DemocracyOS, an Interview with Guido Vilariño

Governments, endogamic institutions since forever, are not used to opening up. But now there’s political will for it to happen, if a lot of trial and error in the process.


DemocracyOS team at work. The Politics of Code is an interview series curated by Marco Deseriis for openDemocracy with software engineers and political activists about a new generation of decision-making software that allow movements, organizations, and parties to make collective decisions online. Rather than reducing technology to the status of a tool, the interviews explore the different conceptions of political participation and democracy embedded in each software, the relationship between online and offline deliberation, as well as questions of authentication, verifiability, ownership, trust, and leadership.

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Pseudonymity and Liquid Democracy: Interview with Martin Delius

Martin Delius, former state representative of the Berlin Pirate Party

One of the thorniest questions the Berlin Pirate Party had to face as soon as it decided to adopt LiquidFeedback in January 2010 is that some of its members had created pseudonymous accounts on the platform. This created multiple problems. To being with, the party had to verify whether these pseudonymous accounts were owned by actual party members. Second, because LiquidFeedback (LF) allows users to vote, it was necessary to verify that each user had one and only one account.

Third, a decision had to be made on whether pseudonymous accounts could receive delegations or not. Because the software does not distinguish between pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous accounts this was a political, or human, decision. A discussion began within the party. Many arguments for and against pseudonymity were heard. Eventually (that is, almost five years later) it was decided that members could use a pseudonym in LF on one condition: they had to introduce themselves at a party meeting with their pseudonym. In this way, pseudonymous accounts with delegations could be held accountable for their decisions within LF, which functioned in Berlin as the equivalent of a permanent party Convention. As I noted in my previous post, because LF blurs the lines between the represented and the representatives, the delegating and the delegates, it is difficult to extend the anonymity of voting (the secret ballot) to such system. But it is also difficult to expect total transparency of its participants as some political decisions may be too sensitive to be exposed out in the open.

In order to strike a balance between the transparency we all expect of representatives and the private nature of voting the Berlin Pirate Party took two separate steps. First, it decided that LF could be accessible only to regular party members, that is, all political discussions and decisions were not going to be accessible from the rest of the Internet. (If this may sound obvious to many, it wasn’t for a party that had made of “radical transparency” in politics one of its talking points). Second, as noted, the party decided that those who wanted to use a pseudonym within LF had to be identifiable qua party members. It sounds like a reasonable compromise to me. Yet it is interesting that the developers of LF and the Berlin Pirates I have interviewed so far (all influential members of the party) found the pseudonymity issue… stupid. In other words, they all seem to agree on the fact that pseudonyms are pointless in a system like LF. Here is an excerpt of the interview with Martin Delius, former Pirate Party representative at the Berlin House of Representatives and recently reelected with Die Linke.

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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.

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Delegation and Responsibility in LiquidFeedback: An Interview with Martin Haase (Excerpt)

In late October, I interviewed Martin Haase in his podcast studio in Berlin. Haase is a linguistics professor, a prominent member of the German Pirate Party, and one of the most active users of LiquidFeedback, the decision-making software that has been closely associated with the notion of Liquid Democracy, or transitive delegation by proxy votes. The defining feature of LiquidFeedback is that users can delegate their vote to other users for a limited amount of time. They can choose three different kinds of delegations: a delegation for an individual initiative; a delegation for a thematic area (e.g. health care or organizational matters); or a delegation for everything (this is called the global delegation, and can be assimilated to a vote for representative). Those who receive delegations can in turn decide to transfer them to other people they trust. Every user has the power to take back a delegation when she decides to do so.

Haase hedshot

Over the past few years the German Pirate Party has steadily declined. But back in 2011-12, when it was a party on the rise, Haase made the news because of the many delegations he received through LiquidFeedback. He was, in short, “a superdelegate,” without having a formal appointment, or recognized function within the party. There is a political reason and a subjective reason for this. On a political level, whereas  LiquidFeedback was adopted to make binding decisions in Berlin, it was never adopted in a binding manner at a federal level. (A proposal to make a binding use of the software failed to win a supermajority by a slim number of votes at the Neumarkt Congress of May 2013). Because the party made binding decisions through traditional organisms such as the Governing Board and “real-life” party congresses, the role of delegates in LF was never an issue as the platform only had a consultative function.

