The Distributed Democracy – building a model for the future

UPDATE: Check out the beginning of a Distributed Democracy reference model on wikispaces :) Let’s see what we can build.

In several of Neal Stephensen’s books, he talks about a “Distributed Republic”, which according to Wikipedia is the concept of:

… a fluid republic consisting of land and citizens scattered across the globe, changing far more frequently than conventional nation-states.

In French President Sarkozy’s speech to the eG8 last year, he spoke about the need for governments to intervene in the Internet and the heart of his argument rested on the premise that:

Nobody could nor should forget that these governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies.

But this premise is debatable. The Internet gives us the capability to have our own voice, to be our own legitimate representative in a global dialogue.

This is not to say there is not a part for geographically defined governments to play. Personally I believe governments play an important role in creating a baseline equality and opportunity for people in the community.

Of course, I am coming from an Australian and democratic perspective, where free health care, education and cheap public transport (just to name a few) are all broadly accepted components of what keeps our local community relatively egalitarian, and I believe we will ever need to manage physical resources to create the best possible life for people.

But our online lives, an enormous component for many of the 2 billion people on the Internet, does not have any legitimate representation at this point in time. There are certainly voices, advocacy groups, lobbyists on all sides trying to frame and direct the agenda. But frankly, we have the technology to engage directly as a community. Hence the idea of establishing a virtual “government’, a distributed democracy for our online lives.

Would such an entity be useful? What could it do? Perhaps it could engage in international trade agreements or treaties on behalf of the Internet society. Perhaps it could define some essential technical and social characteristics of the Internet and then be the representative international watchdog for our community. How would it operate and be funded? Is it possible to build a functional, sustainable, effective and ultimately completely open model of government to represent and serve the citizens of the Internet?

Perhaps the treaty of Antarctica could provide an interesting premise. After all, there had been much debate and landgrabbing happening until the point where it was decided that Antarctica in it’s pristine state was ‘in the best public interest”, and as such a treaty was eventually negotiated to largely protect Antarctica as an international resource.

The Internet is certainly an international resource in the best public interest, so defining and protecting it’s essential characteristics seems to be a logical step if we are to learn from the Antarctica example.

Check out the “What makes the Internet – technical characteristics” blog post and contribute your thoughts on that topics there.

There are many questions and the discussions we’ve had with people to date demonstrate strongly that  there is a need for some debate and dialogue around the future of the Internet, and the needs of it’s citizens.

We will launch a wiki next week to kick off the collaborative community development of this model, and we’ll thrown in a few ideas and some structure to get it started. It may be that this is simply unnecessary or too far fetched, but it will certainly be an interesting thought experiment nonetheless, so we encourage you to get involved.

There will be individual pages on the wiki for the following topics. Please add any further topics to the comments which you think should be part of the wiki structure.

  • Founding principles – the vision, essential technical characteristics of the Internet, definition of reasonable online rights/expectations.
  • Roles and responsibilities – what could such an entity do in practice? How could it usefully represent the online community in international fora?
  • Structure and voting – how could such an entity be the perfect model for open government, and representative of the diversity of its globally distributed citizenship?
  • Citizenship – what would being a citizen mean? What rights and responsibilities would it entail?
  • Economics – how could it be funded to get things done?
  • References – existing projects, documentation and efforts in this space.

Below are some existing projects that also reflect parts of this idea. It’d be great if you could add your thoughts in the comments below and add any links to other communities, projects or documents that might be useful for the thought experiment.

Commentary on universal digital rights and representation

8 thoughts on “The Distributed Democracy – building a model for the future

  1. There’s an interesting parallel to this in the long (George Monbiot notes a history going back to 1842) push for a world parliament. This push is often ridiculed by those who cannot imagine a world not based on nation-state boundaries. But it’s also important to recognise that there is “already a system of global governance. The UN security council, the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation make decisions that affect us all. They do so without our consent.” A world parliament would be an attempt to democratically rectify that lack of consent.

