Petitions and democracy

Tortoise: Y’know Achilles, when we were last talking about this identity business we got into all sorts of hot water very quickly in trying to find ways to use a definitive identity to do governmenty things on the Internet. But I’ve found a brilliant use for one this morning!

Achilles: Really? What’s that then?

Tortoise: Well – this new idea to transform our democratic participation by cutting a swathe through centuries of saggy old unsexy representative democracy and allowing us, through the power of the Interwebs, to have our say directly about what does and doesn’t get gamed into the Parliamentary timetable.

Achilles: Gamed?

Tortoise: I mean, debated. Sorry. We haven’t got to that bit yet, have we?

Achilles: And it’s also a great excuse for some cheap headlines about the X-factor, isn’t it?

T: Naturally.

A: So what have you read?

T: That this new petitiony thing is coming in and it will let you band together in a free and open way and get really popular people’s choices some proper Parliamentary time.

A: And will this change anything?

T: Dunno. But giving the important stuff some proper Parliamentary time has got to be a good thing in itself, hasn’t it? Especially stuff which is bound to be based on issues that get people to join their voices together, really quickly, using the Internet? Oh…

A: Indeed. But you mentioned something about identity?

T: Yeah. But aren’t you meant to be the personification of the State in these dialogues?

A: I am. Sorry. That’s what happens when you start to mess around with the model of who really holds the power, hey? Just my little joke. Sorry.

T: Accepted.

A: So. Tortoise. I have realised that with this direct democracy business it’s pretty important that we only hear from those from whom we should hear. If you get my drift. So, if you’re not on the electoral roll, I’m sorry, your voice has no place here.

T: Couldn’t agree more.

A: So, are you on the electoral roll then?

T: Is that it? Is that the test – you ask me, and I say I am, and then my voice gets heard? Is that all?

A: It’s what happens when you vote in a polling station, pretty much. There’s nothing by way of a very rigorous identity check, is there? Got a little piece of card, you vote. Not got one, you say your name, my guys check it’s on a big paper list, you vote. What’s the difference?

T: Have you heard of channel friction, Achilles?

A: Yes, I had a touch of that when Agamemnon stuck his javelin… What do you mean, Tortoise?

T: Well, it’s a bit weak to say that just because something works one way in the physical world then its online analogue must be just the same. There’s a certain amount of bother involved in diddling votes down the polling station. You have to queue up, you might see someone who knows you and says “Hi Tortoise!” just as you’re squeaking “I’m Mr Mouse” to the teller, and you can only get away with it once in the same place or you’re really asking for trouble. That all takes time and effort. Think of it as a kind of ‘friction’ associated with the physical voting approach that sort of acts as a check on all the other bad things that might happen. It’s not perfect, but it’s worked just about well enough for quite a while now.

A: Whereas the Internet is very much a frictionless channel, isn’t it? Hmm. It would seem, Tortoise, that those who want to create mischief or subvert the democratic process can do so easily, at great speed, in great fictitious numbers and all without having to leave their bedroom and feign an honest face to the bobby looming at the school doorway. Yes, I see your point.

T: You’re getting there…

A: We’d better stiffen it up then. I need, Tortoise, for you to prove, online, that you are the same Tortoise who is on my electoral roll. Otherwise this whole petitiony thing is quickly going to descend into discredited chaos. (If I’m not to quietly drop the bit about electoral roll verification, that is, hem hem.)

T: And how are you going to do that then?

A: Well, I tell you what – I’ll build this massive database which has a unique identifier associated with every person who appears on the electoral roll, and then I will, having verified through the physical examination of something like your passport, securely give you that identifier and some associated credentials…oh bollocks. We’re here again, aren’t we?

T: I’m afraid so.

A: And we haven’t even got to the bit where any attempt at online democratic participation is going to be holed below the waterline morally, and possibly legally, when so much of our population doesn’t have decent Internet access anyway?

T: I’m glad you got there before Cyberdoyle did.

A: Quite. One for a future conversation?

T: With pleasure.

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7 Responses

  1. Loudmouthman says:

    My crazy idea 101: Issue a cheap mobile phone which allows you to vote only on govt stuff. use a 3g channel provided by every provider and lock the phones to govt services allow people to press, call or two stage authenticate. Allow the phones to provide free access to all local govt and national govt services. crazy ideas dont have to be good ideas or even sane ideas just jumping off points to the question. Who are you ?

  2. loulouk says:

    Sorry to be a pain, but you’re assuming everyones on the electoral roll. I don’t think they are. I’ve absolutely nothing to back this up, apart from a sneaking suspicion that if certain sectors of our population see no reason to vote or feel that their religious paperwork directs them that it directly contravenes their religion, then I fail utterly to see how internet voting in petitions will ever lead to outcomes which are representative of what the UK population actually wants.

    But of course, equality is not the point here, is it. No, the point is fanfare and making the people who do bother to vote feel that they’re included in the democratic process. Majority rules, and is that a bad thing?

    I am also incredibly interested in what this would mean for things like the Digital Economy Act. It would never have made it from White Paper stage, surely, because no one cared nor understood enough about it to actually join the dots and understand the impact of its passing. Including the people debating it in Parliament. And if our MP’s do not understand the issues attached to the things they vote on, how are we? Where does Plain English come into this?

  3. cyberdoyle says:

    haha, nice one.
    would have commented sooner but been analoging it at a funeral this morning…
    Most blogs can tell you the IP addy of anyone who comments. Petitions could do the same.
    An insurance number is pretty unique identifier, given at birth. how many more identifiers are needed? A passport number/driving licence or a NI number are surely all that is needed?
    But like you say, online isn’t much good if a third of the population can’t get a connection. I look forward to the next conversation.

  4. Loudmouthman says:

    Okay stepping on on IP addresses being bad. First of all an IP address is not static it could be used by one of many people in the course of a few hours. IP Addresses also represent a device that might be servicing 1 to many connections so its not enough to say 1 IP is 1 person .

    Now if we move to ipv6 will this be better or worse ? well actually no different but we can come back to that.

    What we need is two stage authentication something you own, something you know with something you do. We have Pin Numbers ( which are bloody aweful ) but link them to a Mobile Phone and use them on a website and things get a little more interesting. but I digress.

    Insurance numbers, in fact any numeric assignment never helped. we need two stage authentication and a third stage of trust.

    Now Geeks at their Keysigning parties ( not as interesting as key swapping but I digress again ) know some of this and have established a method of creating a trust for an electronic signature that is extremely robust , free and needs some User Interface tweaking to be a little more accesible.

    right .. im back in my box

  5. Paul Clarke says:

    Rushing to pick on any particular identifier, be it NINO, passport, driver number or whatever as a single way of pinning all govt relationships together is indeed tempting. In fact, it’s a screamingly obvious solution. Why it doesn’t happen like that (and the problems that would arise if it did) is going to be the subject of a post in its own right. It’s a complex combination of different topics and technical issues: in a line, the problem occurs because the risks escalate faster than the benefits in a society such as ours. Watch this space. But thank you for the comment. And yes: moving to any formal democratic engagement when poorer households (to pick on just one metric) are several times less likely to have internet access (of any speed!) than wealthier does of course bring its own difficulties…

  6. […] Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary […]

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Chris. I’ve written https://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2011/01/the-nature-of-the-relationship-part-1/ in part to help answer that question “isn’t an NI number all that’s needed?” – hope it makes sense!

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