Looking to Occupy Wall Street for Anonymous Democracy

Spirit fingers at Occupy Wall Street - Flickr photo from getdarwin

One of the the drawbacks to a perfectly private society is the impossibility of preventing voter fraud; without knowing who’s who, there’s no way to be sure that every eligible voter is only voting once. Perhaps the Occupy movement’s method of decision-making is well-suited to solving this problem.

The question came up in a discussion I had with Rick last month when he was in New York. At the end of the night, as we walked uptown towards his hotel and in the direction of my train home, I mentioned that there’d been something I’d meant to ask him about and hadn’t remembered until now.

Obviously, I’m paraphrasing this conversation:
    ”I’ve been thinking,” I said to Rick. “You know how most of the things that we think and talk about are related to technology making it impossible to enforce laws?”
    ”Making the cost to civil liberties too great to enforce the law,” Rick corrected me.
    ”Right. Well, we wouldn’t want to do that, so for all intents and purposes impossible. Anyway,” I continued, “Let’s say we have an ideally private society, where the government can’t force its citizens to reveal personal information. Obviously, voting would happen online so that nobody would have to reveal themselves by leaving their homes. But without violating privacy, the government couldn’t make them register to vote.”
    ”You know,” replied Rick, “in Europe they don’t make people register to vote. They use public records, and send everybody a voting card.”
    ”Really?” I paused for a moment, rethinking my argument in light of this. “I never knew that. Wow. That makes a lot of sense. But anyway, those public records also, technically, violate privacy because the government knows where everyone lives.”
    ”So, obviously preventing voter fraud would be a problem. They’d have no way of knowing whether somebody had made up a fake name and address to vote twice. Now, you could verify that each person only votes once using biometrics — fingerprint scanner, retinal scan, DNA sample, whatever.”
    ”But then the government would have biometric records of all the voters.”
    ”Exactly. So, the solution to that would be not to store the actual biometric itself. Instead, the fingerprint data could act as the private key in a key pair. The government would only store the public key.”
    ”Those public keys could still be linked back to the voters,” said Rick. At least I think that’s what he said. That wasn’t the objection I was expecting, and my brain didn’t commit it to memory because the encyption-biometric-thing wasn’t the important point I wanted to make. Since we were nearing his hotel, so I was in a bit of a rush to get to that.
    ”Well, the problem I was thinking of is the fact that this would only last as long as there wasn’t sufficient technology to convincingly fake biometric data. Create new fingerprints or retinas for people who didn’t exist.”
    ”Yes,” Rick said. “There’s that.”
    ”So, I’m not sure how exactly this would work, but I’d say the solution we need to figure out is some kind of voting system which would be fraud-tolerant. A system where even if somebody voted more than once, it would still present an accurate picture of public opinion.
    ”That’s very interesting,” said Rick. “I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like that. But I’ll do some thinking.” And that’s when we reached his hotel and said our goodbyes.

My line of thinking was similar to how I’ve approached filmmaking: by fundraising before a production and not relying on sales for revenue, I make piracy irrelevant. With anonymous online voting, I was wondering how to make the problem of voter fraud irrelevant. A few weeks later, when describing the decision-making process at Occupy Wall Street to a friend, I realized that perhaps I was trying to take the wrong thing out of the equation. As my experiences in Zuccotti Park showed me, perhaps it wasn’t voter fraud that was the problem, but voting itself.

I’m well aware that the decision-making method I’m about to describe has been in use for years by various activist movements. Occupy Wall Street is, however, the place where I became familiar with it, and arguably its most prominent use case to date.

Occupy Wall Street refers to its decision-making process as “modified consensus”, with a rather simple structure. Everyone is free to propose an idea, why it’s being proposed, and how it might be carried out. If nobody voices opposition, the proposal passes. If someone does raise an objection, the proposal must be revised until no one objects. There is no voting, only discussion.

