Digital Natives in the Digital Constituency: Secret Ballots Not Secret Voters

Democracy versus anarchy

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the Unabomber had the Internet? Or how many Unabombers are out there now finding each other online? How many times have you read anonymous comments to online news articles or blog posts and wondered who wrote the post? (Whether it’s particularly good or bad.) There certainly is a place for anonymous commentary in the more obvious cases of political speech or corporate whistleblowing, but unfiltered anonymous commentary seems more likely to re-enforce what I call comfortable mistakes. Comfortable mistakes are statements that we know are wrong, but that make us feel good, what Professor Louise Richardson referred to as “legitimizing ideology” of “the complicit community” in her outstanding book.

There is a place for anonymity, certainly, but do societies tolerate anonymous voter registration for the secret ballot? That’s like double super secret voting that would inevitably lead to gaming. When it comes to political action (including political contributions) by citizens in the context of legislation—as opposed to political commentary–I’ve seen no evidence that any political unit tolerates both anonymous voter registration and the secret ballot. Cities, counties, states or countries want to limit matters of citizenship to their citizens. That requires rules and does not recognize anonymous voters.

Because most laws in a democracy are passed in a complex system of checks and balances and are subject to public disclosure laws, knowing how representatives of the electorate vote is a matter of public record. In fact, there is quite a bit you can find out about the political affiliation and political contributions of almost anyone in the U.S.

When governments seek to draft legislation they frequently invite the public to comment and make suggestions about legislative subjects. This is done in a request for comments, public consultations, any one of a number of time-tested methods to ascertain the public’s view and to solicit their insight and commentary. When comments are solicited, the comments are generally written and are not anonymous. In fact, I can’t recall an instance where the comments were anonymous.

This greatly reduces the likelihood that the legislative process will be gamed. There is nothing like knowing who you are dealing with to reduce shenanigans. As we integrate the digital society into our civil society, the democratic promise of the Internet collides with its anarchic qualities.

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”

The wonderful Peter Steiner cartoon says it all. If we allow direct, unfiltered and essentially anonymous input by the public in the democratic process, society would have to trust every user to be self-regulating. There is no evidence that this unquestioned trust is warranted. Practically everything online from Limewire to Digg is or can be gamed online. Social media network friends can be helped along by “friend bots” (a rather sad commentary). If governments allowed this direct participation, a lot of dogs could be voting.

Even if direct anonymous voting is ruled out, there is still the possibility for 15 year old Bulgarian bot farmers to try to influence the legislative process by running bot-rooms or online boiler rooms spewing out roboemails to legislators.It is then incumbent on governments, particularly legislative bodies, to insulate themselves from roboemails—or even human emailers with a malevolent purpose—influencing legislation of interest to their masters when they themselves are not true constituents. Letter writing or phone call boiler rooms are nothing new—what’s new is that the process can be automated like never before and the virtual boiler room can be a diaspora of the alienated that doesn’t jump constituencies, but spans continents.

This is not easy, just like getting voter registration rules right isn’t easy. But there are some protections against phantom armies of “consumers” that legislatures can adopt. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, utilizes a program called “writerep” that puts considerable effort into trying to limit the access to the chamber’s email program. Not perfect, but it’s something.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government has not learned this lesson and nowhere was that more apparent than in the recent copyright consultations, and nowhere is the audacity of corruption more pervasive than in the manipulation of the consultation process by the anti-copyright fringe.

So Much For Good Faith

Industry Canada recently undertook good faith consultations with the Canadian public regarding potential new copyright legislation. The consultations lasted three months and included meetings in all major Canadian cities. All sides in the debate had an opportunity to be heard—and there’s the problem.For years now, there has been much sound and fury about the ghostly army of anonymous or pseudonymous anti-copyright, pro-mod chip, anti-music industry folks in Canada who pass themselves off as representative of Canadian voters.

