The Political Implications of Diffused Parlamentarianism

At the end of our interview (see my previous post), Martin Haase made me reflect on a key point concerning the changing nature of accountability in a Liquid Democracy system. One of the most divisive issues within the Berlin Pirate Party since LiquidFeedback (LF) was implemented in 2010 concerned the identity of its registered users.

Since the beginning, some Berlin Pirates registered on LF using a pseudonym. This created quite a few technical and political issues. To begin with, the party had to verify whether these users were actual members as only party members were allowed to use LF. Once this verification was made there was still the issue of whether these pseudonymous users could receive delegations from other users. LiquidFeedback is in fact designed to make all individual decisions visible and thus verifiable. There is both a technical and political rationale for why the platform has been designed this way. On a technical level, the developers of LF believe that secret voting online is not trustworthy–i.e. it can be manipulated.

On a political level, if you give a delegation to somebody this person must vote publicly so that she can be held accountable for her decisions. Haase notes that the publicity of voting is a basic operating principle of modern parliaments. At the same time, LF blurs the line between the public nature of parliamentary decisions and the private nature of voting at the electoral level. This is because LF users can receive delegations at any given moment, assuming a de facto representative role, or remain members who vote without receiving any delegations.

The question is what do you do when an average citizen can be a member of parliament at the same time. Sometimes he is a member of parliament and sometimes he is not. Because members of parliament have to act in the open, there has to be records of what they did. On the other hand, the individual citizen has a right to privacy.

Haase told me. Thus because Liquid Democracy blurs the lines between lay citizens and professional politicians, it becomes difficult to strike a balance between the right for individuals to keep their political opinions private and the duty these same individuals may have to explain their choices to those who delegated them as well as other members of their party.

Differently put, what we may call a diffused parliamentarianism poses the legal and constitutional problem of whether the protections that are guaranteed to ordinary citizens–e.g. the right not to divulge their political opinions–can be extended to these very same citizens as they exercise a representative function. Or, from a reverse angle, whether the transparency that is expected of representatives should also be extended to ordinary citizens. Whereas these technologies push in the direction of increased transparency, there are many good reasons for which political opinions should not be divulged in the open and stored for a long time.

In an open, tolerant, and democratic society–where everybody respects different opinions no matter how radically different they might be–it should not be a problem to store these data. But as we are all witnessing society can change quite quickly. And decisions that were made while exercising temporarily a representative function could be used, in the future, against those who made them.

I will return on this point as I will transcribe the interview with Martin Delius, a former elected representative of the Berlin Pirate Party (and recently re-elected with Die Linke).

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