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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The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 10

In the final chapter of her book, Hélène Landemore addresses a few potential objections to her proposals. I’ll skip over the objections regarding ways in which the Icelandic setup (which supposedly serves as an example where an “open” process functioned well) is atypical of other political situations (e.g., because Iceland is supposedly small or homogeneous). These are not of much interest both because they lack any real merit and because the Icelandic setup is not a particularly good example of a democratic process to begin with. The remaining objections are fairly well known and are generic enough to be aimed at any democratic, counter-electoral proposals rather than specifically at Landemore’s:

  1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers,
  2. Manipulation of the unelected decision-makers by unelected professionals,
  3. Illiberal policies may be supported by a majority,
  4. Systemic unaccountability,
  5. Demands on the time of the citizens.

Most of these objections have been discussed repeatedly on this blog in one way or another. (In particular, all of these objections have been addressed briefly in the series of 4 posts titled “Short refutations of common objections to sortition”.) The comments here relate to how Landemore responds to these objections.

1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers

Landemore puts this objection as follows:

[G]iven the increasing complexity of the world, it is irrational to want to increase the level of openness to ordinary citizens of our central political institutions. In the face of increasing complexity, what we need is increased specialization and division of labor, not putting amateurs in charge (p. 191).

Landemore offers two answers to this argument. The first is that experts should be used as advisors to the amateurs. The second is response the “competence through diversity” argument. But the first argument gets no more than a single paragraph, while the several pages that make the rest of the section offer highlights of the “vast empirical literature” that shows that “political processes and bodies that involve ordinary citizens […] actually outperform processes and bodies that include only experts” (p. 192).
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Proposing and disposing in the real world

A flow chart of the citizens’ jury process for determining compulsory third party insurance in the Australian Capital Territory.

Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland have written some interesting things on the importance of separating the process of proposing policies and that of deciding which ones are implemented. I’ve not thought as much as I clearly should have about this myself, but I’ve certainly noted it as something I should think more about, and as a fertile and possibly indispensable idea in trying to introduce more sortition into our politics.

But, as readers of my posts will know, I’m also keen to leaven theoretical considerations with the question of how we get there. In that regard I’m interested in approaches to this question that are being tried by practitioners in the field, tied as they are to their own practical and political exigencies. So I was interested to read this case study by my friends at Democracy.co of their participation in helping the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government solve its problem of how to .

The essence of what happened is in the diagram above, though you need to read the case study to fully understand the way things were done. Of course this isn’t life according to the strict logic that I’ve seen proposed. For instance the proposer and the disposer are the same citizens’ jury. But I still think what was done was an interesting step forward in articulating practical options in seeking to inject more sortition into political decision making. I’ll be interested in what comments it attracts from this highly informed community.

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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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.
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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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