Digital Politics: A Deep Dive by@nerv

Digital Politics: A Deep Dive

Politics is complex and its digitalization is a long process that has been occurring in one form or another ever since the conception of computers. This evolution ranges from the use of modern real-time communications over the internet by public institutions to the sharing of publications in websites such as those presented by city portals. 79% of these portals are linked to social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr! South Korea already deployed a small-scale on-line polling in Gyeonggi-do where around 9000 participants decided the destiny of 527 community projects.
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Politics is complex and its digitalization is a long process that has been occurring in one form or another ever since the conception of computers, even well before the appearance of the World Wide Web.[1][2]


This evolution ranges from the use of modern real-time communications over the internet by public institutions[3] to the sharing of publications in websites such as those presented by city portals.


79% of these portals are linked to social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr! Another use case on the Asian continent; South Korea already successfully deployed a small-scale on-line polling in Gyeonggi-do where around 9000 participants decided the destiny of 527 community projects.[4]


The most impactful change in politics in consequence of its digitalization by whatever measure however, is the shift of the political discourse from official channels to social media platforms.


All recent mass protests were, or rather still are, organized on-line inspired by #hashtags![5]


But we will leave the discussion of the huge impact of social media in politics to another time. Lets just point out that in many places around the globe meeting sessions are now recorded and streamed live on YouTube such as those made by the local governmental structures in the city Almada, Portugal in Europe.[6]


According to the World e-Parliament Report 2020 issued by the Inter-Parliamentary Union[7], more than three-quarters of parliaments now use automatic video recording in their plenary rooms to capture and broadcast proceedings over the internet:


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Remote sessions in the Argentinian parliament using live communications over the internet


In some of these hybrid remote/presential parliaments, secure on-line voting was available. Although still small in numbers, on-line voting saw a significant sixfold increase in its use in recent times. This is perhaps the most challenging feature when one wants to engage in digital politics. Voting is what drives consensus and it absolutely must be cybersecure and fraud proof.


Spain, Brazil, the UK followed then by the Argentinian, Chilean, Latvia and Zambia parliaments developed customized voting applications for internal use inside the parliaments. The Parliament of Latvia in particular developed a fully virtual plenary system allowing its members to work entirely remotely.


The commissioned programmers found a unique solution for integrating document management, voting and virtual meetings using Jitsi[8] open source platform. To guarantee cybersecurity and verification, national identity cards were used.[9]


An interesting example of the potential of the digitalization of politics could be seen in a now deprecated project made by two portuguese citizens. The project went by the name of Hemiciclo which is portuguese for Hemicycle:


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Screenshot of deprecated www.hemiciclo.pt


In Hemiciclo one could see almost in real time, with data sourced from official websites (with scrapers and RSS feeds), what was going on in the Assembleia da Republica, that is, the portuguese parliament.


In the platform it was presented which diplomas were up for discussion, who voted for or against, combined with a simple picture that aided to visualize the voting process. One could follow each deputy individually and with time additional modules were added such as voting statistics or changes in seats, to name a few:


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Change in seat as reported by the Hemiciclo platform


Unfortunately, studies[10] seem to suggest that although there is progress in the digitalization of parliaments, it has been slow as there is no strong political will to do so, specially in what concerns interaction with citizens.


Only 1 in 5 parliaments have formal procedures to evaluate improvements in their digitalization! Even only mere 59% of the parliaments report having a vision in place for their overall strategic direction, which is a decline from 63% in 2018 and from 73% in 2016 statistics. A sad decline.


Again, the process by which we can digitalize politics is complex; a number of e-governance services available around the globe in different countries do exist already; the most common being applying for business licenses, requesting birth and death certificates and paying for utilities. Submitting a change of residential address on-line is the least common service with only 66 countries offering it.[11] At this point a clear distinction needs to be made and that is the difference between electronic (or on-line) governance and digital politics.


Governance has to do with the digitalization of services provided by the state which we just listed a few, while politics has more to do with the generation of consensus per se around a particular project or political goal. In this regards and when this is done through official channels, scholars call the later citizensourcing or e-participation; the equivalent of crowdsourcing but organized by public institutions which poll the population on-line. One of many examples of this practice is the California Budget Challenge.[12]


Ultimately what we have to ask ourselves is, how many times have we been called by public institutions to answer relevant questions concerning our social life? Once every 4 years perhaps if we consider that in a lot of political systems the figure of the president is irrelevant compared to the role of deputies and the parliamentarians.