    In a similar way, the terrain that is the internet is governed without our consent or critical input. We live our digital lives on land over which we have no ownership, rights or control. Those governing it have little democratic legitimacy. As our digital lives become ever more important, this is something that *has* to change.

    Indeed, as Monbiot notes, all the most important forces that will shape our lives in the next century – “climate change, terrorism, state aggression, trade, flows of money, demographic pressures, the depletion of resources – can be addressed only at the global level.”

    He is arguing that only a world parliament can address these points. I – we, probably – differ from Monbiot in feeling that representative democracy – a parliament – is needed.

    These issues will certainly shape the new society we hope to discuss in this project. But I believe that a distributed democracy we build together can provide a better way to come together to solve these problems.

    But more on that later.


  2. Representative democracy doesn’t scale.

    The premise of representative democracy is that elected members of a parliament are incentivised to act in the best interests of their constituents in order to stay in power, on the assumption that representatives can discern policy that is in the public interest and the public will recognise and reward it as such. The experience of representative democracy is somewhat different. The bigger the constituency the more its premises fail.

    We have representative democracies because the prevailing alternatives don’t scale either.

    What is needed is a more direct democratic system that does scale. A system in which people can represent themselves in the public debate on any topic at whatever level of detail they choose, no matter how many other people are participating, without becoming swamped by the number of competing voices.

    I believe the key to achieving this is to break the debate down into very small pieces – individual points – and to structure the debate as a policy statement in which every point can be supported or opposed by other points.

    Consultations that invite public comment on draft policy do not scale, because they require a centralised effort to collate and respond to the comments. There is a single point of truth for the draft policy, and commenters cannot directly influence it without the mediation of the approved committers to the draft. There is no escaping this if the policy statement is a linear document, because wiki editing does not scale when there is contention.

    To alleviate the need for centralised mediation, draft policy and the comment on it must be one and the same. There is no essential distinction between policy and comment; they both:

    * state a position on a point; and
    * provide supporting and opposing arguments by drawing relevance to other points.

    This suggests a form of structured policy statement as a graph of points that is freed from the limitations of a linear document. When the draft and the comment are one and the same, and when this is managed in a distributed fashion where it is practical for anyone to maintain their own fork, and when an automated system can handle the task of merging an unlimited number of forks into a single digestible view, there is no need for unscalable central mediation.

    When each fork of a policy statement is represented as a graph of points, merging them is trivial. Each graph that marks a certain point as true or false contributes to the count of votes for or against that point. Each graph that asserts the relevance or irrelevance of one point in support or opposition to another point contributes to the count of votes for or against the relevance between those two points. The result is a merged graph where each point is annotated with a count of votes for and against, supported and opposed by lists of points that can be sorted by relevance.

    Key to this is that a point is an immutable object with an identity that is independent of who states it, the points that support or oppose it, or the graph in which it appears. A point is a sentence or two; some examples:

    * “Australia should implement a carbon tax.”
    * “A carbon tax would harm the economy.”
    * “The European experience shows that a carbon tax need not harm the economy.”
    * “Worse off under the carbon tax? Hardly…

    By maintaining my own policy statement graph I have a resource that is useful in itself: It states what I believe and why I believe it. That graph can serve as a filter over the merged graph of all other participants or subsets of participants. Over time the merged graph can suggest to me the relevance of new supporting or opposing points that might reinforce or challenge my beliefs. I can choose to amend my graph by marking points as true or false, relevant or irrelevant. And I can create new points and mark them as relevant.

    By doing so I provide my democratic input directly into the merged graph, the policy statement that fairly represents a group of people. is my experiment towards building this system. I invite you to join me, and to see how far we can make it scale.

    (Also posted at

    • Fascinating concept Ben, I’d love to know more.

      Just two questions immediately:

      “There is no essential distinction between policy and comment”. I’m not sure I follow here. Surely we need in society some distinction between what is settled and proscriptive (eg, Don’t murder) and what is an individual comment on that proscriptive rule. Perhaps I’m just not following.

      The other question was, could you provide a longer example that steps through how this would work, such as on something simple like rubbish collection and how it should be organised / paid for? I looked at a few of the questions on, but for me those binaries are far too black and white for what are *very* complex issues.

