Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday restored net neutrality rules in California that were repealed under the Trump administration, setting up a legal battle with the federal government over whether states can prevent companies from blocking access to the internet.
News that the governor signed the ambitious new law was swiftly met with an aggressive response from Justice Department officials, who announced soon afterward that they were suing California to block the regulations. The state law prohibits broadband and wireless companies from blocking, throttling or otherwise hindering access to internet content, and from favoring some websites over others by charging for faster speeds.
“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce — the federal government does,” Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said in a statement Sunday. “Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”
Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who over nine months worked to shelve the federal net neutrality regulations, said in a statement that he was pleased with the lawsuit, pointing to a federal appellate court ruling that he said found “state regulation of information services is preempted by federal law.”
“I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Department of Justice to ensure the internet remains ‘unfettered by federal or state regulation,’ as federal law requires, and the domain of engineers, entrepreneurs, and technologists, not lawyers and bureaucrats,” Pai said.
The bill’s August passage in the Legislature capped months of feuding between tech advocates and telecom industry lobbyists. Telecom giants such as AT&T and Verizon Communications poured millions into killing the legislation, while grass-roots activists fought back with crowdsourced funding and social media campaigns.
California leaders cheered the governor’s approval of the bill Sunday, saying the new rules were vital to protect fair access to the internet and part of the state’s resistance to the Trump administration on tech, immigration and climate change policies.
“The fight for social change and progressive values is directly tied to a free and open internet,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who signed on as co-author of the legislation after he faced public pressure when he attempted to scale it back. “This measure ensures that we, in California, will maintain a free and open internet that doesn’t discriminate or price users or content differently.”
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who introduced the net neutrality proposal, said he believed California would be able to defend it in court.
“We’ve been down this road before: when [President] Trump and Sessions sued California and claimed we lacked the power to protect immigrants,” he said. “California fought Trump and Sessions on their immigration lawsuit. California won — and California will fight this lawsuit as well.”
Experts have said the new law would impose the toughest net neutrality regulations in the country by reinstating the rolled-back federal regulations at the state level. It tasks the state attorney general with evaluating potential evasion of the net neutrality rules.
It also adds new restrictions on some zero-rated data plans, package deals that allow companies such as Verizon or Comcast to exempt some calls, texts or other content from counting against a customer’s data plan. Those limits prohibit plans that exempt content from some companies but not the same type of content from others — video streamed on YouTube but not Hulu, for example.
National Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, urged Brown to sign the bill as net neutrality became a rallying issue for the party’s candidates in House races across the country.
Speaking at a news conference in San Francisco this month, Pelosi commended the grass-roots mobilization behind the effort and read a letter from Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who has led the charge for net neutrality at the federal level. Eshoo denounced a recent case in which firefighters were reported to have been hindered by inadequate internet access while battling the Mendocino Complex fire.
“This is where public safety and access to the internet and no throttling involved are so important,” Pelosi said.
On the Assembly and Senate floors, state lawmakers clashed over whether the state should step in to fill a role some said was best left to the federal government. To opponents, the rules represented burdensome, harsh regulations on companies; for proponents, they were strong and necessary protections for consumers who can’t pay their way out of internet “slow lanes.”
Sen. Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar was the lone Republican to vote for the bill in the state Senate. The legislation received overwhelming support from both parties in the Assembly, as opposition to the federal rollback of the rules has remained overwhelmingly bipartisan.
Tech activists and advocacy groups say other states are sure to follow California and described the rules as crucial to protect open access to the internet for impoverished and marginalized communities.
Haleema Bharoocha of the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute, a racial justice and economic policy center, said the internet had given her a platform to combat sexual harassment and raise the voices of other Muslim women in the #MeToo movement.
“Net neutrality has given me a voice online when I’m not able to speak offline,” she said at the San Francisco news conference.
Still, telecom industry groups and lobbyists warn that a legal challenge of the new law could make its way to the Supreme Court.
“We all support strong and enforceable net neutrality protections for every American — regardless of where they may live. But this bill is neither the way to get there, nor will it help advance the promise and potential of California’s innovation DNA,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and chief executive of USTelecom, a Washington-based lobby group.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who along with his counterparts in other states sued the FCC over its net neutrality repeal, on Sunday said his office remained committed to protecting the state rules. But he has cautioned his agency would need additional funding and staff to complete its new regulatory duties.
