Democracy Earth, the promise of a safe and independent online voting system
Virgile Deville, is the co-founder of Open Source Politics as well as Open Democracy Now hackathons. In 2015, he also founded and presided over Democracy OS France. This interview deals with his involvement in Democracy Earth and their “Sovereign” tool.
As a member of Democracy Earth, can you present the foundation to us? Virgile Deville : The Democracy Earth foundation was created in 2015. It is based in Palo Alto, California. The project was born after the incubation of Santiago Siri 🇦🇷 and Pia Mancini 🇦🇷 by Y Combinator, the Sillicon Valley start-up accelerator (Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit…). A three-month incubation period which ended-up with the creation of Democracy Earth, a tech non-profit that aims at creating platforms for decentralized and incorruptible online governance. Since then, the foundation has been strengthened by the involvement of Cyprien Grau 🇨🇦, Lucas Isasmendi 🇦🇷, Louis Margot-Duclos 🇫🇷, Herb Stephens 🇺🇸, Dan Swillow 🇺🇸, Mair Williams 🇦🇷, as well as myself. So it is a small international team, but the project actually brings together a much larger community, an extended circle that is really active online (nearly 200 people exchange daily on the Slack of the foundation to improve the project).
Which issues is the foundation trying to solve?
Democraty Earth’s purpose is to build online governance tools in accordance with the internet’s founding values as well as democracy’s. Namely: decentralization, transparency and incorruptibility. Members of Democracy Earth are also very much aware of the current global context in which several countries are facing various crises linked to the defiance the democratic system stirs up. Examples are numerous: the Brexit, the election of Trump, or even the Colombian referendum dealing with a peace agreement with the FARC. It is also to this type of problems that the foundation can provide solutions for…
How does “Sovereign” work?
Sovereign is an open source application that offers decentralized governance. Anyone can make a proposal on which members of the community will then debate and vote. By the way, we opened the code of Sovereign on the day of the American presidential election. As the results unfolded, many people joined the project under the impetus of our call: “Voting is not enough, join us coding”. Today the project is progressing thanks to 12 active contributors, nearly 40 followers, and it counts more than 360 stars on Github. The next version is scheduled for January 20, Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration day. Every bit of help is greatly appreciated, join us now! In terms of goals now, this software deals with three ideas we deem crucial for any democratic process online: decentralizing user data, safeguarding votes on the blockchain and finally, liquid democracy.
Can you expand on these three topics?
Decentralization of user data
Our data is increasingly being handled by GAFAM (acronym of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). For instance, when connecting to an application via Facebook, we sometimes provide a much larger amount of information than we would like to. Within the foundation, we are convinced that personal sovereignty starts with the resumption of control over our digital identities. That’s why we created Self, a mobile app that allows users to keep their personal information on their smartphones and give access to it on a case-by-case basis by flashing a QR code. With this system, no e-mail, no password and no third-party.
The blockchain is an incorruptible accounting system. Any transaction or information stored in it is impossible to remove or modify, guaranteeing transparency to any democratic process that would make use of this tool. Regarding our implementation of this technology, we consider two approaches. The ideal one would be the automatic creation of blockchain identifiers for each user (a Bitcoin wallet for example) making it possible to record any interaction taking place on the platform. Another, perhaps easier, would be to use the time stamping and notarization features offered by Bitcoin: with a cryptographic hash function, any data can be transformed into a single string of characters which, if inserted in a Bitcoin transaction, certifies its authenticity at a given time.
Sovereign offers the opportunity to emphasize our opinion on a vote based on the convictions we have on the thematic. To put it simply: each voter has a limited reserve of votes — which is currently set at a hundred — that can be allocated to a particular proposal to give an intensity to the vote. The classic “binary” vote, where one simply positions themselves “for” or “against” a proposition, is sometimes too simplistic. On Sovereign, a voter may also choose to delegate a number of votes to a trusted person whom they consider to be inspiring, more erudite, or more able to vote on a proposal. It is a way of delegating, as can be done in our countries by voting for a candidate, except that in this case the person is appointed to take a decision on a single proposal or theme, and not for a five-year term on all topics. It is a very short term mandate, given on a single proposition or on a chosen subject. The “liquid” aspect is also relevant because unlike in our representative systems, in this case we do not give a blank check to the “experts” to whom we give a decision-making power.
It seems like such a system would imply a risk of corruption for the “experts”…
This system does involve a risk. However, within the foundation we are reflecting on these issues and the protocols that must be put in place to hinder this type of behavior. One answer could be for example to implement a maximum number of votes that an “expert” can obtain. This would limit their influence at the same time. We are also discussing a system that would include votes revocation, where those who have delegated their decision-making power receive a notification on the vote of the expert they have appointed and can potentially take their votes back if they do not agree with the use that has been made of them. But of course, these issues are very important and are continuously being debated by the members of the foundation.
Was Sovereign ever used by the public?
Yes it was, and it dealt with Colombia’s latest referendum. At the time, we were contacted by Colombians expatriates because some of theme could not vote: the government had decided not to re-open the registration on the electoral lists for that deadline. It is important to consider that the Colombian expatriate community is proportionally the largest in the world, precisely because the tensions with the FARC have driven many residents abroad. Hence the fact that nearly six million people were unable to vote in this referendum. Therefore, we offered to a small number of them the opportunity to use Sovereign to voice their opinion on the issue. It should be noted that the referendum was not only about a peace agreement with the FARC, but also dealt with a rural reform program, measures to prevent drug trafficking and so on. Our approach tends to emphasize this: online platforms can avoid having to answer in a binary fashion, as was the case for this referendum, or for the Brexit.
Democracy Earth’s alternative referendum for Colombian expatriates
We documented our reaction to the surprising results of the referendum. They showed that a plurality of issues and the participation of Colombian expatriates could have resulted in a very different outcome.
Which project could make use of such a tool?
This is an open source technology so it is accessible to all types of structures. The prerequisite is the need to make collective decisions online. This may concern institutions of various sizes. However, in the light of my recent experience at the Medialab Prado, it is likely that at first, the foundation will tend to work with movements that are interested in online governance, such as the Indignados, Occupy, or Nuit Debout in France. The stakeholders of these structures often express their desire to make decisions online, without transmitting their data to a third party actor. Sovereign allows decision making on a distributed system where users choose the data they share. Therefore, it is the ideal tool for this type of movements, but the platform would be just as suitable for the consultations of an elected representative or a candidate.
Who are you funded by?
The foundation initially followed the incubation process of Y Combinator, which provides seed capital. Following this, two investors joined the project: Teespring, which is a platform for custom apparel, and Fast Forward, which is an accelerator that is dedicated to tech non-profits. In addition, the foundation is also funded by donations, in Bitcoin of course, offered by generous individuals, often anonymously. Democracy Earth is also experimenting with the crowdfunding platform opencollective.com, which Pia Mancini co-founded.
Which part of your background drove you to this field?
It is mostly due to my involvement in civic tech for the last two years. With Democracy Earth of course, but with Open Source Politics as well, which I co-founded. I also became involved with Democracy OS. So basically I met lots of people during these years. This is how I met Santiago Siri for instance, and he was the one who made me aware of the importance of decentralization and incorruptibility. These issues are at the core of the foundation and in our view, they must become standards not only for civic tech, but for democracy in general.
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