and more privacy for the citizens. There are currently over 40 Pirate Parties across the globe.


One of the most successful ones is the German offshoot. It currently holds seats in various states in three regional parliaments and one in the European parliament. “Election turnout and the low number of young members show that the current model is just not attractive for many people”, is how former policy coordinator Katharina Nocun explains its success. She was only 26 years old when she got into office and stood for a new generation of activists who wanted do a different style of politics: “If you ask people they consider politicians as trustworthy as car dealers which is really depressing”. Her party wants to change this by giving the people more rights to participate outside the 4-year voting cycle.



"If you ask people they consider politicians as trustworthy as car dealers"


Within the party they are doing this using the digital voting system, LiquidFeedback. It follows the principle of delegative democracy, which is a hybrid between representative and direct democracy. People delegate their vote to one person as they would in a regular election. Normally this delegate would have carte blanche now, but in LiquidFeedback people can withdraw their vote again if they do not agree with the person's voting behaviour on certain issues and give it to someone else. Whether such a system would work on a bigger scale remains questionable though. “For an official election I still prefer the ballot box”, says Nocun who studied Business Informatics, “it has technical problems and it can simply not be guaranteed that it is secret and safe at the same time.”


The Pirate Party is not only about Digital Voting though. “We cannot be reduced only to that topic, it is more than that. It is about the idea that something about the system has to change and to discuss what alternatives we have”, she clarifies. The uncertainty about those alternatives has been one of the party’s biggest problems lately. After an extremely successful start, it failed to get into several regional parliaments as well as the national one. Besides calling for an unconditional basic income, the political goals of the party remain unclear to a lot of voters. Its inclusive nature also does not bode well with everyone - despite most of its members leaning towards the leftist spectrum, some individuals expressed sexist or extreme right-wing opinions.


Katharina Nocun puts the recent problems on organisational deficit: “We grew extremely quickly and could not keep up with that at some point which is why we could not fulfil every hope our voters had”. Apart from that, the party was struggling the political establishment that “opposed every legislation proposal we made” and a rather negative media coverage.



It seems like there are teething troubles in the cradle of digital democracy and some developments have come too early – at a time when the internet was not as integrated into everyday life as it is now. Though it is odd that a technical innovation, which bears such a great political potential, has barely been integrated into the legislative process. Some countries such as Estonia use online voting as an alternative to travelling to the polling station and have digitised their administration. Nonetheless, it is still far from grass-roots decision-making. Usually, political systems adapt to deep social changes and with the digital revolution, it is only a matter of time. However, aside from more interaction on Twitter and some online petitions little has changed.


So why not just give the existing systems more influence? Wybo Wiersma from Oxford University has done extensive research on digital democracy and online social behaviours and found out that the time for delegative voting has yet to come. In one of his studies he concluded that it is too hard to get a critical mass of voters and it would be easier to establish an online advisory board where people could submit proposals and criticism on MP's decisions. Legally it could be embedded as a Fifth Estate that reconnects politics with the public sphere. This could be done through implementing it into existing social medias to reach a critical mass.


Recently Wiersma interned in Westminster for three months to find out if politicians are willing to accept such a system. “There are definitely some people interested in doing something like that”, he speaks of his experience, “but it is complicated, there are a lot of different opinions”. Members of the House of Commons could use it for feedback on their policies. For minor issues at first to see how it works and then for the more important political questions. That would be a start for a hybrid system, which Wiersma personally favours over direct democracy.


And a solution is already on the way on the other end of the world. DemocracyOS - a project started in 2012 by a group of activists, entrepreneurs and hackers in Buenos Aires - is the most successful online platform for citizen participation so far. The platform is quite simple and lets people choose from several issues where they can easily vote between yes, no or abstention. Below the proposal and the vote they can then discuss the topic. The goal is to make it so easy that even your grandmother understands it – something the group definitely succeeded in doing.


What is less easy to understand is the software used in the background. As in every online voting platform safety is the biggest issue. “Neither online voting nor regular elections are safe”, says Mair Williams, one of the researchers on the project. Some theorists claim that it can never be safe enough to be used for elections, “but there has to be a way”, she disagrees. There will always be a spiral of hacking where someone builds an allegedly unbreakable software until another person finds out how to crack it. It is similar to constructing a safe, just in the digital world. So it is actually not so much a question of encryption but of decentralisation.


"The blockchain could not only revolutionise banking but also politics"


In theory it really is as simple as it sounds. One just needs to set up a platform similar to Facebook or Twitter, just without cat pics, where everyone has a digital identity and can post, discuss and decide on issues. Westminster Palace, Bundestag or the European Parliament could be museums reminding us of times where we gave all of our power to elected officials every few years, who then abused it. Politicians as the least popular professional group would simply cease to exist - everyone would become one.