“While the Trump Administration continues to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced strong support for net neutrality rules, California — home to countless start-ups, tech giants and nearly 40 million consumers — will not allow a handful of power brokers to dictate sources for information or the speed at which websites load,” he said.
California is one of more than 25 states to consider net neutrality protections since the FCC voted late last year to reverse the Obama-era internet regulations. FCC Chairman Pai and Republicans have called for an end to the utility-like oversight of internet service providers.
The rules, enacted in February 2015 and ended in June, barred broadband and wireless companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon from selling faster delivery of some data, slowing speeds for certain content or favoring selected websites over others.
Since then, tech companies including Amazon and Facebook have filed briefs in support of the states’ lawsuit against the FCC to restore net neutrality. But Pai has remained vocal about his opposition to the Obama-era rules and California’s own net neutrality proposal, calling it “a radical, anti-consumer internet regulation bill” during a speech this month at the conservative-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center.
An additional proposal by Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) was shelved in the state Assembly. It would have denied public contracts to companies that fail to follow the new state internet rules, but it sunk amid opposition over last-minute amendments.
Soon after the passage of Wiener’s bill, he and other legislators said they worked with the state attorney general’s office to make certain SB 822 would be able to withstand legal challenges and said they were prepared to battle the telecom industry in court.
“The bottom line is this,” De León said. “The internet is vital to our democracy because it is part of our daily lives.”
“Homeless people get almost no choice. Shelter system, sleep on the sidewalk, hide a tent.”
Anti-camping ordinances primarily affect the homeless. Such laws implicate a fundamental civil liberty: the right to exist. There is a pressing need for scholarship concerning these statutes, particularly scholarship that addresses the increasing rate at which cities are banning camping and lodging, or even sitting and standing, by homeless people. A wealth of scholarship has challenged the constitutionality of these statutes as they were written (see incisive considerations of this issue in prior volumes of CR-CL here and here.) New examinations of this topic should challenge the primary framework through which courts have understood homeless individuals’ lived experiences.
Courts have split on anti-camping ordinances, finding that they are unenforceable when no shelter space is available, upholding them, or rejecting them outright.
In Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a California court found that the anti-camping ordinances were unconstitutional because forbidding sleeping outside while shelter space was unavailable amounted to a criminalization of status. Thus, in many places, the ban on sleeping outside is enforceable only on days when no shelter is available. When being outside is illegal under specific circumstances, which one cannot know in advance, homeless individuals are hard pressed to know when they are in violation of the law, and police are hard pressed to know when they may legally enforce it.
We must investigate whether the courts correctly characterize realities facing homeless people, particularly regarding “choice.” At issue in Jones was whether or not individuals had the chance to avail themselves of a shelter before resorting to the street. The court prefaced its discussion by asking whether homeless individuals truly had no alternative to the street and found “the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds at all times.” Thus the court concluded “criminalizing the unavoidable act of sitting, lying, or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless” violated plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights. Under the Jones analysis, the officer who approaches a homeless person must know that this person does not have access to shelter and shelters must have provided accurate vacancy information. This high bar for information sharing renders the legal portrait of homelessness far different from reality.
Courts also fail to recognize that some individuals sleep intermittently with friends or family and some sleep on the street “voluntarily” because alternatives (such as shelters) are inaccessible to them. In Jones, the court considered whether shelters were accessible or adequately safe and appropriate, but their standard of analysis failed to consider important and rational reasons people avoid shelters, such as trauma, mental health concerns, the threat of theft, safety, hygiene, and compromised immune systems. Courts that have considered the possibility that disabilities might remove the apparent “choice” of an “available” shelter bed have crafted an awkward legal framework: people have free will to choose an alternative to the street, or they have no choice at all.
In Jones, and other cases, the court dodges a more fundamental question, which deserves attention from courts and researchers: What do we, as a legal community, expect homeless individuals to tolerate? On what basis do we demand that homeless individuals accept an offer of “help” to remove themselves from the commons? Is that basis grounded in a conception of freedom and civil rights that we find acceptable? All in all, many people are homeless temporarily, with housing available to them at some points and not at others. The courts’ requirement of homelessness, that an individual have no “other choice,” fails to describe the lives of most homeless people. Both “status” and “choice” are ill-fitting legal concepts for the experience of homelessness.
