In 2013, a group of activists in Buenos Aires attempted an experiment in what they called hacking democracy. Representatives from their new political party would promise to always vote on issues according to the will of citizens online. Using a digital platform, people could tell the legislator what to support, in a hybrid of a direct democracy and representation.
With 1.2% of the vote, the candidate they ran for a seat on the city council didn't win. But the open-source platform they created for letting citizens vote, called Democracy OS, started getting attention around the world. In Buenos Aires, the government tried using it to get citizen feedback on local issues. Then, when the party attempted to run a candidate a second time, something happened that made them shift course. They were told they'd have to bribe a federal judge to participate.
"When you see that kind of corruption that you think happens in House of Cards—and you suddenly realize that House of Cards is happening all around you—it's a very shocking thing," says Santiago Siri, a programmer and one of the founders of the party, called Partido de la Red, or the Net Party. Siri started thinking about how technology could solve the fundamental problem of corruption—and about how democracy should work in the digital age.
The idea morphed into a Y Combinator-backed nonprofit called Democracy Earth Foundation. As the website explains:
The Internet transformed how we share culture, work together—and even fall in love—but governance has remained unchanged for over 200 years. With the rise of open-source software and peer-to-peer networks, political intermediation is no longer necessary. We are building a protocol with smart contracts that allows decentralized governance for any kind of organization.
Their new platform, which the team is working on now as part of the Fast Forward accelerator for tech nonprofits, starts by granting incorruptible identities to each citizen, and then records votes in a similarly incorruptible way.
"If you know anything about democracy, one of the simplest ways of subverting democracy is by faking identity," says Siri. "This is about opening up the black box that can corrupt the system. In a democracy, that black box is who gets to count the votes, who gets to validate the identities that have the right to vote."
While some experts argue that Internet voting isn't secure enough to use yet, Democracy Earth's new platform uses the blockchain—a decentralized, public ledger that uses encryption. Rather than recording votes in one place, everyone's votes are recorded across a network of thousands of computers. The system can also validate identities in the same decentralized way.
The platform could be used in a variety of ways. A smaller organization, such the board of directors of a company, might use it for secure voting; the platform can also securely store organizational funds via bitcoin and track a budget. A government might use it for elections or referendums. This fall, Democracy Earth plans to run a pilot when Colombia holds a referendum to approve a historic peace deal between the government and the FARC guerrillas, after 50 years of fighting.
The pilot will record votes from some of the 7 million Colombians who fled the country and can't easily vote in the referendum, along with those under 18 who can't yet legally vote. As a pilot, the results won't be binding for the government, but the platform will give expats and youth a way to share their opinions.
"These two communities are a relevant voice, and we want them to be heard in a process that will be historic to the nation and Latin America as a whole," says Siri.
After the platform is proven, it can be used officially in elections. It could also enable the kind of direct democracy that new political parties like the Pirate Party, in Iceland, are calling for: letting citizens easily vote directly on issues rather than relying only on politicians.
Democracy Earth is especially interested in helping foster a new kind of governance it calls "liquid democracy," where people can delegate their votes on particular issues to people they personally know and trust.
"We're aiming to make the election of representatives a bottom-up process. Rather than electing from a few reality-show candidates that come from top political authorities, we want to engage society to elect among their peers," says Siri. "Anyone—your friends, colleagues, or a politician, if you want that. This model of liquid democracy is appealing to us because it bridges the best of representative and direct democracy."
Governments could use the platform now to help fight corruption. But because the platform is a borderless technology, Democracy Earth also imagines that it could eventually lead to a completely different form of governance. If the nation-state is becoming less relevant in a time when we live much of our lives online, perhaps someday we'll be making decisions together globally as well.
Of course, that will mean that everyone has to have Internet access to participate, but that's something Siri thinks will soon happen. "Especially in Latin America where we work, you have this digital gap of those who are connected and who are not connected," he says. "What we know from the statistics is that this digital gap is not socio-economical, but it's actually generational." One hundred percent of adults under 30 in Argentina, he says, have Internet access—even in neighborhoods where there isn't running water.
"In the long term, 10 years from now, 20 years from now—understanding that politics moves at glacial speeds while technology moves at exponential speeds—we see some point in the future where technology is going to be a fundamental right," he says. "We want to provide the right kind of technology for making decisions online available for everyone."
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