Keystone of Internet Democracy

Feb 12, 2013

Internet voting and electronic democracy are today’s go-to inspiration for repairing a broken Parliament. We’re all digital now, more or less comfortably.

There is one keystone idea, largely unconsidered, without which online direct democracy faces insurmountable odds of failure. It is a “big idea”, one the average voter might not have encountered in Microsoft Windows training. It is, curiously, also a very old idea.

The timing to introduce cloud-based government couldn’t be better. We have adopted the habit of doing our own daily despatches boxes, working through the timelines, flows, and inboxes of popular social media platforms.

John Ibbitson (2 February) elaborates on Gavin Newsom’s vision of “Citizenville”, adding radically open public information to our digital life. When there are no hidden answers behind government activities, the need for a caustic, shameful Question Period disappears.

The bigger challenge comes from “sharp and ambitious people” who accumulate power. Newsom foresees that digital natives riding a wave of free information will overwhelm them.

The reality is different: typical online democracy efforts don’t address entrenched power structures well. They simply replace wonks with nerds. “Wiki”-government projects retreat at the first posted swear word, whimpering vaguely about re-evaluating the initiative with key stakeholders.

Digital platforms, and indeed any computing resources, are secured by “giving up privileges”. A computer just beginning to work, right after being powered up, can do anything within the bounds of its hardware.

Each level of primitive software lays the groundwork for the next, carefully restricting and securing resources. Issuing “Like” buttons for web surfers to push is a comparative afterthought.

The few, highly technical administrators and their superiors, not the many end-users, manage these processes. They can also circumvent them.All they need is a very human reason to apply their sharpness and ambition.

By the time the voter gets around to clicking an approval button, the damage is long since done. Voting machines and online questionnaires give dubious results. Enlightening ministerial emails are, inexplicably in this age, “lost”.

Surprisingly, Parliament as-is has long since dealt with a similar challenge. Brace for a little whiplash here: some of the necessarysteps toward digital democracy have examples in hoary old parliamentary history.

A democratic legislature is an exceptional entity unto itself, and, if provoked, it won’t let you forget it. It starts from a foundation similar to the legal fiction of corporations, and adds features necessary to the exercise of responsible government.

Civics teachers and newscasters usually focus on the pageantry of the opening of Parliament to describe them. Each quirky little procedure and ceremony–the election of a Speaker, the knocking of Black Rod, the petulant pro forma bills–has a basis in the rather bloody evolution of democracy. They refresh the privileges that protect democracy from the sharp and ambitious people who often amuse themselves jockeying for power in bureaucracies.

Replace the word “opening” with “bootstrapping”, and the idea comes into focus. The King’s men are regularly found, digitally speaking, swaggering about in the legislative chamber. It is possible to slam the technical door on them.

Citizens who work hardest to practice online direct democracy frequently give up, or even delegate, the technical privileges they need to protect to the administrators who find grassroots initiatives most inconvenient. Bathrobe voters, before they decide on budgets or programs, must retain and manage ultimate, positive control over the platform they share.

Fortunately, commodity digital processing can chop up and redistribute routine housekeeping tasks the way nothing else ever could. Digital democracy does not strictly need to empower self-perpetuating officialdom to get real work done.

It will take another generation to develop the user interfaces, system architectures, and computer literacy necessary to support autonomous digital direct democracy. No matter how thoroughly informed, or how frequently or easily cast our votes may be, this autonomy is a timeless prerequisite that protects the value of the act.