Instead of demanding that cities to provide shelter in order to continue to enforce anti-camping ordinances, courts should take responsibility for that more fundamental question of whether current case law rests upon fundamentally flawed assumptions.
See 444 F.3d 1120 (finding that in the absence of available shelter, criminalizing “life-sustaining” conduct in public is in violation of Eight Amendment rights); Bell v. City of Boise 834 F.Supp.2d 1103 (finding that criminalizing sleeping in public places is illegal because it punishes people for being homeless, particularly when shelter is not available), Cobine v. City of Eureka, No. C 16-02239 JSW, 2016 WL 1730084 (N.D.Cal., May 5, 2016) (finding an anti-camping ordinance illegal in the absence of available shelter), City of North Bend v. Bradshaw, Case No. Yl 32426A (North Bend Muni. Ct. Jan. 13, 2015) (finding that enforcement of the camping ban violated the plaintiff’s 8th Amendment rights). But see, Tobe v. Santa Ana, 892 P.2d 1145 (Cal. 2015) (upholding a city-wide anti-camping ban because it penalized conduct not status but noting that the outcome might differ in an “as-applied” rather than prima facie challenge).
 Tanene Allison, Confronting the Myth of Choice: HomelessnessandJones v. City of Los Angeles, 42 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev., 254 (2007) (positing that there is a “serious gap between the policies created to deal with homelessness and . . . the factors that cause it and the needs it creates”).
 National Coalition for the Homeless, How Many People Experience Homelessness (2009), http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/How_Many.html.
See Joyce, 846 F. Supp. at 867 (finding that “to argue that homelessness is a status and not a condition…is to deny the efficacy of acts of social intervention to change the condition of those currently homeless”).
(Submitted by Mike Zint, First They Came for the Homeless)
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Homeless people who lost tents, sleeping gear and other belongings in encampment sweeps can team up to sue Berkeley, California, on claims of civil rights violations, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
In granting class certification, U.S. District Judge William Alsup found approximately 1,000 homeless people in Berkeley can seek injunctive relief from the city. However, they cannot seek monetary damages because that would require evaluating claims of property loss on an individual basis.
“It means that we can proceed on behalf of all homeless individuals in the city of Berkeley in order to defend their rights to keep their property, which may look like and be treated as trash by the city of Berkeley but often times represents everything that individual owns,” said plaintiffs’ attorney EmilyRose Johns of Siegel Yee & Brunner in Oakland.
Johns said her clients want the city to give more warning before clearing out encampments and provide more information on how people can reclaim seized belongings or get help to retrieving their lost property.
“Ideally people wouldn’t be deprived of their property in the first place,” Johns said. “Many of these individuals don’t have the resources to get their property back, such as cars or assistance from able-bodied folks.”
Berkeley says it respects the rights of homeless people, giving 72 hours’ notice before any eviction deemed necessary for public health and safety and holding property seized during evictions for up to 90 days.
But Johns said the city doesn’t always provide 72 hours’ notice. When the city warned about a sweep five days before it happened, it assumed people had adequate time to claim their property and deemed everything left there as garbage destined for the dumpster, Johns said.
Several members of the group First They Came For The Homeless, which has organized multiple drug-free encampments in Berkeley, also describe having lost all their possessions in past raids.
In asking Alsup to deny class certification, the city contended any loss of property resulted from isolated incidents or employee misconduct, not an official city policy or custom. Alsup refused to consider that argument at this still-early stage of litigation.
“The city has a long-standing written policy regarding the collection, storage, and retrieval of property from homeless encampments,” Alsup wrote. “Commonality has therefore been demonstrated.”
But the judge declined to certify a separate class of campers associated with the group First They Came For The Homeless. That group set up camps in prominent areas of Berkeley to raise awareness about homelessness and affordable housing issues, and claims the city specifically targeted them in retaliation for their political activism.
Alsup found that because the group members voiced their opinions in different ways – by protesting, making signs, writing op-eds, and speaking at government meetings – the activities were too varied to be evaluated on a class-wide, rather than individual, basis. He also found the proposed class size would be less than 40, which courts generally find falls short of the threshold for class certification.