  3. Will, thanks for your questions! I’ll do my best:

    Perhaps I should have written “There is no essential distinction between statement of policy and statement of comment.” I’m not saying that comment should alter settled policy without a process of reaching agreement, far from it. I’m observing that the statements involved in articulating policy have the same structure as statements involved in making comment. Points in favour, points against, and a position taken on balance.

    And I’m not saying that all comment has to be articulated as points within a system like Counterpointy. I’m just saying that making points in that format is more amenable to being incorporated as a direct contribution to a policy proposal, rather than requiring a mediator to read a comment, make a judgement and update a proposed policy document to reflect the sentiment of the comment. In Counterpointy you build the graph of points that articulate what you think the policy should be and why, and the system can trivially merge your graph with those of all the other contributors into a single view that shows vote counts on each point and on the relevance between points.

    The process by which a group considers a policy to be agreed and enacted would depend on the group’s constitution, a concern which is outside Counterpointy’s scope. Counterpointy just facilitates debate and counts votes.

    Re black and white on complex issues:

    You can print an image in beautiful shades of grey with only black ink, if you make the dots small enough. Individual points are black and white – either we have a tax on carbon or we don’t – and the complexity of the issue is in the structure of the arguments supporting or opposing. The policy response to an issue might involve many points to be decided, reflecting the details of the policy. Counterpointy doesn’t yet have a facility for collecting lists of points around topics, but that is coming. I expect a group debating the solution to an issue will move through variations on points in order to address problems as they emerge in the debate.

    The structure of Counterpointy – where you can drill down through the details of an argument as far as you want – is all about the complexity of issues and the importance of the details. A point about truck axle loadings might be five levels deep in a debate about transport infrastructure, but it might be what changes my mind about investment in railways.

    The problem with the content on right now is that it’s mostly by me, and most of my attention has been on developing code rather than detailed examples. A notable exception is the debate on bicycle registration, with thanks to Jen:

    That point has a good balance of supporting and opposing points, and you can drill down several levels into those.

    It would help me immensely to have people trying out Counterpointy on a genuine debate, on any issue. The simplistic examples I have created are mostly in the hope of catching the attention of people who have some depth of knowledge in a policy area and would be willing to share their perspectives on the issues in point form.

    Early visitors to Wikipedia might have been disappointed by the sparsity of content, but enough people saw the potential of the platform that they contributed some improvements to an article or two. Counterpointy today is just a platform (incomplete at that) with ambitions and a few examples. If you see any potential in Counterpointy, I hope you might create yourself an account, agree or disagree with some points, up- or down-vote the relevance of supporting and opposing points, make a point on an issue of interest to you and add some points that support your position on that issue. One day I’ll get email notifications implemented (with proper opt-out) when someone adds a point that supports or opposes yours. Content will be developing in slow motion for quite a while I expect.

    About the UI: The meanings of the buttons are not as obvious as they should be. I’m working on it, but for now:

    * Up triangle means Relevant
    * Down triangle means Irrelevant
    * Tick means True / Agree
    * Cross means False / Disagree

    BTW, the current list of featured points on the front page is just a placeholder, edited by me. The goal is to replace that with lists of contentious points measured by votes for times votes against, most-favourited points, trending points with recent activity etc, chosen by system rules rather than by me.

    I hope I’ve answered your questions? Sold you on signing up? :)

    • I do like i, there are problems as always but… is does flow. The ideas, arguments and therefore conclusions flow. and its now much simpler than the first version. i’m just not sure how to use it in a monetary democracy

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the clarification – that does make a lot more sense and I’m keen to take a look around. It really does sound fascinating.

      What I would say immediately though is that though you can make a beautiful grey image via a million points of black or white, there are two questions I’ve got – perhaps you can help here.