This process could easily be adapted to an online, anonymous message board. Anyone can post a proposal, and anyone can reply with a suggestion, objection, or revision. If, after a predetermined period of time, a proposal remains unopposed, it passes. Only the ideas expressed in the discussion would matter, not the number of people supporting or objecting to a proposal. An individual could post a hundred messages of opposition or support, but if they’re all expressing the exact same perspective, the sheer number of them would be irrelevant.

For example, a citizen might visit their town’s discussion board and propose funding and resources for a crafts fair, in order to give local artists and artisans more exposure to the community. It would run three specific blocks of Main Street from morning until evening on May 12th. Quickly, replies appear:
    ”We can’t block off 5th Avenue,” says one. “That would cause terrible traffic problems.”
    ”So why don’t we move it up the street two blocks?” responds the next. “7th and 8th don’t get very much traffic on the weekends, and there are plenty of detours.”
    ”I’d really like to participate, but I’ve got tickets to see Lady Gaga on May 12th.”
    ”We could probably do it on the 19th.”
    ”lol were changing the date just cause some idiot wants to see lady gaga? wtf. she sucks anyway.”
    ”Oh, come on, it’s not that unreasonable to do May 19th instead. Any objections?”
    ”Yeah Lady Gaga sucks that’s why lol.”
    ”That’s not a valid objection. On another note, is one day really enough for this? We should do both days of the weekend.”

Eventually, the precise location of the fair is changed, and it’s decided that it’ll take place on May 19th and 20th. Five days pass without any further objections, and the proposal passes.

Obviously, there are still some issues to work out:

  • Temperature checks: General Assembly participants use hand signals to express their approval or disapproval of what a speaker is saying. By looking at the crowd’s hands, facilitators of a general assembly can see how “hot” or “cold” a particular proposal or comment is. This is particularly useful in determining, for example, whether a Lady Gaga concert date is a valid reason to modify a proposal. But determining how many people feel a certain way requires breaking anonymity.
  • Blocks: Any participant with very strong moral or ethical reservations about a proposal can opt to block it. Until the block is retracted, the proposal cannot pass. Obviously, a block can only be retracted by the same person who first issued it, which, again, breaks anonymity. Because blocks are very powerful and are prone to abuse, some General Assemblies allow them to be overturned by a temperature check.

Right now, I’m not sure how to handle these problems. That’s part of the reason why I’m posting this, so that people can discuss it, revise it, and take the idea and run with it. I feel like this line of thinking — focusing on ideas and discussion, instead of numbers and votes — may be the right way to start reimagining democracy for an anonymous and private population.


  1. Erik Hultgren

    It will be very interesting to see if you can develop this further. I am very sceptical.

    The occupy wall street model is constructed for a group:
    That is very small
    That is voluntary and easy to leave
    Where the members want to use the group to achieve somewhat similiar goals.
    That has no power over the individual members wealths and lives and whos decision do not involve large monetary stakes.

    It’s a difficult conversion you need to do.

    And you want to apply it to a country, whis is a group:
    That is extremly large, usually between a few million to a few hundred million people.
    That is non-voluntary and hard to leave (you need to emigrate).
    Where the population has extremely diverse view of the states role, power and the goals it should achieve.
    That has final power over the individual members wealths and lives and where large monetary interests are at stake.

  2. steelneck

    It looks like you are trying to create problems to solve. In Sweden we have had the discussion of online voting and skipped that, out of its inherent transparency issues compared to open counting of anonymous votes on paper. Though there are issues that can be made better, but none of these are about electronic voting.

    One issue i usually take up regarding the voting system is the importance of being able to hold individual politicians responsible on the ballot slip. In Sweden we once actually had that right but was deprived of it back in 1998. They changed the system from holding politicians responsible, by drawing a line over their name, to letting us vote for individual politicians by a checkbox. Like if the former would rule out the latter. Today we can only vote on sugarsweet words, not holding anyone responsible for what they actually did, not with less than voting for another party altogether. So we crated a system that rewards lying to the public just to turn around toand lick the butts of the party leadership once in (because they decide who gets their name in the list on the slip).

