BitVote: Have a say in decisions that affect us all

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.

Location-aware votes

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 protected]

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


His master’s voice – apartheid censor board mooted, targeting online content

THE Films and Publications Board has mooted a proposal for the classification of online content that could result in the removal of free speech and communications freedoms guaranteed by South Africa’s constitution.

The proposal would also seriously compromise the principle of net neutrality.

The draconian and ill-considered plan forces all distributors of online content to register with the board, resulting in a funding regime that would result in government censorship of online communication. In effect we will be paying to be classified, as social media and the Internet itself becomes subject to government fiat in the form of an Internet Tax, followed by an inappropriate ratings scheme borrowed from the countries current television dispensation.

A fee of R450 is proposed for each and every film or online publication distributed over the Internet.

The main concern of the board appears to be the impact of content on children, but there is no reason why adult supervision and caveat emptor should now be supplanted by government controls. The usual scare stories about child pornographers have also been raised.

Unlike television which is programmed and available via terrestrial and satellite channels, the Internet is not live programming as such.

Users have to actively search out sites, in an activity known as surfing.

Most plans to censor online content around the world have failed, since the Internet itself is not controlled by anyone, and historically routes around such obstacles.

Users would simply deploy encryption technology, making it impossible for the board to monitor online content. This is the reason why an earlier proposal by Minister Gigaba for a national firewall was quietly dropped.

In terms of the new regulations, Medialternatives and other online blogs hosted outside the country, could be subject to a government classification committee, in a step which is reminiscent of previous attempts to regulate and censor the press.

Under the ANC ruling party and also during the period of apartheid, various plans have emerged which are nothing less than motions to stifle press freedom and the right of access to information.

In the event of the policy being enacted as law, Medialternatives will refuse to participate in such a scheme, and will not comply with any government request to rate or classify content.

The apartheid state routinely banned publications and periodicals, gagging journalists critical of the regime.

Medialternatives has been publishing free content since 2005.

You can read the policy proposal here

Towards a South African Internet Bill of Rights

Back in 1996 the WWW was in its infancy and South Africa’s constitutional assembly was putting the final touches to a document which would become our Bill of Rights. I wrote a letter to Wired Magazine about the inclusion of a home-grown right which had heretofore been excluded from the lexicon of government and especially the previous apartheid regime.

The Right to Privacy (article 14), and more specifically the right of citizens not to have the privacy of their communications infringed, was written during a period in which cryptofreaks and cyberanarchists were under threat from various quarters. The US government had only a year previously attempted to clamp down on PGP encryption technology, while South African anti-apartheid activists had been caught by the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) using IBM technology. The very real possibility of an Orwellian world in which privacy was practically impossible because of the new technologies then emerging, scared us enough to want to secure privacy as well as communications freedom.

In addition to privacy, our progressive constitution lists under Freedom of Expression (article 16), the “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas” and the terms used specifically exclude the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak which often seems to place the binary world of noughts and ones beyond the scope of liberty and freedom. Our constitution is very much a pro-Internet and information-friendly document.

It is therefore extremely disconcerting to see attempts by the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba to limit Internet freedom under the guise of an anti-pornography campaign. Not only has Gigaba expressed his desire to build a “national firewall” like the one surrounding mainland China, that would essentially filter out content the government deems to be a threat to national security, but he appears to believe that service providers will willingly allow themselves to be implicated in the erosion of civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution.

If one follows the Ministers obsequious reasoning, not only will first tier providers pay for the new firewall, but consumers will have the Department of Home Affairs to thank for providing content. If the proposed legislation is adopted, every single website will end up under the purview of the Publications Control Board and the concept of Net Neutrality will be abolished in the national interest.

How is it possible that we have come to the Orwellian future in which the right to receive and impart ideas, the privacy of our communications is infringed to the point where Google searches, Yahoo mail, Facebook and Flikr are all subject to the dictates of the Minister of Home Affairs?

Shortly after 911, under pressure from the Bush administration our government passed a series of bills aimed at clamping down on global terrorism. The Anti-Terrorism Bill  (ATB) became known as the The Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Act (Democracy Act). Fortunately South Africa did not end up with a Patriot Act, but it proceeded to adopt off-the-shelf US legislation which had once been shot down by the democrats under Clinton, only to be adopted under George W Bush. Despite criticism the new bills passed without substantial debate and opposition from political parties  in Parliament.

FICA and RICA are bizarre acronyms that you will find in postings about the infamous Clipper Chip and anti-PGP technology on mailing lists doing the rounds BEFORE South Africa’s Bill of Rights was even adopted. Not only do we get fingerprinted by Home Affairs (a rights violation if ever there was one) but we now get FICA’d and RICA’d — retinal scans and chip implants are surely not far behind?

While we all know that FICA gives our government the right to delve into our bank accounts, do you realise that RICA (Regulation of Interception of Communications Act) forces mobile telephone companies to install technology that allows our government to record wireless conversation and capture SMS traffic without judicial oversight? That’s right, Clipper Chip technology has already been implemented in our telephone system thanks to people like Malusi Gigaba.

Now the Department of Home Affairs is in the process of drawing up a RICA FOR THE INTERNET. The deputy minister has essentially expressed the desire to censor content while placing back-doors and clipper chips in every computer using broadband technology. In essence the government wants a backdoor into your social life and desktop – the right to spy and censor your communications without having to bother with the rigmarole of court orders and judicial oversight.

