I have been playing around with the idea of a “distributed democracy” for some time. Below is a cache of a wiki I was running to collaborate on some related ideas, generated through discussions with loads of wonderful contributors. This is just a backup and not a live project at the moment. I will likely write up the idea more usefully when I have some time 🙂
Welcome to the Distributed Democracy project! Imagine a non-geographically defined legitimate body to represent our online lives, define and protect our rights online and engage on international dialogue (such as treaties or trade agreements). The Distributed Democracy is an ambitious project to collaboratively build a useful, functional, constructive, transnational and sustainable model of democracy that leverages the new technologies available to us to respond to the common challenges facing people online, regardless of where they live.
The Distributed Democracy is an ambitious project to collaboratively build a useful, functional, constructive, transnational and sustainable model of democracy given the new technologies available to us and the common challenges facing people online, regardless of where they live.
Below are some pages set up to explore specific ideas and facets of the model, and if anything is missing you can add new pages, but where possible please do contribute to existing pages and add to the discussion pages where you have a question, disagreement or anything else to add.
If you would like to add your thoughts more generally on this project, you can contribute to the Society 5 blog, a sister project exploring the part, present and future of human society, and looking to better define the characteristics of current iteration in society.
What could a distributed democracy for the online society actually do?
It goes to the heart of the question, what is government for? For some it is a mechanism to make and uphold laws. For others a mechanism for regulation, or a means to achieve a baseline quality of life for all citizens. Governments around the world are quite diverse in scope and implementation. Perhaps this entity does not even fit the term “government” but it is a fun thought experiment to consider what a government should be.
For example, Lincoln proposed that “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”
Perhaps it could define and uphold a set of online rights or a list of technical characteristics of the Internet that, if meddled with, undermine the integrity and opportunities of the Internet for all people. Perhaps it could represent the interests of the online community in the international sense, negotiating with other governments and the United Nations. Perhaps it could play a watchdog role, holding organisations of all persuasions to account when they cross the line.
Perhaps it could even advocate for the democratisation of organisations that run core Internet infrastructure, like ICANN. It is unlikely such an entity – especially if it was to be a purely virtual construct – could replace a geophysical goverment entity. After all, someone still needs to provide offline services to people, such as roads or law enforcement. But such an entity might be able to similarly support and provide services for our online lives. This is a good time for the thought experiment.
Perhaps such an entity could be a level of government *above* existing geographically defined governments? Below is a list of ideas.
- Maintain a working definition for the technical and social characteristics essential to the Internet.
- Monitor and report the actions of governments, organisations and individuals around the world according to the declaration of online rights. Like a watchdog for online citizens.
- Actively engage with governments and organisations around the world to advocate on behalf of online citizens.
- Gain UN recognition as a legitimate representative body and gain access to international decision making and actions.
- Engage in international dialogue, treaties and agreements on behalf of the online community.
- Lobby for the running of – and then democratically run – core Internet infrastructure (such as ICANN).
- Provide tools and instruction to citizens to uphold their rights online.
- Create obligations and civic responsibilities for members of the online community for interacting wholesomely with others outside the community.
The are several fundamental technical and social characteristics of the Internet that make it the tool of social empowerment, economic opportunity and egalitarianism we know today. As such, it is these characteristics we must seek to define if we are to avoid the Internet being locked down, if we are to protect the opportunities and freedoms we currently enjoy online.
Given that the Internet distributes to all people online the capacity to publish, monitor and even enforce, individuals are more empowered than ever to demand our own rights online. This is a sobering thought and no doubt one that haunts traditional shapers and enforcers of society.
There are already several attempts to define a set of rights online, or “digital rights”. However, without the adoption of such principles by an entity, let alone a legitimately representative entity, they have tended to remain on the shelf. This project is not meant to recreate the good work that has come before, but rather to stand on the shoulders of giants and implement these ideas for the betterment of society.
The Internet is not a compromise between commercial interests and governments. It is not a problem that needs to be fixed, an environment that has to be tamed, or a place where efforts against our basic freedoms are any more acceptable than in any other aspect of our lives.
We will engage constructively and, if we must, disruptively, with governments and organisations around the world to support, protect and promote the essential technical characteristics of the Internet and the rights of its citizens.