Assuming a minimum voter age of 18 years old and a life span of 80 years that means that with our current system in place, in average, you will have the opportunity to directly express yourself 15 times to address complex matters from budgetary issues such as which corporations should get public resources allocated to them (should developed countries still fund coal?), to health care (do you agree that gain-of-function research is legal? what about mandatory vaccines?), military ventures, the education of your children, societal norms, how to solve environmental problems (why are we not building a transcontinental railway system connecting all major urban polis across continents?), to urban planning, migration policy, border control, what subjects science should be investigating, should we build a base on Mars? Should the 1% most rich contribute more to the welfare of society? 15 times... You will be polled to answer a myriad of questions most of which do have consequential impacts in our everyday life.


Assuming a minimum voter age of 18 years old and a life span of 80 years, this means you are expected to be polled 15 times throughout your entire life.


To mitigate for this obvious flaw in modern democracies different approaches are currently being undertaken in many countries and cities. On-line participatory budgeting and participatory land-use planning are two kinds of initiatives used by cities/municipalities to engage with local communities. Few city portals (17%) offer on-line voting tools or systems to facilitate people’s involvement in local governments decision-making. However there are interesting platforms for e-participation such as those found in South America in Venezuela for example. There, the government founded a platform named Sinco[13] where any citizen is allowed to publish and vote on policy proposals on-line. An important part of the national budget is assigned to those projects that are consensual. The platform is based on Google Maps where policies are pin-pointed to a geolocation. The platform is still running at the moment:


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Sinco’s UI


In all similitude, Bogotá te escucha[14] (Bogotá listens to you) is an on-line tool that people can use to submit complaints, inquiries, suggestions, concerns about possible acts of corruption or simple requests relating to issues that affect the interests of the community. The system offers a registration service but also allows people to file anonymous requests as well and to check the status of their submissions. All requests are addressed to the competent authorities. FixMyStreet[15] is another good example of such intersection between digital tools and politics but created not by public institutions and presented in city portals but is rather an open source endeavour created by the citizens themselves. In Hamburg, Germany, the Finding Places[16] initiative is also an interesting use case. Digital tools were deployed to help allocate refugee settlement. Instead of putting this task at the hands of bureaucrats the platform made a call for civic participation to discuss these matters on-line. It involved approximately 400 participants who identified 160 locations out of which 44 were accepted by the local authorities.


Such mechanisms are found in a majority of the European countries; there is evidence of e-consultations in the recent past in more than half the region. On-line consultation mechanisms are much rarer in Africa although it does exist. In any case, the trend is clear: the “supply” of electronic consultations by governments has been growing continuously. What is not very clear is why is that the multiplication of these platforms has not been translated into a broader or deeper involvement. In most places it remains low. The reluctance of public institutions to share agenda setting and decision-making procedures seem to play an important role limiting progress, amongst other factors such as a perceived lack of cybersecurity, which is justified up to a point if we consider that most governmental websites do not respect all cybersecurity criteria. In particular, only a minuscule part can prevent a wide range of cross-site scripting and clickjacking attacks (Content Security Policy) and only 3% can prevent third parties from reading or changing content sent between a user and the website by using a secure connection via HTTPS. Likewise, only 1% of governmental e-mail portals are cybersecure! One recent and very harmful situation happened in Argentina where the ID information of the entire population of the country was leaked[17]:


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Data of football players Messi and Sergio Aguero leaked on Twitter


What is of most interest is of course what concerns cybersecure[18] on-line voting[19]. That is considered to be the holy grail of digital politics. The most famous example of its use in politics is the situation in Estonia[20] where since 2005 main elections have been conducted with the option of voting on-line or in presence. Up until today no one was ever able to prove that there has been fraud or a successful attack to the system![21] Consequently, there are politicians in the European Parliament at this very moment who were elected by people remotely voting from their home. Another not so known but quite interesting example of the application of remote e-voting in politics was when a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was polled.[22] The National Civil Registrar of Colombia took notice prior to the referendum that out of 6 million Colombians living abroad only 600 000 could effectively vote from the consulate in their country of residence. To mitigate for the alienation of such an important part of the population, in cooperation with the non-profit Democracy Earth Foundation, Plebiscito Digital, an on-line voting platform backed by blockchain was effectively setup. In this way Colombian expats who were otherwise unable to participate through other routes had the chance to participate in a plebiscite of whether or not to approve a peace treaty.


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Internet voting in Estonia is based on state issued smart cards who provide the eID


One may wonder what kinds of alternative democratic systems will emerge from the evolution of the digitalization of politics. It won't necessarily be the case that each person will have to vote and decide on every single matter.[23] In fact entirely new forms of democracy will emerge; once you have a cybersecure on-line voting system in place that scales, a new way of doing politics that makes use of both the positive aspects of representative and direct democracy will arise. Scholars call it liquid democracy.[24] In liquid democracy citizens can either vote directly on a particular diploma or alternatively they can delegate their vote to a proxy voter. With the aid of properly configured digital tools both these processes can occur seamlessly and in security.


