The internet’s age of assembly is upon us

Ehud Shapiro in the Financial Times: “In 20 years, the internet has matured and has reached its equivalent of the Middle Ages. It has large feudal communities, with rulers who control everything and billions of serfs without civil rights. History tells us that the medieval era was followed by the Enlightenment. That great thinker of Enlightenment liberalism, John Stuart Mill, declared that there are three basic freedoms: freedom of thought and speech; freedom of “tastes and pursuits”; and the freedom to unite with others. The first two kinds of freedom are provided by the internet in abundance, at least in free countries.

But today’s internet technology does not support freedom of assembly, and consequently does not support democracy. For how can we practice democracy if people cannot assemble to discuss, take collective action or form political parties? The reason is that the internet currently is a masquerade. We can easily form a group on Google or Facebook, but we cannot know for sure who its members are. Online, people are sometimes not who they say they are.

Fortunately, help is on the way. The United Nations and the World Bank are committed to providing digital IDs to every person on the planet by 2030.

Digital IDs are smart cards that use public key cryptography, contain biometric information and allow easy proof of identity. They are already being used in many countries, but widespread use of them on the internet will require standardisation and seamless smartphone integration, which are yet to come.

In the meantime, we need to ask what kind of democracy could be realised on the internet. A new kind of online democracy is already emerging, with software such as Liquid Feedback or Adhocracy, which power “proposition development” and decision making. Known as “liquid” or “delegative democracy”, this is a hybrid of existing forms of direct and representative democracy.

It is like direct democracy, in that every vote is decided by the entire membership, directly or via delegation. It resembles representative democracy in that members normally trust delegates to vote on their behalf. But delegates must constantly earn the trust of the other members.

Another key question concerns which voting system to use. Systems that allow voters to rank alternatives are generally considered superior. Both delegative democracy and ranked voting require complex software and algorithms, and so previously were not practical. But they are uniquely suited to the internet.

Although today there are only a handful of efforts at internet democracy, I believe that smartphone-ready digital IDs will eventually usher in a “Cambrian explosion” of democratic forms. The resulting internet democracy will be far superior to its offline counterpart. Imagine a Facebook-like community that encompasses all of humanity. We may call it “united humanity”, as it will unite people, not nations. It will win hearts and minds by offering people the prospect of genuine participation, both locally and globally, in the democratic process….(More)