    Issues like this is much more important than introducing new problems by fixing things that ain’t broken. With voting over the net you are also inviting third party pressure on the voter, like the man holding up his fist infront of his wife when she are about to vote, or other things like that. Not to mention the incentive to hack things, hughe things are at stake.. Just think of the resources available if the price was to control who gets elected in Russia..

  3. Rev. Smith

    There are a few extra problems with this kind of voting, that are in common with direct democracy.

    1) How to deal with general versus public interest
    We need some kind of compas in these examples
    ex 1. should we have more parkin lots down town or should the handicaped have new wheel chairs?
    ex 2. shall we protect copyright online or legalize file sharing?
    2) Participation require interest
    I.e. if an issue does not affect you, or you are not well informed, will you raise the issue or comment?
    3) The inherent risk of information over flow (look at EU parlament for comparison)
    4) Time consumption vs. output
    One of the most commonly used arguments against democracy as awhole andmore participation will lead to more time and less output (debates take time)
    5) Trolls
    6) Necessary evils will in less extent be implemented (compare with Greece econimic situations)
    7) Ripple effects
    I.e. in the abscense of experts (I am not saying it is better today) consequnces and consequnces consqeunces are harder to address and argument for, especially if everything is absolutly anonymus.
    8) Information imbalance
    Compare with a hacker who knows what certain thing will do to a computer, but can s/he explain it to your grand mother so that she understands? And a hacker is no different than any other expert in any other field.

    To sum things up, this kind of voting is best suited in small groups where all (or atleast most) of the issues are related to you directly or you have a great degree on interest in as well as information about. PErsonally I believe that the Swedish system with a voting card (where the voting registration happens in the ballout box) is a good trade off, however this requires the same kind of census (everyone has a social security number from birth or when becoming a citizen) that Sweden does, which has it’s drawbacks…

  4. Rick Falkvinge

    Wow. I had no idea you were able to remember conversations to that detail.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      The ones that stand out, I can. I was particularly proud of that one because it seemed like I’d done something vaguely resembling blowing your mind at the end.

      The one bit of conversation I wish I’d remembered better was when we were discussing delegative democracy (I think we were calling it “liquid democracy”, but “delegative” is a more descriptive term), and the fact that it was being considered by some part of the German government. Which part was that specifically?

      1. LennStar

        Your post remembered me of the Liquid Feedback – System in Germany. For me it sounded like it with a reverse quorum. e.g. a proposal is accepted if not more than 10% are against it.
        (not german Government, it’s the Pirate Party, especially the Berlin (state) PP uses it extensively)
        “delegative emocracy” means the possibility to transfer your voting power to another person (based on general parts like “health” or single questions, as you like)?

  5. Bill Hay

    Raising and retracting blocks doesn’t require breaking anonymity. Just generate and publish a public key when you raise a block and use the corresponding private key to retract the block.

    1. LennStar

      What if you don’t do it? If it gets lost? If the person isn’t interested in the topic anymore?

  6. Fredrik

    Your vision about a society where people stay at home all the time afraid to reveal themselves sounds geeky. Public records are great. Notice that the public records are accessible to the public and not only to the government. The government doesn’t know where everyone lives. You are not forced to live at the recorded address or vote at that address.

    1. LennStar

      You are not forced to live at the recorded address – except you
      a) get any money from the government
      b) want anything from government, which usally needs postal contact
      c) have any insurance
      d) don’t want to be a tax-avoider
      except that you want to go every day from your living place to your post box.

      And no, you have to vote where you are living – at least here in Germany. You could use postal service, but for that you need to go a local office which makes all the avoidance quite meaningless.

