Digital democracy: overview of attempts at online governance

The internet has changed everything. We shop online, work online, and entertain ourselves online; we find jobs and partners online. It’s even changed the way we interact with our political leaders – you only have to check Twitter at around midday, when the leader of the free world takes to the social media site in his very own “modern day presidential” style. Curiously, it hasn’t yet changed the way we are governed. But that might all be about to change.

Whenever we hear about how the internet is changing democratic practices, it’s usually pretty bad news. From the growth of ‘fake news’ and insecure voting machines, to Russian hackers’ alleged interference in the US election, it’s easy to worry about how the internet can be used to subvert democracy and put power in the hands of a small, tech-savvy elite.

Yet, behind the scenes, the tidings are not all negative. New web-based technologies offer the possibility of modernising and updating existing democratic institutions in the same way that tech has transformed communication and finance.  At a time when fears that millennials have “given up on democracy” are rising, they could offer a fresh means to engage young people with the decision-making process.

In the UK, some digital democracy platforms are already visible. The website They Work For You provides easy access to MPs voting records, so that constituents can assess the extent to which their views are being represented in Parliament, and vote accordingly. The site has been offered as an example of how technology can allow voters to cut through personality-based politics and vote according to the hard facts. In response to recent speculation that Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset, could become the next leader of the Conservative party, his opponents used the site to highlight his voting record on liberal issues like gay marriage, human rights and military intervention.

Crowdfunding, a financing method more commonly associated with independent tech projects, is now being used by politicians to fund political campaigns. Barak Obama was one of the first politicians to adopt crowdfunding when financing his campaign for President back in 2008; this year in the UK, Gina Miller was able to raise £300,000 crowdfunding online for anti-Brexit candidates during the 2017 General Election, while senior politicians Caroline Lucas and Nick Clegg relied on crowdfunded money to finance their political bids (with mixed results).

Websites like Crowdfunder offer the possibility of party funding being placed in the hands of individual voters rather than union bosses or corporate donors, as well as permitting lower-profile candidates access to funding for office. Questions remain as to the extent to which crowdfunding may be monitored and regulated; as with much of the innovation in the digital world, legislators are struggling to keep up. Under current electoral regulations, small donations of the type solicited on crowdfunding websites do not need to be recorded by political parties, meaning that large proportions of crowdfunded finance may be anonymous.

Outside the UK, examples abound of tech entrepreneurs and activists attempting to bring not just politics, but democratic institutions themselves, online. The French platform Parlement et Citoyens and the Brazilian eDemocracia, platforms to crowdsource citizen scrutiny of Parliamentary legislation, are gaining increasing coverage. Both platforms have had mixed results, with some examples of widespread participation but also a lack of interest by citizens on lower-profile issues. There’s clearly a risk with such platforms of “democratic overload” – given the chance to vote on everything, will people lose interest in the democratic process?

A more successful example that may prove a model to follow is that of vTaiwan, a movement set up by student activist and hacker movement G0v following the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014. Significantly, vTaiwan’s use of online collaborative tools has directly led to the passage of multiple pieces of legislation in the past few years: its success at enabling consultation between the public and officials on new regulations for the sharing economy indicate that the legal issues surrounded technological disruption – currently hotly debated in the UK and elsewhere – may require equally innovative solutions.

Digital democracy is not science fiction – it’s happening now, and governments across the globe have their work cut out to figure out how to make it work in their favour. Still, while platforms such as vTaiwan and Crowdfunder pose questions to existing governments, they do not necessarily represent a threat to them.

Currently existing e-democracy platforms accept the fundamental tenets of traditional liberal democracy – they merely argue that principles such as accountability and equality can be better met through new technological media.

Other technologists have more radical ideas. They argue that recent technological developments such as blockchain have the potential to provide the foundation for entirely new political models, as the 19th-century innovations of conscription and mass industrial production paved the way for British democracy.

One recent example of a technology which might change political models is the Australian platform Flux, which aims to “upgrade” existing government structures to enable a new form of “liquid democracy”. The Flux Party put several candidates up for election in the Australian federal elections last year; if the candidates had of won, registered voters would have been able to tell their representatives how to vote on particular policies using a smartphone app. Flux’s key innovation is to prevent voter apathy by allowing votes on policy issues to be traded between voters; for example, an undergraduate student would be able to “buy” votes on tuition fees, in exchange for her votes on pension policy. Flux claims that this will mean that experts will acquire votes on the most pressing issues that matter to them. It is of course subject to the centuries-old criticism that true direct democracy is a conduit to mob rule.

Counter.fund, also blockchain-based, has allowed for the funding of parties far outside the mainstream. In addition to enabling contributors to donate to far-right activists banned from funding platforms, the website sorts the recipients of its donations according to “influence”, in order to form an unelected “High Council”, who – they allege – will serve as a unified leadership body of currently diffuse neo-fascist internet movements. While it aims at becoming a mass movement, counter.fund is far from democratic; it explicitly reassures its supporters that despite the “suspiciously democratic” structure of its crowdfunded model, it is committed to forming a new form of political organisation that lies outside traditional democratic structures, and has been accused of supporting neo-fascist candidates in the past.

Online tech is progressing faster than ever, and governments will understandably be keen to catch up. However, progressives on both sides should proceed with caution. While new technologies may be a powerful tool to permit digital democracy, we must equally be aware of the risks: early adopters of this technology are likely to have been excluded from the traditional, mainstream spheres of politics, and should these platforms offer them a way in, we may be in for a rude awakening.