Mathews: Citizens’ assembly for democratic governance of the internet

An op-ed by Joe Mathews in The Mercury News.

We need a new way to govern the internet, here’s how to do it
Joe Mathews, May 7, 2021

Today’s methods for governing the internet do not constitute a coherent system, much less a democratic one. Instead, internet governance is a contest for power between the most powerful tech companies, who put their shareholders first, and national governments, which prioritize their own political interests.

In this contest, both sides create the pretense of democracy. Facebook, based in Menlo Park, has created its own “independent oversight” board of global experts, though it’s unelected and chosen by Facebook. The European Union touts its tougher regulation of privacy and the internet — but those regulators are also unelected, and impose their rules on people far from Europe.

Which is why the internet needs a democratic government that operates beyond the reach of tech companies or national government. Such a system must be both local — to allow people to govern the internet where they live — and transnational, just like the internet itself.

I’d suggest that the internet’s democratic government combine multiple forms of democratic governance.

The center of such a government should be a citizens’ assembly — a tool used around the world to get democratic verdicts that are independent of elites. This citizens’ assembly would consist of 1,000 people who, together, would be representative by age, gender and national origin of the global community of internet users. They would not be elected individually, but rather chosen via randomized processes that use sortition (or drawing lots).

The assembly would be supplemented by an online platform that allowed people to report problems, make suggestions, or even petition for proposals that could be voted upon in a global referendum by internet users everywhere. The models for such a platform include Rousseau, the controversial online environment through which Italy’s Five Star Movement governed itself for a time, and Decide Madrid, the online participatory framework that has spread from the Spanish capital to more than 100 cities worldwide.

National governments and tech companies would try desperately to influence this government, but they would not be in charge of it. And each citizens’ assembly would dissolve after two or three years — making it harder for the powerful to lobby it.

Mansbridge: Beyond Adversary Democracy

An interview with Jane Mansbridge in the Harvard Gazette.

GAZETTE: How might we get citizens who are so polarized to listen to one another?

MANSBRIDGE: One proven practice is the technique of citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls. These are groups of citizens drawn randomly, through a democratic lottery, from a particular population. It could be an entire country, a state, a city, or even a neighborhood, from which you bring together a group of citizens to talk about an issue that is of concern to their community. For this technique to be successful, the group has to be random, meaning that you have to have good representation from everyone, not just the white retirees who don’t have much to do and would love to come to this sort of thing. To get a random group, you ought to able to pay the participants because you want to be able to get the poor, the less educated, and people who, for one reason or another, would not give up a weekend otherwise to come together with other citizens to deliberate about some major issue.

GAZETTE: Have you participated in a citizens’ assembly? What was it like?
Continue reading