These Online Platforms Make Direct Democracy Possible

New platforms are bringing power to the people.

Tom Ladendorf

Activists around the world are designing tools to bring democracy up to speed. (KMLMTZ66/ SHUTTERSTOCK)

Under the ban­ners of Democ­ra­cy Spring and Democ­ra­cy Awak­en­ing, thou­sands of peo­ple spent April 11 – 18 dis­rupt­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to send a mes­sage: Get big mon­ey out of politics.

'Governments and political institutions haven’t innovated at all.'

Cam­paign finance reform could do a lot to revive Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, but it’s not the only effort afoot to give peo­ple a larg­er voice. Around the world, orga­ni­za­tions from polit­i­cal par­ties to coop­er­a­tives are exper­i­ment­ing with new modes of direct democ­ra­cy made pos­si­ble by the internet.

The world has gone through extra­or­di­nary tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion,” says Agustín Frizzera of Argentina’s Net Par­ty. But gov­ern­ments and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions haven’t inno­vat­ed enough.”

The founders of the four-year-old par­ty have also built an online plat­form, Democ­ra­cyOS, that lets users dis­cuss and vote on pro­pos­als being con­sid­ered by their legislators.

Any­one can adopt the tech­nol­o­gy, but the Net Par­ty uses it to let Buenos Aires res­i­dents debate City Coun­cil mea­sures. A 2013 thread, for exam­ple, con­cerned a plan to require bars and restau­rants to make bath­rooms free and open to the public.

I rec­og­nize the need for freely avail­able facil­i­ties, but it is the state who should be offer­ing this ser­vice,” reads the top com­ment, vot­ed most help­ful by users. Oth­ers argued that pri­vate bath­rooms open the door to dis­crim­i­na­tion. Ulti­mate­ly, 56.9 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants sup­port­ed the pro­pos­al, while 35.3 per­cent vot­ed against and 7.8 per­cent abstained.

The Net Par­ty has vowed that deci­sions made in Democ­ra­cyOS, like this one, will be bind­ing for its elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives — a promise that trumps ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns. Frizzera says, I think that the polit­i­cal spec­trum is a lot more sophis­ti­cat­ed now. Of course, left and right still exist. But we have to con­sid­er oth­er vari­ables, like lib­er­tar­i­an or author­i­tar­i­an, and in Argenti­na, hon­est or cor­rupt. … The main goal of the Net Par­ty is to decen­tral­ize power.”

Frizzera also is inter­est­ed in the poten­tial to bridge old ide­o­log­i­cal divides. I want­ed to find the issues that gath­er us togeth­er, and not tear us apart.”

Thus far, the pledge to abide by online deci­sions remains hypo­thet­i­cal. The par­ty has yet to earn a seat in city gov­ern­ment, receiv­ing only 1 per­cent of the vote in the most recent election.

The tiny Argen­tin­ian par­ty is only one of sev­er­al direct-democ­ra­cy par­ties around the world vying for local or nation­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, includ­ing in Ire­land, New Zealand and Mex­i­co. These par­ties tend to be rel­a­tive­ly new, avowed­ly non-ide­o­log­i­cal (at least in tra­di­tion­al left-right terms), and so far, unsuc­cess­ful at win­ning elections.

A U.S. com­pa­ny called PlaceAV­ote, launched in 2014, takes what it calls a more prag­mat­ic approach. Accord­ing to cofounder Job Melton, PlaceAVote’s goal is to work with­in the sys­tem we have now and fix it from the inside out” instead of attempt­ing the unlike­ly feat of build­ing a third U.S. party.

Like the Net Par­ty and its brethren, PlaceAV­ote offers an online tool that lets vot­ers par­tic­i­pate in deci­sion mak­ing. Right now, the tech­nol­o­gy is in pub­lic beta at PlaceAV​ote​.com, allow­ing users nation­wide to weigh in on leg­is­la­tion before Congress.

The group endors­es can­di­dates who agree to use its web­site to engage with con­stituents. A few can­di­dates have run (unsuc­cess­ful­ly) for con­gres­sion­al seats in Cal­i­for­nia on this mod­el, and sev­er­al more are doing so in the 2016 pri­maries in Cal­i­for­nia and Neva­da. The start-up is fund­ed by ven­ture cap­i­tal, but PlaceAV­ote has pledged to keep the tool free for pub­lic use (although Melton notes that there may be mon­e­ti­z­able” spin-offs.)