The reason they are unlikely to ever succeed in completely eradicating Internet freedom is because of public key encryption technology. PGP and GPG are the de facto standards of encryption technologies today. You see this type of technology in action every time you get a VeriSign SSL or TLS web page. Programmers use it to authenticate software and people use it to sign documents. Personal Encryption i.e privacy is something we all take for granted but seldom use, lulled into the complacency of ubiquitous and freely available content. It may soon become the only way to experience freedom in cyberspace.

Unless we secure our rights with new laws that give affect to our Constitution — creating a Bill of Rights for the Internet which also recognises the rights of the individual qua machines,  and which includes Net Neutrality and other core ideas such as the right to share content via fair use and copyleft, we will be forced to encrypt everything. Our web pages will be slowly served up as encoded noughts and ones as Malusi Gigaba merely succeeds in retarding development and disabling the kind of fast, open social intercourse that yes, delivers pornography as much as it delivers new ideas like Ubuntu to the rest of the world.

NOTE: The Protection of Information Bill is currently under consideration in the South African Parliament, the ISS and Open Society Justice Initiative are hosting a public seminar to exchange ideas about the protection of information within a democratic dispensation

South African Net Neutrality under serious threat.

IF draconian plans announced by Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba to ban all Internet porn are put into effect, South Africa could end up with its very own “Great Wall of China” restricting digital freedom and abolishing net neutrality in the process.

Net Neutrality is not just the idea that all datastreams should be treated equally, but rather the notion that national borders and regional boundaries do not extend to the Internet. In other words, an html page created in South Africa can be viewed in America and vice versa, without needing a passport or incurring an interconnection tax.

Google recently pulled out of China because of concerted attacks on its search engine by the Chinese government. It is the one example of a nation which has shunned Net Neutrality (and open borders)  in favour of a separate “electronic homeland” if you will.

If the home affairs ministry has its way, applying the kind of national hegemony one finds aboard fishing vessels for instance, tier one service providers would be forced to filter information, which includes Google searches, in effect introducing the exact same kind of censorship found in mainland China.

Forcing tier one networks to do the job of the Film and Publications Board, aka the ANC censorship & morality committee, would seriously infringe upon constitutional guaranteed freedoms such as the right to receive or impart information. It would also set a bad precedent by forcing sites such as YouTUBE and MySpace to censor themselves. Although the bill is geared towards pornography, it opens the door to more repressive forms of censorship such as the kind once experienced during the apartheid regime.

Gigaba appears to have met with the Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA) early this week to discuss  draft legislation on the matter. The document in its current form, as drawn up by JASA proposes that “pornography be filtered out at the tier one service providers to avoid it entering the country.”

The bill is aimed at the “total ban of pornography on the internet and mobile phones.”

According to Myadsl and IOL, Gigaba said it was noted that unlike in the physical world where  a reasonable effort could be made for pornography to be kept away from children, in the online world, pornographic sites were often “parked deliberately next door” to educational sites, often with names almost identical.

Current legislation, particularly the Film and Publication Act, provided for a ban on child pornography, whereas the proposed bill provides for a total ban on pornography on electronic channels using the wider definition of pornography already available in the Sexual Offences Act.

That Gigaba, who claims to have an MA in pedagogics from University of Durban-Westville,  has absolutely no clue how the Internet and the economy works can be seen by his  incorrect comparison of a motor car and the Internet: “Cars are already provided with brakes and seatbelts; it is not an extra that consumers have to pay for,” he said.

“There is no reason why the internet should be provided without the necessary restrictive mechanisms built into it,” Gigaba also said in a proposal that would cost billions, and necessitate the complete overhaul of the industry as we know it.

Are we adults or children?

Exactly how such a “restrictive mechanism” would work is open to debate, but doing so would set in motion a repressive technological environment which would  destroy South Africa’s claim to digital freedom and net neutrality.

A far better solution than placing walls around various parts of the Internet would be to make website blocking software available to the public, allowing individuals to make decisions for themselves. But it is doubtful whether such a solution would satisfy an ignorant, uneducated and backward home affairs department intent on exercising ministerial decree over the entire Internet, thereby placing all websites under the ambit of the Film and Publications control board and the mother grundies at Luthuli House.

South Africa does not have to censor itself. There already exists legal mechanisms for issuing take-down notices via ISPA for sites which contravene copyright law, and an international legal instrument instead of a technological quick fix would thus be far more desirable.

In any event, introducing censorship technology would invariably slow down the Internet while introducing all sorts of problems with vetting what may or may not be watched by an inquisitive public. If the department simply closes down domains without any review process, where is the public interest? Who determines what is politically correct or incorrect on any given day?

It is also doubtful if any of the arguments deployed by the minister are actually about child access to pornography or even so-called “child porn”. What is implicit in the statement by home affairs, is the idea that government alone should be responsible for determining the content  of Internet discourse — the nature of freedom of speech on the Internet, communication itself. Instead of being treated as citizens with equal rights, South Africans are being treated like children, subjects of the Dept of Home Affairs.

It really does reminds one of the dark days when apartheid censors blacked out news copy and published lists of banned publications which included girlie magazines and works by Karl Marx

Gigaba thus appears to have dumped The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Frere in favour of the Collected Works of Joseph Stalin, pulling off a putsch of sorts which could destroy South Africa’s fragile democratic revolution.

Those who wish to censor digital freedom should therefore be told in no uncertain terms  – We are adults, we should decide for ourselves which pages we want to read, which images we wish to view, and which political party should be in power.