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?
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My Turn: On citizens’ assemblies

Dennis Merritt, a resident of Shelburne Falls, writes in the Greenfield Reporter (keeping Franklin County informed since 1792!):

Judith Truesdell’s letter on immigration reform [“Illegal immigration”, April 24] made me think more about a friend of mine’s opinions on citizens’ assemblies, a form of sortition.

What’s sortition? It turns out the Athenian Greek democracy did not elect representatives. Instead they were chosen at random from the population. That’s sortition.

For some, the very fact that we elect our representatives is at the core of the problems with our government today. They argue that if Congress were made up of randomly selected individuals, who are demographically representative of the country, rotating through fixed terms, then a lot more would get done, and get done better.

Why? Because the representatives would focus on the issues, not the visibility of the issue and how it affects their fundraising and chances for re-election.

That’s clearly not going to happen any time soon, but there is a variation on the idea that is happening in places and could happen on a national level. It’s called citizens’ assemblies.

A citizens’ assembly is a group of randomly selected, demographically representative individuals brought together to address one particular issue, hopefully to make law, but at least to make recommendations. These could be relatively large groups. They would take input from various stake holders and experts. After making their decision, they would disband.
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New Zealand: Fresh water requires fresh ideas

Nicolas Pirsoul, Policy Analyst and Research Assistant, and Maria Armoudian, Lecturer, Politics & International Relations, both at the University of Auckland, write:

While the primary industry sector undeniably plays a key role in New Zealand’s economy (5-7% of GDP for agriculture), its true contribution might look quite different if environmental impacts – and freshwater quality in particular – were taken into account.

Currently, New Zealand taxpayers shoulder the heavy cost of lax oversight and regulation of freshwater. While the public is aware of the issue of freshwater quality, arguably there is less awareness of the democratic deficit contributing to the problem.

In a liberal representative democracy such as New Zealand’s, political decisions result from elections. The three-yearly electoral cycle, however, tends to encourage symbolic politics geared towards winning votes rather than generating long-term solutions to complex problems like freshwater quality.

In 2017, for example, Labour campaigned on cleaning up our waterways. Its eventual plan, “Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated“, appeared promising but is ambiguous and short on detail or substance. Some of the promised reforms have since been delayed.

Elections won’t help

With no real mechanism for public participation beyond the next general election or non-binding public consultation and submission processes, New Zealanders are left largely powerless.
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Rebooting Democracy candidate is running for Cambridge city council

Keith Garrett, co-founder of the Rebooting Democracy party (named after Manuel Arriaga’s book), is running for Cambridge city council. He was interviewed by Alya Zayed.

[Rebooting Democracy] puts forward a system whereby decisions are made by randomly selected members of the public, who discuss and deliberate the issues before coming to a decision, like a jury – a process known as ‘sortition’.

[Garrett] said: “I’ve stood before for the Green Party and nothing has changed. One of the key things in my life is climate change – although it’s not the focus of my party. I did everything I could and it makes no difference because you’re essentially trying to appeal to people in charge who have a set of vested interests. They’re career politicians. They’re interested in keeping their jobs and staying in that party machine.

“But actually, if you directly devolve decisions to a group of people, you give them true power, and it would solve most of our big world ills, like social inequality or climate change.”

He added: “You have deliberation, you talk, and you listen to each other. It’s ‘optimise’ not ‘compromise’. It’s about trying to find the best decision, not just the one that keeps everyone happy.”

If elected as councillor, he plans to use this kind of thinking to change the council’s decision making process.

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Not a one-off threat

The Morning Star is a UK newspaper which describes itself as “a reader-owned co-operative and unique as a lone socialist voice in a sea of corporate media”.

In a recent editorial it writes:

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) have raised the profile of the climate emergency, forcing politicians to acknowledge it. [But the] link between environmental action and anti-capitalism is one movements like XR have been reluctant to concede.

This probably stems from a desire to appeal to the broadest possible coalition willing to take action, but it is self-defeating.

Green parties that have reached the mainstream through accommodation with the capitalist system in Germany and Ireland have become pillars of the centrist, liberal and environmentally catastrophic status quo.

One approach to circumventing this promoted by XR especially is the Citizen’s Assembly, a representative body chosen by sortition (as a jury is, rather than by election) that stands outside the political system and would be tasked with decreeing solutions to the environmental crisis.

The suggestion has one key merit, in drawing attention to the inability of our current political structures to meet the biggest global challenge of our time.

But it falls into the trap of viewing climate change as a one-off threat that can be seen off independently of our political and economic system, rather than a process driven by the economic system itself.
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Waserman: What the Convention has brought to us is different from what government or Parliament would have produced

Sylvain Waserman is a representative from Bas-Rhin and the vice president of the French National Assembly. He is a member of Macron’s party, LREM. He published the following piece in the French Huffington Post.

The Climate Convention: a democratic innovation or a sign of crisis of the representative system?

The citizen climate convention tests our democratic model. It was born in an atmosphere of general skepticism, or even worse, a certain condescension. We kept hearing that sortition has no democratic legitimacy and that its place is only in the history books under the heading “Ancient Greece”.

Today the situation is quite the opposite: no one doubts anymore the value of the proposals formulated, and the only question is about knowing how those proposals will be implemented and if they are going to be implemented in full.

