DO YOU remember when the internet still spread hope? After its invention in the‘80s, we had access to a mass of information, sites such as Napster allowed us to share so-called “private property” easily and, most importantly, we could publish what we had to say ourselves – and people actually listened. It was participatory in nature, without much visible regulation from above. Nowadays, with net neutrality being at risk, mass surveillance and the threat of clamping down on copyright infringements as an excuse for censorship, the web often induces more fear than encouragement.
Narcolepsy sufferer Aaron Bale – mentored by “the internet’s own boy”, Aaron Swartz, and inspired by the success of the SOPA blackout in 2012, when 20 million people effectively stopped an anti-piracy bill – has come up with an idea to return some power to internet users: BitVote. He hopes his project will let us have some say again, without being completely overrun by the powers-that-be.
What is BitVote?
As a decentralised app operating on a BitCoin-like blockchain technology with a KeyValuePair store of data strings everyone can access, BitVote will add value to ideas without a human authority having to oversee the process. The coding will be completely transparent, so everyone can improve, build and analyse the tool as they wish. In the interest of, “I don’t agree with your opinion but I’ll fight for your right to speak it,” it’ll be completely neutral and compatible with all current systems as well as third-party add-ons.
How do I vote?
Votes will be measured in units we can all relate to: minutes, hours and days of our life. You’ll be able to choose a link (or create your own) to something you feel strongly about – say it’s the fight against Monsanto’s food monopoly. After pasting it into BitVote, you can dedicate an appropriate amount of token time to it. If you have 24 vote hours, you could use all 24 hours towards Stop Monsanto. But you could also, if you don’t care about the GMO giants as much, only use four hours (or one, two, five etc.) and save the rest for a different cause. Your vote will be recorded and your available hours will drop accordingly. The time-units are easy for everyone to grasp, yet they’ll provide multiple factors for analysis. What, for instance, is more important – many people spending small vote units on a cause or a few people spending large vote units on a cause?
Bale and BitVote coder Jasper den Ouden haven’t agreed whether all voters will accumulate vote hours from the day BitVote launches or from the day you were born, but the consensus is that the assigning of “vote currency” needs to be equal for all. Importantly, although vote hours will increase every 60 minutes of your life, they’ll gain value through scarcity. This means that those who don’t use the internet so often – the elderly, people living in rural areas or just generally less tech-savvy people – will actually have a stronger impact when things get heavy. Say something drastic happens and a president decides to go to war. The above-mentioned demographic might be motivated to vote and have more hours to spend than enthusiastic internet users who vote everyday.
You might be thinking, how is this different to slacktivism? It’s just a bunch of symbolic hours after all; spent in a virtual system, via a click from your armchair. Bale realises that the vote hours won’t do anything as such. But what they will do, is show what people care about. If you’re fighting for a cause, you might feel more confident addressing it in the real world if you know 80% of BitVoters feel the same way as you. Ultimately – although BitVote can be used for a vast variety of reasons, from market research to activism – the system’s strength is perhaps that it could offer evidence of betrayal. If the Film and Publications Board South Africa says pre-publication censorship on the internet is what the majority wants, citizens could take to BitVote to prove the opposite. Whether a bunch of votes will actually stop officials from executing their plans is hard to imagine, yet – if the system really is widely used by technophiles and technophobes alike – it might be more powerful than a Twitter storm or liking causes on Facebook.
What about mob-votes?
A concern is that a mob of people, who might be very uneducated on the subject they’re voting on, could get together to cast a potentially dangerous vote. Imagine this was, “kill all homosexuals”. Bale tries to explain this problem with what he calls “The Zombie Example”. “If there’s a zombie apocalypse on the rise and 99.9% want to legalise cannibalism, authorities have the option not to act on this, and the population will thank them later. You can use common sense.” Moreover, it’s an alarm bell. If a large number of voters plan to kill homosexuals, he would try to physically intervene. He believes it probably won’t come to tyranny-of-the-majority votes though because of the way people interact online. “Not in close physical proximity, and anonymously. There’s trolling, but there’s not a lot of abuse of authority. The internet doesn’t kill people.”
Also, he explains, if a tyrant boss in an oppressive regime gets a 1000 of his employees to vote at gunpoint, these workers can cast a counter-vote anonymously to get “the asshole fired”. He adds that there are a lot of scams around and BitVote isn’t immune to them – but often people have ways to figure them out. An instant “vote bomb”, in this case a 1000 people voting for a dodgy cause at once, might spur some scepticism.
Although users will be completely anonymous by default, a positive aspect is perhaps that you’ll have the option to disclose your geographical location. Imagine the City of Cape Town decides to evict a group of people from their shacks, again claiming to have the interest of the people at heart. The majority, who are not being evicted from their homes, might vote for the eviction of the shack-dwellers because they don’t understand their conditions – thus providing the City with a plausible back-up to their statement. The affected community could, however, start a location-aware vote to show that everyone who lives in the area does not approve of the eviction. In other words, the people at the river should have more authority to decide whether it’s polluted or not. Bale also points out that, because anyone can build an add-on tool, it’s easy to create filters. This might be useful if BitVote gets flooded with porn.
As well-intentioned as BitVote may sound, if it wants be legitimate and effective, there can only be one user per real-world identity, which is difficult to prove without compromising anonymity. The geek word for this is Sybil security – a tricky problem many organisations are currently trying to solve. While none of them are perfect, the BitVote team members have some ideas. Options could involve “ID pools”, i.e. having users play a game simultaneously, or reputation systems. A lot of methods have loop holes and would be extremely costly though. According to Bale, so-called Sybil attacks, also called “sock puppeting”, are often of a “social nature”, meaning they don’t necessarily involve a lot of technical know-how. Therefore, Bale welcomes everyone to help solve this problem. If you’re a social orientated professional, such as a sociologist, political student, social-engineer hacker, activist, doctor, or just someone with a good idea, please contact him at email@example.com.
At this stage it’s unclear when BitVote will launch officially – funding still needs to be secured and Sybil security solved – but the team is working on getting a small scale system up and running soon. This will function as an invitation-only experiment for people whose identity has been verified in the real world.
Until then, we might not be sure of the project’s practical implications. But one thing Bale said might be valuable to keep in mind: “With BitVote the concept of authority is constantly changing. The ideas themselves will gain authority, not people.”
What do you think? Are you sceptical? How would you use BitVote?
Please post your ideas, critiques and praise in the comment section – it’s a project everyone is encouraged to participate in.
Text: Christine Hogg