The Internet is our home, our workplace, our community and our platform for living. We utterly reject any efforts to compromise the technical and social integrity of the Internet, and we pledge our support and protection for all current and future citizens of the Internet.
Essential technical characteristics of the Internet
- Open standards – open technical standards for connection and data exchange is a core aspect of the Internet, ensuring the capacity to communicate across different systems and platforms.
- Common access – once a connection is made online, core aspects of the Internet are common to all (such as root name servers and communciations protocols), and thus access provides a common experience, unless specifically tampered with or configured otherwise. This commonality is important as it creates the capacity for people to connect with information and each other across the globe.
- Peer to peer – the Internet isn’t a hierarchy, it is an enormous number of machines that talk to each other as peers, albeit usually configured to use a common addressing scheme. This feature of the Internet means people can connect, publish, share and collaborate.
- Routing around damage – the distributed nature of the Internet means there is the capacity to work around any failure in the system. This feature of the Internet becomes particularly profound when “damage” includes censorship or any other form of tampering, but it also has led to an embedded social expectation that people should be able to access what and who they want online.
- Massively distributed network – the Internet is designed to have no single point of failure, with many redundancies built in. This approach of a massively distributed stable platform for communications has led to the establishment of massively distributed online communities that traverse almost all traditional barriers to communication, and has brought the world much closer together.
- Multi-source networks of trust – part of having a massively distributed network is the availability of multiple sources, especially when there are failures. As a society we can actively seek out information and other people online and we have the ability to find multiple sources, or indeed first hand sources of information. As such as we can compare and contrast with “official” reports, and establish our own understanding of a situation. Over time we establish networks of trust for people, sources and platforms, which we use to prioritise and contextualise information.
- Platform independence – Internet communication protocols are necessarily independent of the hardware and software stacks involved in being online, which means communications online are independent of your choice of device, hardware or software.
The declaration of online rights
Below is a set of online rights that we, as online citizens, should be able to expect and indeed uphold. Please note, it is inevitable some of these will conflict, it is about balancing the best possible set of expectations:
- The right to anonymity, pseudonymity and the choice to divulge as much or little personal information as we choose.
- The right to an uninterrupted connection online, free from any and all human threats of disconnection.
- The right to freely express, publish, debate and distribute knowledge.
- The fundamental right to observe and the share your observations.
- The right to freedom from persecution, discrimination, intimidation, lock-in and being held to ransom.
- The right to determine the use and access to personal content and information, including the right to export data to another platform or download for perpetuity.
- The right to choose a clean feed, that is, a connection and software that is not filtered or otherwise manipulated to expressly change the online experience of an online citizen.
- The right to free association without persecution.
- The right to hold others to account for their actions or deeds, especially with respect to this charter.
- The right to be free from surveillance
- The right to be free from data retention
- The right to be free from retroactive data mining and data policing
- The right to symmetric data rates without discrimination (aka – no difference betweenn upload and download speeds, especially given modern communications infrastructure like fibre where the arbitary limitation is unnecessary)
- The right to reasonable affordable connectivity rates, especially when public funds are used in private infrastructure
- The right to tell mathematical truths without restrictions – (encryption related)
- The right to use strong cryptography and to have sources of cryptographically strong randomness
- The right to assist others in resisting violations of any of these principles
- The right to have surveillance and censorship systems revealed to the public
- The right to be free from government and corporation actions that compromise or intercept your personal electronic and other computing devices
- The right to privacy of metadata (such as location, browsing history or email recipients) – metadata is content; metadata in aggregate is sensitive, private and powerful content and should be protected
- The right to participate in shaping the future of the Internet – democratising the running of core Internet infrastructure
Citizenship of this entity would be an important element to it’s legitimacy, relevance and scope. Many countries don’t allow dual citizenship per se which may be a challenge. However, this citizenship need not be exclusive. What benefits the citizenship provides depends on the ccope of the entity. Perhaps a citizenship would mean simply participating in the democracy, or having your online rights recognised and advocated for.
What would it mean to be a citizen? What rights and responsibilities would it entail? How could such a citizenship be useful to the mainstream community? How could we balance anonymity/pseudonymity and legitimacy, aka – how could we avoid the system being gamed?
The structure of this entity will depend somewhat on the roles and responsibilities collaboratively agreed upon. Below is a draft that might suit a range of outcomes. Ultimately the model would be a good reference implementation of “open government” so the citizens could at all times have transparency, engage in the process and hold each other to account.