One exam­ple of a direct-democ­ra­cy group that has achieved elec­toral suc­cess is Italy’s Five Star Move­ment (M5S). Run­ning on an anti-cor­rup­tion, pro-sus­tain­abil­i­ty and pro-inter­net-democ­ra­cy plat­form, M5S won 25 per­cent of the vote in 2013 to become the sec­ond-largest par­ty in Italy’s low­er house. Found­ed at the behest of the pop­u­lar come­di­an Beppe Gril­lo and the late inter­net mogul Gian­rober­to Casa­leg­gio, the par­ty makes many deci­sions through inter­nal online plebiscites. But its suc­cess also illus­trates the pit­falls of alter­na­tive pol­i­tics claim­ing to tran­scend tra­di­tion­al categories.

In attempt­ing to build a par­ty that goes beyond left and right, M5S has some­times drift­ed toward the extreme right. For instance, its Euro­pean Par­lia­ment mem­bers coali­tion with anti-immi­grant par­ties from Swe­den, Ger­many and the U.K. Gril­lo came under fire last sum­mer for an anti-immi­grant tweet and has repeat­ed­ly spo­ken against unions. In a 2013 inter­view with neo-fas­cist group Cas­a­Pound, he declined to call him­self an antifas­cist, not­ing instead that M5S is ecu­meni­cal.”

There are also con­cerns that while the move­ment espous­es hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy, Gril­lo him­self holds inor­di­nate pow­er with­in M5S. He has suc­cess­ful­ly pushed for the expul­sion of mem­bers of par­lia­ment who, he argues, defied the movement’s prin­ci­ples, and he wields sub­stan­tial pow­er in set­ting its agenda.

But dig­i­tal democ­ra­cy has appli­ca­tions that extend beyond elec­toral pol­i­tics. A wide range of groups are using web-based deci­sion-mak­ing tools inter­nal­ly. The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment, for exam­ple, has used Democ­ra­cyOS to gath­er cit­i­zen feed­back on a data-pro­tec­tion law, and Brazil­ian civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions are using it to encour­age engage­ment with fed­er­al and munic­i­pal policy-making.

Anoth­er direct-democ­ra­cy tool in wide use is Loomio, devel­oped by a coop­er­a­tive in New Zealand. Ben Knight, one of Loomio’s cofounders, sums up his expe­ri­ence with Occu­py as one of see­ing mas­sive poten­tial of col­lec­tive deci­sion mak­ing, and then real­iz­ing how dif­fi­cult it could be in per­son.” After fail­ing to find an online tool to facil­i­tate the process, the Loomio team cre­at­ed a plat­form that enables online dis­cus­sion with a per­son­al ele­ment: Votes are by name and vot­ers can choose to dis­agree” with or even block” pro­pos­als. Pro­vo, Utah, uses Loomio for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, and a num­ber of polit­i­cal par­ties use Loomio for local deci­sion mak­ing, includ­ing the Brazil­ian Pirate Par­ty, sev­er­al region­al U.K. Green Par­ty chap­ters and Spain’s Podemos. Podemos has enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embraced dig­i­tal-democ­ra­cy tools for every­thing from its selec­tion of Euro­pean Par­lia­ment can­di­dates to the cre­ation of its par­ty platform.

The Green Par­ty of New York (GPNY) is also using Loomio to devel­op its par­ty plat­form, but GPNY staff orga­niz­er Michael O’Neil is not over­ly san­guine about utopi­an visions of a web-ified gov­ern­ment. He fears inter­net democ­ra­cy turn­ing into lit­tle more than a helpdesk unless we also build pow­er for peo­ple whom elites ignore.

But he notes that Amer­i­cans do not par­tic­i­pate in demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions for much of our lives.”

By hav­ing rad­i­cal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tions,” he says, and by com­mit­ting our orga­ni­za­tions to rad­i­cal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, through dig­i­tal democ­ra­cy and oth­er­wise, we’re giv­ing peo­ple a taste of what it’s like to actu­al­ly have a say over their own lives and over the insti­tu­tions that they care about.”

Tom Laden­dorf is an Amer­i­can writer and musi­cian who lives in Cologne, Ger­many, and a for­mer In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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