Can blockchain’s decentralized ledger save democracy?

August 15, 2018
Chris Wheal

Blockchain has a tough task if it is to help democracies rediscover electoral trust. Pursuing and establishing truth is hard work. A maelstrom of subjective truth or, worse, falsehood presented as fact, is all over our mobile devices and media.

Whether it’s anti-intellectualism or dumbing down, facts are increasingly kicked back as ‘fake news’. Trivia or surprise travels, often, faster than bona fide real events: it’s informational chaos on an industrial scale.

To pit blockchain against such negativity and apparent powerlessness seems unreasonable. But might democracy, supported by smart contracts and distributed ledger technology, be a start to fix things?

President Donald Trump at a public press event following a debate in Houston, Texas, 2017

Pick your utopia

It may depend on how free or safe your life is. The more isolated you are, the more likely a blockchain solution might help.

Horizon State is an Australian start-up specialising in community power. Scan Horizon’s website and there’s precious little mention of blockchain. But it’s there, deep in its ballot box tech. This helped Horizon land a UN partnership deal last year and sign an agreement with the Indonesians to supply a voting system across Sumatra this spring.

Late night fish-market in Jakarta. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy after India but Conservative Islamic forces are considerable

Product officer Jamie Skella told Sydney-based ABC radio that retro-fitting election transactions to create “an unhackable result” was the objective. Give the tech a decade and any government that rejects it “will be a proclamation of corruption” he said.

Skella added that a decentralised voting system in some developing nations is physically safer for voters because “going to these points of polling can sometimes be life-threatening ordeals”.

Cheaper, faster, safer

Blockchain could make democracy cheaper too. The Australian plebiscite on same-sex marriage run last September and November cost the Australians close to AUD$120m. Horizon could have run it for less than AUD$1m and four time as fast, perfectly securely, Skella claims.

South Australian supporters of marriage equality gather outside Parliament House, 2017

“We saw postal votes left out in the rain and delivered to the wrong place – so [it was] inherently insecure despite its paper-based nature.”

It sounds persuasive. But like online banking, digital roots need time and the right political soil and infrastructure to embed themselves. Even in advanced tech nations, such as Estonia, voting is done online, not via blockchain.

On the case

Some Western elections are already part-run on blockchain. While arguments rage over whether the Russians infected the 2016 US election, Scott Warner, a US paratrooper stationed in Vicenza, Italy voted by blockchain in a US pilot using Voatz software on an open-source Hyperledger platform for the 8 May 2018 US Senate primaries.

Electronic fingerprint scan supported by biometric tech

Quick low-down:

The Voatz platform – still in beta release – saw voting via a smartphone or internet-connected tablet. Biometric sensors were used to ensure each vote was authenticated. Voatz claims their technology has been piloted by 70,000 so far and is good news for the isolated, particularly those in hospitals and care homes.

Registration was easy he said in a West Virginia Secretary of State release. “It included an ID verification process that matched me to my ID.”

“When the ballot was available,” he went on, “I clicked through the names of the candidates. I hit ‘vote’ for the candidates I wanted to support. Then I used the thumb print Touch ID on my phone to verify who I was. Pretty slick.”

Father of American democracy, Thomas Jefferson; US politics tends to generate more fake news than most other nations

Post-fact reality

But the US lags Europe: Danish political party the pro-business Liberal Alliance was the first major Western party to deploy blockchain in 2014 (the Liberal Alliance could not provide platform details despite OL checks).

Jacob Piotrowski, CEO at London-based crowd-funding website Give Bytes, says blockchain tech has the capacity to reliably verify but also to interpret ideological nuance. It can even warn of potential corruption.

“We could, for example,” he told OpenLedger, “see a blockchain-based bias index showing which media websites tend to be more pro-left or pro-right.”

A platform rewarding people to verify news might use an algorithm to reward speed or accuracy. any more on this? “This truth-verifying technology,” he says, “could be used to reduce or even eliminate the spread of misinformation on social networks and could become essential in the fight against fake news.”

Election poster: as Angela Merkel’s grip weakens French President Emmanuel Macron is the only major European leader left committed to the EU project

Quick low-down:

This tech is here now. Ljubljana-based start-up Eventum – it has raised €5m in funding so far – is a blockchain platform which pays people to fact-check news. It deploys an algorithm to reward pace and accuracy.

Eventum’s system has validation nodes which wait for a consensus – think multiple data providers sending the same info – which is sent to a developer in a real-time API.

“The developer locks a reward in a smart contract, which is then split and given to data providers that were part of the consensus,” Eventum says in its white paper. “The reward is split proportionally to the speed at which the data was provided, so the real-time nature of the API is incentivized.”

Trivia or news, there’s a choice

A civil response

For some people, social media sites are now their default source of news (metropolitan elites and most in-between have their own silos too). Weeding out BS from the authentic has become impractical as information channels proliferate and trust and loyalty weakens.

Brooklyn-based Civil is a decentralised ethereum-based platform for reporters. Its aim is to forge a closer relationship between reporter and reader, as well as re-engineer the hollowed-out space bought low from the drain of ex-print advertising, now re-directed to Google and Facebook, among others.

“The goal of Civil,” claims its white paper, “is to create a sustainable, global marketplace for journalism free from manipulative ads, misinformation and outside influence.”

Richard Nixon at China’s Great Wall, 1972, before Watergate and national disgrace; Wikimedia Commons

Ambitious words. Civil says their readers pay their preferred ‘newsmakers’ “in any currency, including fiat using traditional credit card processors as well as cryptocurrency via web wallets”. There are some complex moving parts here but you get the idea.

So, a re-boot for quality reporting and public service (Civil describe this as ‘mission-driven journalism’)? Civil’s community focus straddles both ‘content’ and ‘news’ and so looks genuinely different; sites such as Steemit and Medium are predominantly content-only in comparison.

Anti-liberal forces advance

If blockchain is to practically help shore up democracy, it has its work cut out. Illiberal forces are advancing in Europe. Militant nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism: there are many radical currents and shared hatreds adept at technology and cross-border co-operation. Blockchain, then, may need to get a move on.

  • The Czech republic, Slovakia and Slovenia all have powerful far-right parties that are in or close to entering government (August 2018). On the other side of Europe, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are close to similar positions
  • Angela Merkel appears a spent force. German border controls are going up. The Schengen Agreement on freedom of movement – once a cornerstone of EU policy and still a red line for Brexit negotiations – is under crushing strain
  • France’s President Emmanuel Macron appears the only major leader left committed to the EU project

Warsaw, 20 July 2018: protests against violation of constitutional law in Poland by the Polish government

Post written by Chris Wheal
Chris Wheal is editor of OpenLedger's news and features service. An award-wining business journalists himself, he runs a team of freelance journalists from across the UK and north America.

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