      1. Fredrik

        Just ask someone else to check your post box. Many people do that already. That is not a reason to abolish public records anyway. Public records could simply store email addresses instead of postal addresses to eliminate privacy concerns.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      Geeky, perhaps, but most thought experiments are pretty geeky. Even if this scenario doesn’t happen on a society-wide scale, there’s likely to be some situation in the future which calls for a completely anonymous democratic process, or some other situation where this type of theorizing might be useful. So, I say, why not think about it?

      Furthermore, once upon a time it was pretty geeky of Richard Stallman to think that everybody needed to know what their computers were doing, so as to avoid being spied on, filtered, or otherwise oppressed. These days, that’s not such a crazy idea.

      1. Fredrik

        We already have a situation that calls for a democratic process, whether anonymous or not, as elections are currently only theatrical. (The current government in Sweden makes schools advertise itself as the only option that can be voted for, and gives itself money to control all media and to print and deliver ballots for itself, while alternatives to the current government are forbidden in schools, receive no funding, get blacked out in media and have to pay and deliver ballots themselves. In case someone votes for an alternative party anyway, there is a law that says that the votes will not be valid.)

        Stallman saw the existence of particular problems and made a solution. In the current case however, you are discussing a solution to a problem that does not seem to exist, just to invite the problem in case it eventually comes into existence. You have all right to do so if you like, but it’s not the same thing as Stallman did, and Stallman insists that voting must be done on paper. (Last time I heard him talk about that was November 10 in Göteborg, Sweden.)

  7. Rob Roy

    I have a better idea (The suggested one above might work for small groups, hardly on country size level with millions of people, but mine would, I think):

    What we need is a system that enables and encurrages more people to OPENLY stand for their opinions/votes and at the same time a right to CHANGE that vote RIGHT AWAY without a four year waiting period when/if their elected officials breaks their promises, without taking away the right to vote anonymously for those citizens who’ll still prefer that.

    This can be done with a two level voting system.

    Level One: Just as today. You get to vote anonymous every four years (or whatever the political terms are in your country) and the prize you pay for that privilege of anonymity is that there’s nothing you can do if your elected officials turn back on their words during that four year period. You’ll have to sit it out, just like things are now.

    Level Two: Open Votes that can be changed at any time. If you’re brave enough to register your vote openly where anyone of your fellow citizens can see it (this can obviously be done in hundreds, if not thousands of ways, personally I imagine a system where it’s done manually at City Hall or some sort of Community Center, though an online City Hall of Open Votes would work just as fine I guess) and the reward you get for that bravery is that you’ll also be allowed to change it as often as you please.

    This would enable peaceful government turn-over of failed and lying governments during ongoing term periods, without taking away the value of the normal electoral process as most people would probably (at least initially) sign up to vote anonymously every four years. Changing from Anonymous Vote to Open Vote, or the other way around, would of course only be possible on official voting dates.

    For the overall picture and improvement of democracy it wouldn’t matter much if a majority still choose anonymity, most governments today sit with only a few percent lead and/or in unstable coalitions with smaller parties hanging on the line of electability rules, it would be enough to keep them on their democratic toes if only a few percent of their citizens was brave enough to sign up for Open Vote.

    And maybe most important of all when it comes to the chances of making such a change in the electoral system: Contrary to OWS it would never be yesterdays news, Big Media would love it as much as the individual internet blogger, just imagine the headline “If 500 voters change their Open Vote this week the xxx government will fall” and you’ll understand why…

    Additional: We can’t have government turn-overs every day of course, it wouldn’t be practial, so I guess there has to be some kind of rule on how often, maybe something like “if the opposition, through changed Open Votes, have been in the lead for two months then the ruling party/coalition has to step down”.

  8. 317070

    I’ve been thinking about this idea from a more mathematical point of view. Can you set up a voting system, in which users can’t push the influence of their own actions on the result above the ratio they represent in the crowd?
    E.g. they can (try to) vote as many times as they want, not changing the end result.

