Democracy the Web 2.0 way

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With the 2007 Federal election showdown now set in stone, it’s time to pull out your political placards and start canvassing the changes you want.

In this age of World Wide Web 2.0, there’s no better place to do it than on the Internet. But these days it’s not just the punters who are throwing their hats into the ring to be heard, increasingly politicians of all flavours are jumping on the internet bandwagon in a bid to boost popularity and reach the average Joe with their message.

Already we’ve seen American presidential candidates and even our own Coalition and Opposition leaders jump onto the YouTubes and MySpaces of this world in a bid to connect with the already connected electoral world. And why shouldn’t they? At its core, Web 2.0 is political. It’s all about creating grassroots participation, forging new connections and empowering from the ground up. Politics is no longer about connecting with voters via one-to-many communication methods; it’s now about creating participatory, two-way political communities. It’s about Web 2.0 and Web 2.0 is about democratising digital technology.

But how far the pollies are prepared to embrace this Web 2.0 revolution remains to be seen. After all, it’s one thing for Joe Hockey to have a MySpace account but if he uses it as just another platform to wax lyrical about workplace reforms to his 953 friends, instead of as a medium for meaningful two-way discourse with his voting public, where’s the worth?.

Which in essence is the problem with politicians entering the world of Web 2.0: they fail to realise that the Web 2.0 phenomenon is a completely nonpartisan one, an arena where anyone and everyone can have their say. True Web 2.0 is open access for all, the type of forum that rarely sits well with cue-card reading political figures.

But perhaps things are set to change. A new Australian political party hopeful has recognised Web 2.0 for what it is and is intent on pushing internet politics one step further by going right to the root of Web 2.0 power and handing the decision making processes back to the people. Call it Democracy 2.0 if you will.

Senator On-line (SOL) is the name of the party and according to its founder, Berge Der Sarkissian, is Australia’s and the world’s first exclusively online federal political party. Launched in early October, the party has already gained approval from the Australian Electoral Commission, garnered a heady base of 500 foundation members, has two ready candidates for each state and has established a simple mantra – “we do what you tell us”. Which in more specific terms means that when a Bill is passed before parliament, SOL’s members will be able to vote online (either for or against) to decide the outcome of the action. Not too shabby for a political Web 2.0 start-up.

“The internet is becoming the most powerful democratic tool there is. SOL is taking it one step further, with senators voting in accordance with the clear majority view of Australians,” Der Sarkissian, says, and he’s spot on. Web 2.0, with its borderless-bound users is the perfect playground to start such a political venture.

But do we really want the type of democracy that Web 2.0 promises?

At face value, it isn’t such a bad model when you think about it. If SOL receives the required 4% of the vote needed to attain representation in the Senate, it will mean Australians will have a chance to vote in on-line polls for every piece of legislation that comes to Parliament. But although Der Sarkissian, claims it will be more accessible and engaging with cyber-savvy voters, a number of questions regarding ethics, accountability and transparency loom large.

Number one concern is the black and white nature of the voting process. Governing bodies and officials make dozens of votes on bills every day, so how can a party such as SOL expect people to read, understand, and vote intelligently on dozens of bills dozens of pages long a week? We have to keep in mind that when it comes down to it, our elected officials do more than just vote "yea" or "nay," and I'm not talking about all the subversive stuff like accepting bribes and getting wined and dined. The danger presented here is that lazy web users will vote based on titles alone which really isn’t the kind of robust decision making process we’re after.

But in my view, the biggest problem such a party would face, much like most start-up internet communities, is audience participation, or in SOL’s case voter participation. In order for the party to operate in a meaningful way it would require a substantially large registered user base. And even if you can get the critical mass needed what about users who attempt to subvert the process by casting multiple votes? Der Sarkissian assures us that voters would be restricted to one vote per person with rigorous checks made against electronic electoral roles. But how can we be sure? We’ve already seen Estonia come under cyber attack earlier this year so what’s to stop insidious corporations or lobby groups enlisting the help of hackers to launch attacks so they can ensure certain legislation passes while others fall short. It’s a dire prophecy but in our big bucks world, it’s not that far a stretch of the imagination.

That’s not to say that SOL won’t implement a series of checks and balances from the get-go to ensure its users contribute and participate within appropriate and secure boundaries, but with Web 2.0 the users rule and when users rule, you never know what to expect.
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