Remember—voters.One manifestation of this bunch was the Fair Copyright account on Facebook which has some large number of “friends”, over 88,000 at last count. Now why anyone would take having a bunch of Facebook friends seriously is beyond me, but apparently this matters to the Canadian government. (Never mind that the “Fair Copyright” group members are dwarfed by many Facebook groups – see “I don’t care if your crocs are comfortable you look like a dumbass” ([2.5] million members)).

If there really are 88,000 Canadian voters signed up for the Fair Copyright Facebook account, one would think that was an army that could be mustered at a moments notice and focused like a laser beam on the Canadian Parliament.

I would point out for reference that when significant matters of public policy are pending before the U.S. Congress, it is not unusual for there to be so many faxes that Congressional offices turn off their fax machines, servers crash and switchboards are rendered unusable. My guess is that takes about 15,000 people doing the same thing at the same time. (See “Callers unite against climate bill, crash phone system”)

So if Fair Copyright really has 88,000 dogs—I mean, “friends”–one would think that something as important as the copyright consultations would let the dogs out. So to speak.The interesting fact is that after 3 months, the total number of emails that came into Industry Canada did not top 10,000 woofs. Even if you assume that all the emails came from Facebook puppies, that’s barely over 10% of the total members.

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Fair Copyright Facebook is run by—guess who? The very well-funded Michael Geist. So if anyone let the dogs out, it would be he. One would think that if Geist could summon his friends from Facebook all he need to is say the word, and stalwart Canadians would step forward and engage in a democratic dialog with their elected representatives—on the record.

Yet Geist was out beating the drum on TorrentFreak trying to get anyone—anyone—to sign up to the CCER letter writing wizard. That wizard was so easily gamed it was a joke. In fact, I did it myself with no trouble at all.

One need only take a minute’s look at the Canadian Parliament website to determine the problem. The site lists each MPs email address. There is no attempt to qualify the sender of any email as even being from Canada, much less from the MPs constituency. That is one reason why Geist could game the system—easily. Not to mention CCER. All they had to do was look up the email addresses of the MPs they wanted to lobby and woof woof—the dogs were out, baby.

The truth is that the CCER letter wizard was so easily gamed and the Parliament is so easily gamed that the entire email campaign was corrupted. This is really an unfortunate result for the Canadians who were playing by the rules and sincerely thought they were responding to their representatives. For whatever reason, Industry Canada apparently has decided not to publicly post letters received through the CCER wizard—and for obviously good reasons.

According to the CBC, Geist said that “[n]ot posting those modified and individual letters [from the CCER] to the copyright consultation website is tantamount to altering the views of the authors….” Or good judgement given the inherent unreliability of the CCER wizard. It is likewise unfortunate for the Canadian government, clearly trying to bring transparency to the consultation. The problem for governments that don’t take sufficient precautions to keep themselves from being gamed is that it would be far too easy for unscrupulous operatives to engage in a harassment effort that dupes the MPs into thinking that there really was a significant section of public opinion on one side or another of an issue.

This is also an inherent problem with electronic media—it can all be gamed. Faxes, phone calls, emails, snail mail. Politicians get a high level of sophistication in ferreting out the dogs, and frequently send them barking up the wrong tree.

The Canadian government seems to have been victim to an intimidation scheme that is one step beyond the Bulgarian bot-farmers. This is the implied threat of a voter backlash based on the number of Facebook friends.

It is actually gratifying to see that this threat can be dispelled now—so few people showed up to make the anti-copyright argument compared to the number of Facebook friends that the credibility of the threat is immediately called into question. Who are these people on Facebook anyway? Is this a repeat of an MP’s Christmas party when a busload of out of towners crashed the constituency Christmas party to woof down some freebies and get their picture taken?

When someone has a real political movement of motivated activists, there is no question about it. Just ask anyone who was on the receiving end of Pandora’s well executed lobbying efforts, opposition to climate change legislation or health care. Throngs of people in the streets sends the unmistakable message that the issue isn’t Astroturf. There are limits, even to the dogs that the very well funded Michael Geist can let loose.

When you’re off the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog. Especially a well-funded dog.