    From a more mathematical point of view, you can prove that the described ‘voting system’ as used by an Occupy group works for this issue because it’s dictatorial (e.g. everyone can veto). This is needed to escape the Arrow’s impossibility theorem, but I wonder if there are other ways to circumvent the theorem…

  9. Vitalik Buterin

    Sounds like you’re basically advocating anarchism – nothing is done if it infringes on someone’s rights without consent. I know that’s a bad word to many people, as it brings to mind disorganized hordes destroying shops and public property and attacking innocent people, but I think in our age of public participation through the internet it is actually becoming increasingly viable. You can get a feel for what the public opinion is on an issue pretty easily – just ask on an internet forum. You can upvote something 1000 times, true, but it’s much harder to contribute to the discussion with well-reasoned arguments enough to counterbalance 1000 people.

    And why would someone implement the general will? Because it attracts more customers, and because customers attract even more customers. These days, we’re moving into an age where we get our information on what products to buy not from centralized top-down advertising, but from forums and conversations on social networking from our friends. Someone who does something unpopular will not have the word of mouth on his side. The other benefit of such a system of governance (as opposed to government) is that it’s flexible. When we vote in governments, we’re assuming that everyone who lives within a certain arbitrarily delineated area is part of the same community and has the same basic values and beliefs as each other, which is simply not true. If there are two groups co-mingling within the same area of which one likes doing things one way and another likes doing things another way, by organizing not around location but around common communities and interests on the internet we can let it be, and everyone can be happy.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      I’ve found that when you present anarchist ideas to people without saying that it’s “anarchism”, they tend to take you a lot more seriously and usually end up agreeing with you.

  10. Sol Eiji

    What if when you voted, you first enter your real info and it checks to see if you’re an actual person. Once it has done that, it dumps that information and then gives you who to vote for.

    Your vote is then sent under an anonymous name, which is fine because you have already past the first checkpoint proving that you’re a real person. The only info they keep on that is that “Bob” or whoever you are has successfully entered the voting gate.

    The only problem of course is making sure that the personal info is actually dumped. If it was, however, would that work?

  11. Morten

    Why not just charge for voting? Stop taxing (consistent and perhaps necessary, with this being supposed to be a private society and all), and get all revenue from the people interested in government day-to-day business. You don’t want uninterested people to vote anyway.

    Of course government would have to be severly limited by some means (a paper we call “the constitution” perhaps? I know, it sounds unlikely to be honored), and it’s limited powers clearly enumerated.

    Withouth taxes, very few would find it interesting to engage in the limited workings of the government, and would rather need to to actually productive work other places, another benefit.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      Poll taxes have been tried, and they disenfranchise the poor — who are often rightfully some of the most interested people in changing the government. Historically, this has been intentional (because “poor” usually meant “black”), but there’s no way for a well-intentioned poll tax to not have this effect.

      1. Morten

        I don’t think a system with voting can ever be consistent with civil liberties at all, but I think paying for voting would minimize the incentive to use government for things that are not protective of individuals freedom, the only legitimate function in a private society. So, given people ware actually interested in a private society, what good can voting do for the poor?

        But, of course, no matter who you allow to be in government, there is the risk that it will overstep it’s boundaries. The best government is no government, but if we imagine that it can stay within it’s bounds and not overstep it’s supposed function, then you would need a way to get funding without violating it’s function in a supposed private society. This means no involuntary taxes, and I cannot see how anyone can defend coercive taxes given that they want a private society. Those two are not compatible.
        So, it’s either pay for voting, or voluntary funding of government. I think both can work, but they also beg the question of why do we need government at all?

  12. z0mbie

    decentralised face database (each city/town/village/etc)
    with no personal infos. your key is your face.

    You need 1 human to screen people to make sure no one is wearing a mask or something equally ridiculous.

    Then the voting machine works with a face recognition software.

    please develop or destroy this idea
    thank you

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