Concluding, while there is a positive correlation between the evolution of electronic governance across the globe and income level, because progress has been relatively slow, we must assert that financial resources are not the only factor. Perhaps more than so, political will and strategic leadership are.


Authored by @nerv


Co-published here.



Links to Sources


[1] Project Cybersyn entry on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn


[2] "How the CIA Destroyed the Socialist Internet: Cybersyn, Part 1", Kernel Panic, Mashable, entry on YouTube, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACfgc1o3P6o


[3] "Germany’s national healthcare system adopts Matrix!" article by Matthew Hodgson from Matrix, https://matrix.org/blog/2021/07/21/germanys-national-healthcare-system-adopts-matrix


[4] "A South Korean Province Used Blockchain Tech for Resident Voting" by Samburaj Das, CNN, 2017, http://www.ccn.com/south-korean-province-used-blockchain-tech-resident-voting/


[5] "Digital democracy: Is the future of civic engagement online?" by Gianluca Sgueo, European Parliamentary Research Service, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/646161/EPRS_BRI(2020)646161_EN.pdf


[6] Local government meeting sessions on-line, Municipality of Almada, Portugal, https://www.cm-almada.pt/municipio/camara-municipal/reunioes-de-camara


[7] "World e-Parliament Report 2020" issued by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Andy Williamson et al., Inter-Parliamentary Union Centre for Innovation in Parliament, 2021, https://www.agora-parl.org/sites/default/files/agora-documents/World e-Parliament Report 2020%2C issued 2021.pdf


[8] Jitsi, https://jitsi.org/


[9] Latvia's eID smart-card, https://www.pmlp.gov.lv/en/identity-card-eid


[10] "Parliamentary online public engagement in the 21st Century: A comparative perspective with a focus on Austria and Portugal" by Sofia Raquel Serra-Silva, Universidade de Lisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Lisboa, 2020, https://repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/45279/1/ULSD638268_td_Sofia_Silva.pdf


[11] "E-Government Survey 2020: Digital Government in the Decade of Action for Sustainable Development" by the United Nations Department of Economical and Social Affairs, 2020, https://publicadministration.un.org/egovkb/Portals/egovkb/Documents/un/2020-Survey/2020 UN E-Government Survey (Full Report).pdf


[12] California Budget Challenge, https://www.budgetchallenge.org/pages/home


[13] "SINCO, el proyecto digital que interconecta al poder popular en Venezuela" on Sputnik News, http://mundo.sputniknews.com/20210415/sinco-el-proyecto-digital-que-interconecta-al-poder-popular-en-venezuela-1111206467.html


[14] "Bogotá te escucha, Sistema Distrital para la Gestión de Peticiones Ciudadanas", https://bogota.gov.co/sdqs/


[15] FixMyStreet, http://www.fixmystreet.com/


[16] Finding Places, https://use.metropolis.org/case-studies/finding-places#casestudydetail


[17] "Argentina’s national population ID information was stolen by hackers and is being sold" entry on Real Mi Central, 2021, https://www.realmicentral.com/2021/10/19/argentinas-national-population-id-information-was-stolen-by-hackers-and-is-being-sold/


[18] "What is cybersecurity?" entry on IBM webite, https://www.ibm.com/topics/cybersecurity


[19] "Electronic voting by country" entry on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_voting_by_country


[20] "How Estonia's E-Voting System Could Be The Future" by Kalev Leetaru on Forbes, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2017/06/07/how-estonias-e-voting-system-could-be-the-future/


[21] "I-voting: What can the U.S. learn from Estonia's online elections?" by Daniel Harries, China Global Television Network, 2020, http://newseu.cgtn.com/news/2020-11-07/I-voting-What-can-the-U-S-learn-from-Estonia-s-online-elections--VcTflh3pdu/index.html


[22] "How Blockchain can change voting: the Colombian Peace plebiscite" by Charlotte van Ooijen on The Forum Network, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2017, https://www.oecd-forum.org/posts/28703-how-blockchain-can-change-voting-the-colombian-peace-plebiscite


[23] "Delegative Democracy" by Bryan Ford, 2002, https://bford.info/deleg/deleg.pdf


[24] "Liquid Democracy: True Democracy for the 21st Century" on Medium by Dominik Schiener, 2015, https://medium.com/organizer-sandbox/liquid-democracy-true-democracy-for-the-21st-century-7c66f5e53b6f

Appendix

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