On a subjective level, Haase refused to have a formal role within the party because he did not want to become a career politician:

I love my job, I want to be a professor of linguistics, and be able to participate in the political process from my computer at home, but not full time.

And this is where LiquidFeedback, and a whole new generation of decision-making software, really seems to have an impact on traditional political processes. By distributing the time needed for political decision-making throughout society such software seems to make the existence of a professional class of politicians redundant. In other words, we can all continue to do our jobs or what we like and contribute to politics without having to dedicate our entire life to it.  Wouldn’t that be much more democratic? And distributing the responsibilities throughout society wouldn’t also be a great way to eliminate the alibi we all give each other when we express frustration at the way society is run by simply pointing the finger at career politicians?

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Loomio and the Problem of Deliberation: An Interview with Rich Barlett

One of the frustrations within the current political system is that most people are alienated from deliberation. The founders of decision-making software Loomio want to give everyone access to that essential skill. 

The Loomio team on a retreat.

Loomio is a decision-making software developed by a group of activists and programmers based in Wellington, New Zealand, since 2012. Widely used within the Circles of Podemos in Spain as well as hundreds of cooperatives, social enterprises, municipalities, and activist groups around the world, Loomio’s main feature is to nudge groups towards consensus. After discussing a proposal, every member of a Loomio group can in fact make one of four choices: agree, disagree, abstain, or block. The latter is a form of veto power, which forces the group to reconsider the initial proposal and amend it until consensus has been reached.

Even though endowing individuals with such power in an online environment can be risky, Loomio groups are often extensions of preexisting offline relationships, and thus of preexisting networks of trust. Indeed, Loomio had been originally conceived by activists involved in Occupy Wellington in 2011 as a tool that could help turn the open-ended meetings of assemblies and working groups into action-oriented proposals. The four-hand signs that appear in the Loomio interface are in fact borrowed from the hand signals adopted by the Occupy movement around the world.

“Ben Knight and I were in the communications working group [at Occupy Wellington],” recalls Richard Bartlett, a co-founder of Loomio. “We had a lot of people and work to manage, so we were looking for project management software, but everything we could find was based on a hierarchical attitude to organising.” Thus, together with Hannah Salmon and Jon Lemmon the two decided to contact Enspiral, a network and incubator of social enterprises based in Wellington. In 2012, Knight, Barlett, Lemmon, Alanna Krause, Aaorn Thornton and Vivien Maidaborn went on to found the Loomio cooperative, which is part of Enspiral, and currently employs eleven worker-members who have made a long-term commitment to the project.

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A Preliminary Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the Decision-Making Platform of the Five Star Movement (Part II)

In my previous post, I have outlined three distinct information flows (bottom-up, top-down, and horizontal) that are incorporated in Rousseau, the decision-making platform of the Five Star Movement (M5S). So far I have discussed Lex Members, the area that allows for a regulated exercise of direct democracy through the activation of all M5S members in the writing of a bill of law.

In the second part of this report, I will be focusing on the remaining flows (top-down and horizontal) through an analysis of the areas that are dedicated to the discussion and modification of the bills introduced by elected representatives (top-down) and of the areas that enable the sharing of information among elected representatives (horizontal).  Then I will develop some preliminary observations on the conception of democracy that Rousseau seems to embed and reflect.

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A Preliminary Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the Decision-Making Platform of the Five Star Movement (Part I)

First of all, because this is my first post on this brand-new blog, let me say welcome! If you are a reader who is interested in the “scalability of direct democracy,” well, congratulations, you and I share a quite specific interest. If you are a bot, I respect your automated intelligence, so Welcome Bot!

So my first post is about Rousseau, the decision-making and organizational platform of the Five Star Movement (M5S). I have just returned from Palermo where the M5S convened its third national meeting, Italia5Stelle, on September 24-25, 2016. Over the course of two days, various M5S representatives (or, as they prefer to call themselves “spokespersons”) introduced the various functionalities and affordances of Rousseau to an audience of M5S members and sympathizers.

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