Additionally, Alsup refused to let two named plaintiffs – Clark Sullivan and Adam Bredenberg – represent the class of people who lost possessions. That’s because Sullivan and Bredenberg could not conclusively say the city, rather than those helping them move before encampment sweeps, caused the loss or damage of their property.
Alsup appointed named plaintiff Benjamin Royer as the sole class representative for the allegedly unlawful seizure of property. Royer says he lost his tarp, sleeping bag and clothing during an early morning camp eviction in December 2016.
According to Johns, the next step will be to work with Berkeley to craft a plan for notifying approximately 1,000 homeless people about the litigation, giving them an opportunity to opt out of the class action if they want to pursue their claims individually.
From there, the plaintiffs will continue to seek discovery from Berkeley and possibly negotiate a settlement or ask Alsup to render a summary judgment ruling based on the evidence and merits of the case, Johns said.
The named plaintiffs and members of First They Came For The Homeless group will continue to pursue their claims of free speech retaliation against the city individually, Johns added.
The homeless plaintiffs first sued the city of Berkeley and Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, in October 2017 to block a planned eviction from a South Berkeley encampment. Alsup denied the group’s request for an injunction at that time, but he allowed claims of free speech retaliation, unlawful seizure of property and due process violations to go forward this past January. BART was dropped as a defendant this past April.
In November 2017, Berkeley told Alsup that it lacked the resources necessary to house more than 268 of the city’s approximately 1,000 homeless people, despite spending $3.9 million per year on homeless services.
The city opened a $2.4 million navigation center in West Berkeley in June, which can house 45 individuals and provides on-site access to mental health counseling and social services. The city also told Alsup last year that it was working to build an 89-unit affordable housing complex and create another 50-bed shelter with modular buildings.
Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city is working to improve the situation for its homeless residents.
“Over the past year, the city has started the Pathways Program which created a structured environment for a broad range of unhoused people to receive housing, meals and other services while transitioning to permanent housing,” Chakko said in a statement. “We’ve also created more year-round shelter, and we’ve begun work on a storage program.”
A new movement says that crypto-voting can purify democracy—and eventually eliminate the need for governments altogether.
IN A CAFÉ on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a one-time videogame developer turned political theorist named Santiago Siri is trying to explain to me how his nonprofit startup, Democracy.Earth, aims to fix the world’s broken politics with the help of the blockchain.
THE CONVERSATION HAS already covered a dizzying amount of ground. We’ve discussed the emergence of the Westphalian order of nation-states in the 17th century, Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, the total collapse of Venezuelan society, and Siri’s own experience of political corruption in his native Argentina. But he finally boils it all down to one short sentence.
“We want to tokenize the like,” Siri says. At the center of the project is the creation of what he calls “political cryptocurrency”—blockchain-generated tokens that users of Democracy.Earth’s software can spend as votes.
The way Siri sees it, we have traded in the original liberating potential of the internet for sterile corporate serfdom. Our time spent online retweeting and upvoting and clicking on emojis serves mainly to help unaccountable corporations like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to better target us with advertising. Siri dreams of a new kind of social media platform on which we spend “vote tokens” that can do anything, from electing politicians and passing referendums to enacting the bylaws of a social club or establishing the business plan of a corporation. It’s democracy by click.
The vision is a radical departure from the one-person, one-vote, once-every-year-or-two trip to the ballot box we are familiar with—and by which, in Siri’s view, we are so ill-served. Users of Democracy.Earth’s one-size-fits-all governance platform—code-named Sovereign—would have infinite flexibility to vote on any kind of topic or person, whenever they log on. In the Democracy.Earth future, every day will be election day, and the ballot will include anything that enough of us think should be there.
In this perfect world, Siri argues, the supposedly unhackable and absolutely transparent blockchain will ensure that no centralized election authority is required to tabulate a vote, and no corrupt politician or gridlocked legislature can interfere with the popular mandate. But coming up with a superior form of voting technology is just the beginning; the larger, far more revolutionary goal is to devise a decentralized decisionmaking process that eliminates the necessity for any kind of central government at all.