When the so-called “climate and resilience” bill arrived at the Assembly, numerous deputies expressed irritation and some opined that this signaled another decline in the status of Parliament and a negation of the role of its members.

Following the example of the citizen members of the Convention

Let’s be clear: what the Convention has brought to us is different from what either the government or the Parliament would have produced in a classic legislative process. Surely it is more audacious and truly different. Let’s have the humility to recognize that and the intelligence to see that as a virtue rather than as an affront. The best example is the text for the amendment of the first article of the Constitution. Few among us would have spontaneously proposed the bold formulation adopted by the Convention: “France guarantees the preservation of the environment and of biodiversity, and the struggle against global warming”. The term “guarantee” is vertiginous and could open the door to questions of constitutional priorities, leading to complex issues and giving constitutional judges wide discretion in invalidating laws which would not respect this guarantee. Indeed: Nicolas Hulot, a sincerely committed environmentalist, had proposed constitutional reforms that are judicially less risky and more convenient legalistically, such as “France acts in order to” or “committed to promote”.
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Democratic lotteries featured in FastCompany

Democratic lotteries and our organization, of by for*, were recently featured in a piece in FastCompany. The article introduces selection of representatives by lottery, the history in Athens, Democracy R&D, and our recent Citizens’ Panel on COVID-19. It will be followed up by a ‘World Changing Ideas’ podcast episode within the next month.

Excerpt below and full article here: What if we replaced elected politicians with randomly selected citizens?

For Cronkright, drawn-out election cycles—filled with stump speeches, attack ads, and super PACs—are dysfunctional. The candidates are often “slick and vicious performers” trained to put on a show and say the right things, who spend most of their time fundraising. “We are awarding power to those who can win, and keep winning, cutthroat popularity contests,” he says. When elected, many politicians are then at the whim of parties, lobbyists, and corporations and don’t have personal incentives to make the right decisions for the average Joe. “To me, they’re the least qualified bunch to represent us,” he adds.

Real representation can only be achieved by putting ordinary people in charge of governing. That means “representatives” should reflect the greater population’s demographics, but also its struggles, fears, hopes, and values. These people would be accountants, waitresses, engineers, business owners, single mothers, and students, who are actually affected by the decisions they make for everyone. “If they sink the ship,” he says, “they, too, are going down.”


Lotteries instead of point-scores on exams: A great quote from Peter Stone

A story in the Irish Times (25th Feb 2021). This is a paywalled link. The full text of the article appears below.

The Leaving Cert is not fair. Why not just replace it with a lottery?
Joe Humphreys
Unthinkable: We can no longer plead ignorance of the inner workings of our State exams

‘I think recognizing the wider role luck plays in society is very important,’ says TCD political scientist Peter Stone.

The Leaving Cert has had an untouchable status in Irish life. It may be a brutal memory test but it is our brutal memory test – a rite of passage nearly as old as the State itself.

In the past 12 months, however, the bonnet has been lifted on this national treasure and we can no longer plead ignorance of its inner workings. The attempt to manufacture a distribution of grades under pandemic conditions equivalent to those produced by the annual exams has spotlighted long-running questions of fairness.

As a test of ability, the Leaving Cert is fair in the narrow sense that a bobsleigh race between Jamaica and Norway is fair. Contestants do not start with the same advantages, and the format – which lends itself to a parallel grinds industry – gives an extra edge to students from better-off families.

However, there’s a second matter of fairness surrounding the appropriateness of using the Leaving Cert to determine who gets what college places. This must be considered against the backdrop of stark figures showing that, on average, a third-level graduate earns much more over her or his lifetime than a worker who doesn’t have a degree – at least €100,000 more, according to one conservative estimate.
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Chevallier: The chic populism of participative democracy

A column by Arthur Chevallier in Le Point is yet another condemnation of the allotted committee monitoring the French vaccination campaign. The author sees the creation of the committee as a sign of weakness and hesitation. The government, he asserts, must act resolutely and dispose of attempts to over-communicate.

Chevallier is an editor at Passés composés and the author of the book “Napoléon et le Bonapartisme” published by Que sais-je ?.

The chic populism of participative democracy

Jan. 5, 2021

The allotment of 35 citizens to follow the vaccination campaign was aimed to be the perfect exercise in communication. It turned out to be the opposite.

Democracy is not about weakness. It is not about the promotion of amateurism. The creation of a committee of 35 allotted citizens which is supposed to follow the vaccination against Covid-19 invited mockery. What should have been proof of transparency turned into evidence of failure. If criticising the management of the crisis is less a matter of courage than of cynicism, since the matter is not as easy as it may seems, it is still necessary to denounce the unhealthy attempt to compensate for lack of efficacy by populism. Horizotalization of power is an illusion. Democracy did not gain its prominence by getting amateurs to run complex matters, but rather by its successes.

Without being aware of it, progressivism gives way to a stereotype of recationism. Since the 19th century, an ideology which may be called counter-revolutionary mocks democracy for being “feminie”, attaching to it labels such as the well-known “prostitute”, and hurling insults claiming that it is incapable of creating a powerful and harmonious state. History proves the opposite. Democracy is in fact quite often a radicalization of politics. In antiquity, Athens was at its height of power and imperialism at the 5th century BC, being its age where its democracy attained its most sophisticated form.
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