Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in the following piece presents his thoughts on the possibilites for more direct democracy facilitated by the internet. He discusses both how the internet is already aiding participatory democracy at the grassroots level by providing more access to information through the alternative media of independent bloggers and news media, and how more transparency and accountability in government is acheived through this freer flow of information. He also discusses the future possibilities for e-Democracy, truly direct democracy achieved by every citizen casting their vote on legislation via the internet. - Editor
By CRAIG NEWMARK 10/2/08 4:56 AM EDT
Americans this election season are using the Internet to vastly expand their ability to participate directly in our democracy, but it’s just a beginning. Over the next 20 years, our governments will adopt a form of direct democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers that previously was impossible to carry out.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and the other forefathers of today’s bloggers embraced the notion that government should function with the consent of the governed. Key to the success of the idea was exploiting communications technology, including the printing press and the postal service.
Based on similar efforts in the ancient Roman republic and Britain, the Founders designed a government based on a small number of elected representatives, with a separate judiciary. Checks and balances were provided so that one group couldn’t seize power. A free press served as a further check against tyranny.
In recent years, the balances have seriously eroded, but at the same time, a new communication technology, the Internet, has flourished.
People use the Net as their own printing press, giving them a voice and a reach they’ve never had before, for better or for worse. They are networking at the grass-roots level more effectively than ever before.
In politics, Democrat Howard Dean pioneered use of the Net for organizing and fundraising in his 2004 presidential bid. He was ahead of his time, though, because broadband technology had not yet reached critical mass, with the resulting spike in traffic.
Given the low cost of Net advertising of any sort, it appears the 2008 election starts the transition from very expensive, top-down campaigns to less expensive, network-driven ones.
Following Dean’s example, many candidates this year are using the Net for fundraising and organizing with extraordinary effect. Barack Obama’s campaign is based largely on grass-roots networking and community organizing, with an eye toward boosting grass-roots participation in government. John McCain’s campaign has not tapped into the Net as systematically or effectively, but many McCain supporters are using it among themselves.
People also are using the Net to strengthen or debunk political claims, engaging in levels of fact-checking that the traditional press was unable or unwilling to do.
Currently, even sitting politicians with the best of intentions find it necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising rather than governing. This election accelerates the trend to something else: People are using the Net for governance in ways that have barely been noticed.
New York and San Francisco are experimenting with telephone customer service systems that soon will be complemented by Net-based systems. Using the Internet, people will be able to navigate through local government to get things done — the ultimate in pothole politics.
Another emerging area of grass-roots, networked democracy involves transparency and accountability. The idea is that if we all see how the sausage is made, it will facilitate reform throughout the country.
A lot of accountability data are already available to the public — but in forms that limit their use and accessibility. For instance, there are loads of information about lobbyist contributions to congressmen and what they presumably get in return, such as sweetheart contracts.
The Sunlight Foundation is harnessing a network of organizations to build online tools so anyone can examine the data. For example, MAPLight.org focuses on the connection between money and politics, and the Center for Media and Democracy runs Congresspedia.org, which is basically a Wikipedia-like site for the U.S. Congress. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Sunlight.)
It’s still a struggle sometimes getting the sun to shine in on Capitol Hill. Online access to Senate election data is being obstructed by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), but their efforts are being countered online by Pass223.com.
In the fullest expression of direct democracy, every citizen would vote on every piece of legislation; representative democracy was, until now, the best compromise. The new challenge is how to give many millions of citizens a voice in government without overwhelming the system.
There are two approaches, both of which rely on technology that is available but not yet fully exploited. In online democracy, people need verifiable identities, the online equivalent of a driver’s license. Today, one example is the “digital certificate,” which, if widely disseminated, could help positively identify people on the Net and minimize fraud.
Congressmen and Hill staffers tell me that messages from verified people in their districts carry far more weight than blind e-mails that possibly are mass-produced. In other words, communications from known constituents are read, but form e-mails may not be. That’s one step closer to networked democracy.
Another approach involves large-scale discussion boards where citizens with verified identities can discuss issues online. The challenge is sorting the wheat from the chaff, but a solution is to let citizens do the work by filtering up the best ideas. Pioneers in this sort of scheme include Slashdot.org, Digg.com, and even Amazon.com.
Such systems, in theory, need hundreds of millions of citizens. In practice, they would number far fewer. Most people, including myself, would rather not be bothered with politics. From my day job, I’d guess that the number of interested citizens would range from 1 percent to 10 percent of the population.
Universal access to such systems must overcome the “digital divide,” but I believe that could be solved by using mobile phones to almost universally plug citizens into the process.
However it is done, we’re on the verge of realizing the vision of democracy upon which America was formed, from the grass roots up. It’s time to recognize what’s happening and get serious about nurturing it.
Craig Newmark is the founder of and chief of customer service for Craigslist.