      The first is the simple one – that your examples (whether or not we have a carbon tax) are actually much too complex to be simply right or wrong. Will we actually have a carbon tax come July 1? Aside from debates over the word ‘tax’, what we will have on July 1 is a mechanism that charges a price for permitting a certain amount of release of greenhouse gases by certain companies (only covering 60% or so of Australian greenhouse gases). For the first three years the price of the permit will be fixed by government before moving to a market system capped (and reduced) by legislation.

      Complex, yes.

      But can we actually say we ‘have a carbon tax’? Not absolutely, and not very easily. I certainly won’t be paying for the greenhouse gases I release directly via my car etc.

      This might sound like quibbling… but on a point of policy, particularly if we are to break the policy landscape down into an atomic / binary focus, we need to have actual facts that can be agreed on, or at least unambiguously understood. Eg, ‘Drive on the left hand side of the road’.

      The second point is the more complex one, and one I don’t yet have a position on. Can we actually atomise the policy landscape? Can we truly break all societal decisions down to binaries (or trees of binaries) with no ambiguity or overlap into other areas? Consider the example of health triage. What policy affects what happens in an emergency room? In a simple sense, yes, it’s a triage policy probably set by government / medical ethicists. Yet there are countless other policies that affect what will happen as well – funding provided by the state and federal governments, the training given to staff (throughout their whole lives, as we know that cultural judgements will count), the situation of the patient, including their sociocultural identity (we know that some cultures are less likely than others to full disclose medical conditions).

      What would be the binary that we would break this down to?

      I’d love to know more, I’m just trying to think through the full implications of your concept. ;)

      • Hi Will,

        Great to have your interest in this, and it’s a useful conversation for me to think this stuff through.

        The short answer to both your questions is that I’m trying to change the process by which policy develops, not the nature of policy. Any policy document is already a collection of points, expressed as prose in some kind of logical structure. Only the simplest of policies could be distilled down to a single statement.

        Right now there’s no facility for collaboratively gathering a list of points around an issue, other than by abusing the supporting points facility for that purpose. I’ll provide something more suitable soon, but for the moment, abuse away.

        A group considering an issue might start with one or a few questions, and then refine or expand those questions to address ambiguities and objections as they arise.

        Counterpointy doesn’t require that every policy is broken down into individual points. Point text can contain links to other resources on the web. You could start with a single point:

        “The Australian Government should pass the Clean Energy Bill as described in the Exposure Draft 2011:

        As the debate unfolds that might be broken out into more points, but only as required in order for people to express what they would propose the policy should be and why.

        On your second question about overlapping concerns between policy areas: Absolutely, and this is catered for in Counterpointy. A point can support or oppose many other points to which it is considered relevant. There is no limitation to strict trees of isolated concerns.

        For example, this point appears under multiple debates: “Climate change is a big problem.”

        It supports “Australia should implement a carbon tax”

        It also supports “Australia should reduce its carbon emissions”

        which in turn supports “Australia should generate nuclear power”

        Of course when I say point X supports point Y, I really mean that I as user benw have voted up the relevance of X supporting Y, so you’ll see X listed as a supporting point under Y. But if you disagree that X is relevant then you can down-vote that relevance; you won’t see it under Y any more, and others will see it further down the list. You can build your own graph of supporting and opposing points, anyone else’s votes are just suggestions.

        Sorry my examples are so simplistic, this really does need more effort. Then again I hope that people will feel comfortable making points without feeling they need to be experts to express an opinion. If someone makes some more precise points I’ll be happy to adopt them into my graph by up-voting them. A stub has to start somewhere.

        I don’t expect any time soon that Counterpointy will become the place where the kind of big issues I’ve featured as examples are actually debated in earnest. I’m looking for the involvement of groups of people who have more immediate decisions to deliberate on, who might be willing to try Counterpointy as a platform for doing that, and do so in public so that we can all see how it goes and learn from it. Perhaps I should start with some FOSS community organisations – Pia, know anybody? :)

        Will, I hope I’ve answered your questions? More are welcome.

      • Hi Will and Pia,

        An update: Counterpointy has secured a $30k grant from the ACT government, and will become Reasonwell. I’m blogging progress at, would be great to have you along.

        – Ben.

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