It would be nice if every citizen could play an active role in every part of such an entity, but every community has leaders and if this entity is to be functional in achieving it’s roles and responsibilities, it might make sense to have an elected executive that is paid to fulfil this role full or part time. By balancing a representative democracy with a strong system of accountability, transparency and participatory democracy, we can possibly get the best of both worlds.On the other hand, a [[leaderless democracy]] may be possible in this brave new world; so we should not prejudge the necessity of a hierarchical organization and see what it takes to run this by [[consensus]].
Even though this entity is purposefully landless, unbound by geopolitical borders, it may make sense to have some form of representation from countries around the world to ensure this is a globally representative body. Or perhaps given the virtual nature of the Distributed Democracy it would make sense to have proportional representation according to some technical criteria; however, most technical criteria are heavily weighted towards the United States, whereas the vast majority of Internet users are now outside the United States. At the same time, it would probably make sense to have a popular vote for representatives. On the other hand, it may not be necessary to elect representatives; and instead, simply have a chart of the numbers of representatives from each of the global national areas.
A system that could ensure both regional and diverse representation and a popular vote could be useful, but might not need a popular vote. In this way, a governing body that consists of either two houses, or a combined house, could probably work; or else there need be no governing body, but instead rely on leaderless participation.
Do we need global representation? Would a simple first-past-the-post popular vote be enough? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of trying to get some representation of different parts of the world?
House of Representatives
Model 1: statistical electorate division based on citizenship and location
As people join the citizenship, the number of and split of representatives could be based on the citizenship itself, with a minimum number of people per “electorate” as defined by their geospatial location. Then citizens would nominate and elect from their defined group. This would inevitably cross traditional geopolitical lines, but perhaps it more true to the idea of a boundary free community. It would need to be defined prior to each election balancing enough time for citizens to join with reasonable time for people to nominate and campaign for their electorate.
This model would require a strong outreach component to raise participation of and engagement from all demographics and parts of the world, else risk being too skewed towards one section of our community.
Model 2; regional division based on country or population unit.
This model would use global population information to define how many representatives per country or per unit of population in a defined space (such as defined by landmass or population density). Citizens would nominate and elect from their electorate and would likely need to be assessed prior to each election to ensure as best a representativeness as possible given changing world populations.
This model would be very hard to achieve, and would end up with strong representation from heavily populated communities that may or may not be online. This model would however be more representative of the entire world which may be useful in forging the shape of the Internet for all people, not just those already online.
Many democracies in the world balance proportional representation with a body of oversight, for example a Senate or House of Lords. Such a body could be drawn from a popular vote to get the most globally trusted people to collaborate with and oversee the work of the representatives. This could be simply a popular vote from all candidates globally.
The remit decided upon for this entity will somewhat dictate how the executive is structured. It is not unrealistic to expect that the executive would best serve the citizenship if they are able to commit to a full work programme. Unless we expect tthe executive to be independently wealthy, which would create an enormous barrier to entry for leadership, the executive would need to be paid a salary for their term. This means funding. Please see the [[Economics]] page for discussion and ideas for how this could be achieved, but for the purposes of his discussion, let’s assume it is a given the executive would be funded to maintain a full work schedule over their term.
Should the executive be a popular vote? Be drawn from the representatives? Be separate to the elected body and selected by a leader/president? What model would give us the most functional executive that was transparent, collaborative with and accountible to the citizens?
How would decisions be made? Obviously this would largely depend on the scope of the entity, but in building a model of open government, is any secrecy necessary? If so, under what circumstances, and how would it balance secrecy with accountability? If not, how would be entity deal with other entities always having an edge in negotiations? If everything is done online, how could the system ensure authenticity of interactions, and avoid being gamed? How would citizens engage in the decision making process, and how could you balance due process with the practicalities of getting things done in a timely manner, especially given the pace of online life. If no executive is elected, how can consensus on decisions be made by all citizens?
Theoretically, how could such a model be funded? Does it need funding? If so, how could citizens contribute whilst maintaining their privacy? Would a model of voluntary contributions be sufficient? If citizens of this entity were to contribute funds, they have already been taxed once, what are the implications of this?
Would corporate sponsorship (donations) be appropriate or inappropriate, and how would you balance the conflicts of interest?