Because what worked for in-person voting could also work its electronic counterpart. The cryptocurrency bitcoin does not only have the potential to revolutionise banking but also politics because of one little innovation: the blockchain. Initially used as a ledger for every transaction in bitcoin, the database could also be used for voting.


In this case decisions and therefore results become encoded and assigned a value such as yes or no. Afterwards they are not stored in a central digital ballot box but in a distributed one. The votes are constantly verified along a chain of computers that can decrypt them using special software or even hardware devices. If someone tries to break this, one link in the chain will notice that it has been manipulated and the whole chain and subsequently, the attempted vote fails. On the most extreme level, an exclusively electronic general election would mean that everyone’s vote is spread on all the computers across the country. Or to say it with Stalin: everyone counts the votes.


This makes the system very safe but also breaks with one central element of democratic elections: secrecy. In an established democratic society people are usually pretty open about their votes but even there it poses a risk of voter intimidation. In young and unstable democracies this could be a knock-out argument. The votes could theoretically be encrypted in a way they are harder to read, but again: there is no such thing as a safe computer system.


At the moment, democracyOS does not want to take it this far anyway. They are still struggling with implementing blockchain in their code. In the meantime they are promoting their idea with considerable success. The existing software has already been translated into 15 languages and has been used in Tunisia for the debate on the new constitution, in the Spanish party Podemos or by various Councillors in the US who want to know what the citizens they represent think.


“For now we are good with that, we see it as a platform for debate and advise”, says Ana Lis Rodriguez Nardelli, who works as a political researcher on the project. “We were unsatisfied about voting every few years and having no influence on what happens between that”, she adds, “we wanted to create a tool where you can engage with your representative and influence their decisions”.


To promote this idea they created democracyOS and also the Net Party. Its key feature is that the delegated MPs have to vote according to the decisions on the online platform. On its first run in the general elections in 2013 the Net Party could gather 1% of the votes in Buenos Aires. “For a start that was pretty good, we got 22,000 votes and the political establishment took note of us”, Rodriguez Nardelli depicts the outcome. Just as the Pirate Party “we do not have the answer to every future political issue, but it is important to use modern technology to tackle the important questions of the 21st century”, she remarks.



So digital democracy really is in its infancy. It looks like it will take several years until systems are technically mature and can be tested on a minor level, such as in local or regional elections. So it needs people who further theorise and develop the concept.


One of them is Reggie Adams. He founded the Humanist Party in the UK as well as a group of developers called Democreators which seeks to find a suitable system for eDemocracy. Different to other movements, he combines technological solutions for voting with clear political ideas. As the name states, the party's manifesto is centred around humanism and is supposed to offer a holistic approach to modern problems including an economic system not driven by growth and policies based on science, for example in environmental issues.


Those values would be defined in a written constitution for the UK called Magna Socia together with the institutional system for the democratic process. To have at least a certain kind of expertise and leadership “people who have proven themselves to be valuable in the legislation and decision-making rise up into one of the several committees”, explains Adams. To get there, their proposals have to be rated positively by other citizens. This is supposed to avoid populism and to kick out extremist ideas. A bit like your Facebook feed, the stuff you usually like comes up again, the rest just disappears.


“To make sure that policies are sufficiently rationalised and intellectualised we have to make sure that they are supported by science, not like nowadays where the policy comes first and then politicians cherry-pick a study to support it”, is how Adams wants to overcome the lack of professionalism in this kind of politics. To assure that every committee has specialists from the academia or the related field of work in it who consult the chairperson.


Anyhow, Adams admits that this political culture would need some time to become established and there has to be proper political education for everyone to realise it. So the party, if successful, would have to take incremental actions to reform the political system. This could be realised by testing it bottom-up from local over regional to national elections as the other movements proposed it.



"Nowadays policy comes first and then politicians cherry-pick a study to support it"


So digital democracy really is in its infancy. It looks like it will take several years until systems are technically mature and can be tested on a minor level, such as in local or regional elections. So it needs people who further theorise and develop the concept.


One of them is Reggie Adams. He founded the Humanist Party in the UK as well as a group of developers called Democreators which seeks to find a suitable system for eDemocracy. Different to other movements, he combines technological solutions for voting with clear political ideas. As the name states, the party's manifesto is centred around humanism and is supposed to offer a holistic approach to modern problems including an economic system not driven by growth and policies based on science, for example in environmental issues.


