An online identity and formal digital democracy

February 3, 2009

As seen in the articles on networked technologies in Kenya’s 2007-2008 crisis that arose from electoral fraud and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the rise of relative mass accessibility to modern mobile and Internet technologies has led to faster and possibly greater mobilization of citizens when their voices are most needed. Both productive and counterproductive intentions, both good and evil, and both peaceful protest and violent revolt can be organized through a “many-to-many” communication network. However, while these technologies in themselves can be useful for group mobilization and communication from the local or grassroots level, their usefulness in developed countries to facilitate a digital voice for the public is at least partly dictated by the infrastructure built around them. In countries like Ukraine and Kenya, a formal digital democracy was not needed; however, in the US, an informal and a formal digital democracy is necessary to create the greatest opportunities to be heard.

If President Obama wanted to gauge the public’s opinion on an issue in an interactive manner, what tools would he have at his disposal? He could survey 1000 citizens by phone (or for that matter, let CNN and its magic map do it), or he could use a tool similar to that that was used for the Citizen’s Briefing Book. The problem with the latter approach is that there is no way to determine the demographics of the people voting (i.e. Is a certain population not being represented in the online vote?) or if certain individuals are voting more than once.

This is one example of many where the creation of an individual online identity would benefit formal digital democracy. The idea of democracy implies that one voice only receives the power of opinion of one individual; however, digital tools can often lead to greater weight being placed on the ideas of a savvy few. Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing, as expert knowledge does have its place and should be considered, but a digital democracy needs to begin with a default position of an equal voice to each individual, which can be partly accomplished through the establishment of an online identity system.

And now to sports…

In February 2008, Ebbsfleet United, a Blue Square Premier soccer team located in Kent, England, was purchased by an online community of 30,000 people (see As could easily be assumed, this is the first time any sports team (except, for perhaps, those in communist states) has been owned by such an extraordinarily large group of people.  The membership votes on issues ranging from team selection to financial budgets, and the voting process takes place online. Is this digital democracy successful? Yes, “Just three months [after the membership purchased the team], Ebbsfleet United won the FA Trophy at Wembley—the club’s greatest achievement in a history that dates back to 1890.”

The digital democracy is able to ensure that each owner is able to vote on items through a secure online identity. Just as voting for a team captain can be accomplished online, voting on issues can take place through the creation of an online identity system created by the federal government, for example. In such a case, each citizen could be assigned a number, much like that assigned through social security. This would ensure that each citizen has the ability to cast his or her one vote.

Taken beyond simple surveying of the population at large, an online identity number could be used on private websites to help facilitate discussion. For example, as a reader of a blog or website, you might be able to click on the writer’s username and receive links to writings he or she has posted on other sites, demonstrating the applicability of online identity numbers both at the individual and national level.

Goodbye to anonymity?
Many see their online activities as separate from the rest of their lives and thus should remain anonymous. While privacy is an important issue, identity allows us to see potential sources of bias in opinions as well as respond appropriately to individuals of different backgrounds. Even though an individual’s official writings and opinions would be tied to their online identity in a formal digital democracy, this does not mean that any reader would know that 996-76-2211 is Lawrence Bacow.

In fact, there is no reason for the online identity number of an individual to be visible, searchable or public to the population at large. Just as when we go to vote for a presidential candidate our vote remains anonymous while our identity is verified, an online identity would be used to certify identity and not to link opinions expressed or votes cast with an individual’s name. On any given website, there is no reason for the population to have access to another person’s name or online identity number. Anonymity is maintained in relation to the public, and identity can still be verified.

– Parker Noren


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