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Digital democracy is upon us

Roslyn Fuller
Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at fullerr@tcd.ie.
Digital democracy is upon us
When I wrote my thesis on Democracy and International Law, I stated that within the next few decades representative democracy would become obsolete because the internet would enable citizens to debate directly with each other and make decisions online.

This claim was made even before the days of Skype and Facebook, and was greeted in the academic world with much head-shaking over my sweet naivety and incorrigible idealism. Why couldn’t I, as the Lego Movie would have it, just realize that “everything is awesome” as is, and worry about more pressing questions like whether Hegel and Kant agreed on comma usage.

So it is with epic satisfaction that I would like to report that (surprise) I was right. Oh, was I right. Digital democracy is upon us, and, should all go according to plan, you (yes you!) are headed for a level of political empowerment not known since gods lived on Mount Olympus and a flashy chariot was a must-have accessory.

If you think about it, it is obvious. The only reason we elect representatives in modern democracies is that when those democracies were invented, the only way to communicate was face-face, or, in some of the countries where democracy was established after World War II, over the phone. That meant that it was necessary to choose delegates to travel to a place where they would meet other delegates and make the decisions necessary to run the country. Election seemed as good a way as any to ensure that these delegates had to occasionally report back to their constituents, who could thus keep track of whether or not the delegate was doing what they wanted. It did not get any better, because technology to make things better did not exist.

With the internet, however, it is no longer necessary to go anywhere in order to communicate with a large group of people simultaneously. Thus, the need to elect delegates to travel to a specific location and debate on our behalf has fallen away. There is no reason everyone cannot simply do the same from the comfort of their own homes.

If this sounds utopian, consider that several tools are being developed to enable just this sort of online democracy. Some of the more prominent are: Humanity Online, Democracy OS and Loomio. Having crowd-sourced $100 000 and already beta-testing, Loomio, a group of New Zealand activists and programmers, is probably the furthest-along in proving the viability of online decision-making, but all of the projects share common roots in grassroots activism, many taking their inspiration from the Occupy movements and the Pirate Party’s Liquid feedback program. Collective online decision-making means that people decide directly on issues that are of concern to them without the mediating filter of representatives.

People wait to cast their vote at a polling station in the final phase of the general election in Varanasi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 12, 2014 (Reuters / Ahmad Masood)

Necessary changes

In my thesis, I did not argue that this was desirable, but that it was necessary. Why? Consider the plight that we are in in our representative democracies. For one thing, research shows that the more a candidate spends, the more likely they are to win an election. These are clinical analyses conducted over decades in different representative democracies. In fact, a candidate can calculate how much he/she needs to spend in order to win an election with a fair degree of accuracy. Depending on the country and level of government involved, this can be thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.

Systematically, those with the deepest pockets win, and these are simultaneously the people with the least interest in equality and fairness. In some countries, this vicious cycle has been propagated for hundreds of years with predictable results: increased inequality which makes a mockery of democracy’s promises of freedom and opportunity.

Furthermore, it might come as a surprise to many people, but the party that wins the popular vote in an election does not always end up in government. This is because in many cases elections depend on dividing territory into electorates, constituencies, or ridings, and candidates then compete for election in those ridings. The winning party does not need to win votes, it needs to win ridings. It happens fairly regularly (about one-fifth of the time) that the party that wins the election is not the party that won the most votes.

The most famous case is probably the American Presidential election in 2000, where the popular vote was won by Al Gore. That’s right, don’t blame Americans. They did not actually vote for Bush and his disastrous foreign policy which left the United States so heavily in debt - and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis dead.

Pause for thought.

Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor George W. Bush walks around the stage delivering his stump speech to a crowd of 6,000 at a local community college in Benton Harbor, October 27, 2000 (Reuters)

All the more so, when you consider that the third candidate, Ralph Nader, held policies closer to Gore’s than Bush’s, meaning that adding Nader’s and Gore’s votes gives the ‘left’ an even greater advantage over Bush than the Bush-Gore result alone indicates. Just think of what a different place the world would be and how many people would be alive today had we not used a faulty representative system for that vote.

And if an even more pressing argument were needed: technology gives control. It can be used for good or evil. As things are now, technology is a powerful tool, far more powerful than anything the Founding Fathers of the United States could have imagined.

Should this power remain in the hands of centralized governments which have become virtually unaccountable to citizens? Central governments which are, in fact, using that technology to spy on all of their citizens? That way lies a tyranny that would have made Thomas Jefferson’s hair stand on end. There are ultimately only two ways to use technology of such jaw-dropping proportions: to empower or to enslave. To use it to empower means that it must be under control of the people, not an infinitesimally small group of oligarchs that maintains power through a mixture of corruption and statistical manipulation.

I would like to live an empowered life where I get a real say in issues that affect me, and that is why I back projects like Loomio and Humanity Online.

There are still some issues to be dealt with, of course. Loomio is currently used by about 400 people, which means an easily overseeable number. In a larger society, issues like mass media influence (another area where money can buy political power) and system security will need to be addressed. One thing is certain, however: this trend won’t stop. Digital democracy is on the rise and it is going to transform our lives for the better.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.