Those values would be defined in a written constitution for the UK called Magna Socia together with the institutional system for the democratic process. To have at least a certain kind of expertise and leadership “people who have proven themselves to be valuable in the legislation and decision-making rise up into one of the several committees”, explains Adams. To get there, their proposals have to be rated positively by other citizens. This is supposed to avoid populism and to kick out extremist ideas. A bit like your Facebook feed, the stuff you usually like comes up again, the rest just disappears.


“To make sure that policies are sufficiently rationalised and intellectualised we have to make sure that they are supported by science, not like nowadays where the policy comes first and then politicians cherry-pick a study to support it”, is how Adams wants to overcome the lack of professionalism in this kind of politics. To assure that every committee has specialists from the academia or the related field of work in it who consult the chairperson.


And someone on the other side of the globe actually wants to try it. In Australia Max Kaye recently founded the Neutral Voting Block (NVB) which brings together most of the ideas that are out there so far about digital democracy. And he is pretty ambitious about it. After starting locally with a system like LiquidFeedback, the party is supposed to “take over about 75% of the seats around Australia, it is designed to be more or less the only party in parliament”, he states. “If we come to that point, may it be in 25, 30, 40 or 50 years, we can talk about getting rid of the old constitution and start from the ground up”, the young party leader adds. Single-party system? Abolishing the constitution? Sounds a bit like coup d'etat. But the process would be entirely democratically legitimised and the representatives controlled by the people just like in the Net Party.


Kaye also sees blockchain as a crucial tool to realise his ideas. “It would make electronic elections far safer than our traditional system”, he appraises the new technology, “when we count votes now, no two votes end up with exactly the same tally, so in terms of knowing if your vote has been recorded and counted it is absolutely safe”. But it is also far more expensive. For a inner-party system it would therefore not make much sense because there is more trust but “for a national election for example you need that kind of security to make sure it has not been tampered with. And in computer science the only thing we have that can do that is the blockchain”, he assures.


"The blockchain could make electronic elections safer than traditional ones"


But even the blockchain is vulnerable. No one knows if the person who votes is really the one it is supposed to be. Identity theft could be a major threat to the whole concept. “We are trying to figure out a system where the user verifies its identity every time he votes by registering over and over again”, Kaye argues. It would just make the whole process more time-consuming.


Similar to the Magna Socia, Kaye wants to make sure that there is enough expertise by letting people vote the most merited participants on top of a pyramid of delegates. According to the principles of liquid democracy everyone in the pyramid can withdraw their vote if they do not agree with the policies proposed by the person on top. Also there is a federal system where the national leaders can control the regional ones which can subsequently control the local level. To avoid that discussions get stuck on a superficial level, people with similar opinions get put together in groups where they can argue about legislative proposals. So in the end, the system is not too different from a federal multi-party system, it just works on a much larger level and is more easily permeable.


An Outlook Democracy in the 21st century


The integration of this political culture into society could go hand in hand with the further development of the digital revolution. Nowadays it does not seem very feasible that a person working full-time would care to make up its mind about major political issues after coming home from an 8 hour shift. But the progress in automatisation and robotics could lead to a point where human work force almost becomes obsolete so they would have the time to engage in such a system.


It seems favourable to accompany those drastic changes in society with more participation so the people can decide how to distribute the wealth produced by machines. A small elite being the only one with a say in this could lead to social instability. Structural unemployment and demographic change has already become a problem, even in industrialised nations, a more advanced democratic system could be a way to not only distribute welfare but also labour among all social and age groups. The digital revolution also poses certain risks in terms of surveillance and civil rights so it might be better to let the people control their most basic rights by themselves.


At this point it is obvious that digital democracy will need a few years until it can be tested on an official level, given that systems such as the blockchain can be considered safe and it meets the requirements for everyone to understand it and to engage with it. The movements around the world are still small and suffered some setbacks lately. Despite the internet being a global idea they also work too insular at the moment and are not connected as much as other parties. Migration, climate change, terrorism, all the big issues nowadays are global. Digital democracy could not only be a way to give power back to people, but also to let them discuss and decide issues on an international level.


The internet most definitely is not a cure-all solution for every political problems in the world. Such a radical shift also always poses various threats and there is a risk that the rule of the people becomes the degenerate tyranny of a philosopher king in the end. But it also poses a chance for a great change. Great changes have always been accompanied by great violence. It would be wiser to settle those arguments in the digital arena this time.


The Graph Analysing online voting of the future


And this is what the future looks like. Or rather the present. DemocracyOS had a vote on the question whether the internet needs a Magna Carta to preserve its most basic values. The grey dots are the comments, the green dots yes-votes, the red dots no-votes and the yellow ones abstentions on the general question. A green arrow means someone voted positively on a comment, a red one that someone rated it negatively.


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