“We are not in the business of selling e-voting machines or helping modernize governments with internet voting,” Siri says. “We want to empower people down to the individual level without asking for the permission of governments.”
If the dream of bitcoin, the token generated by Satoshi Nakamoto’s blockchain, was to free money from central bank control, then the dream of Sovereign is to free politics from central government control.
Siri’s complicated, multilayered solution to democratic dysfunction raises a host of questions and paradoxes. There is no shortage of secure-voting-systems experts who believe that radical blockchain democracy could cause more problems than it solves, and is in fact an invitation to gaming and manipulation at odds with the idea of transparent, fraud-free voting.
Still others question how Democracy.Earth plans to solve the gnarliest quandaries faced by any voting system: How does one simultaneously ensure transparency in the voting process while guaranteeing the anonymity of the voter? How can one enfranchise direct voting without running the risk of a feckless tyranny of the majority motivated by short-term passions making terrible decisions?
But nothing raises more eyebrows than the jewel in Democracy.Earth’s crown: the vote token. Because—like bitcoin, like Ether, and like so many of the cryptocurrency tokens sold by blockchain startups in initial coin offerings, known as ICOs, to fund their own operations—the Democracy.Earth vote token has a financial value.
According to Siri, early in 2018 Democracy.Earth raised $1.5 million in a vote-token “presale.” It has plans to mint “a maximum” of 500 million tokens, provisionally priced at 12 cents each, for a company valuation of $60 million. Democracy.Earth employees will be compensated for their labor with tokens. The bottom line: There will be a financial market for the mechanism that Democracy.Earth users employ to vote.
And that’s a headscratcher.
“Ask yourself,” says Joseph Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, a company that provides secure election services, “if combining the idea of an ICO and democratic elections sounds fishy or not.”
THE TROJAN HORSE that rolled through Buenos Aires in 2013 was designed, like its ancient Greek forebear, to catch the unsuspecting eye. Towed down the streets by a car, 20 feet high and exquisitely carpentered, it caused an immediate sensation. Kids ran alongside. An excited crowd gathered when it came to a halt in front of the Palace of the Argentina National Congress, the political heart of the South American country.
The publicity stunt aimed to spread awareness of an upstart new force in Argentinan politics, the Partido de la Red. “Until then, we were just the guys from Twitter, the nerds, playing politics,” says Siri, a cofounder of the party. “But then everyone was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ People started taking selfies. It became a symbol of the campaign.”
Partido de la Red means “Party of the Net”—as in, the internet. It was founded to represent the interests of an emerging generation of millennial, always-online activists thoroughly dissatisfied with decades of Argentina’s endemic political corruption and spectacular financial crises. Its affiliation with the internet was meant to signal faith in a new kind of collaborative democracy. One of its primary goals was to elect politicians who would commit to uphold decisions made by party members in open, online debates. No more closed-door maneuvering. No more voting according to who delivered the most cash.
“We had one rule,” Siri says. “Obey the internet.”
The Trojan Horse’s symbolism ran deep. Like the original equine that carried hidden Greek warriors into the city of Troy, it represented the idea that the Partido de la Red would sneak its way into the established order and wage war from the inside. But it was also a play on the computer world’s co-optation of the name. This party was a computer virus designed to breach the security of Argentinian politics.
At first, things seemed to be going well. In its first attempt to contest an election, the party captured 1.2 percent of the national vote, considerably better, Siri says, than the 0.2 to 0.3 percent a new party usually gets. “We had a lot of followers online,” Siri says. “It became a movement. We got into the game.”
“And then,” Siri says, “things started to get really strange.”
Provocateurs began showing up at party meetings. Siri’s car tires were slashed. A shadowy character told him that a “donation” of a million pesos to a federal judge would magically solve his party’s registration problems. He discovered that “changing the system from within was not going to happen,” Siri says. “The system was going to change you first.”
So instead of trying to infiltrate the old system, Siri decided to build an entirely new one. He started putting together his blockchain governance platform. In January 2015, he made his way to Mountain View, California, where he had 10 minutes to impress Sam Altman, president of legendary startup incubator Y Combinator.
It wasn’t going well. Siri remembers being “super nervous.” When Altman asked him a question about how many users the fledgling enterprise might eventually have, “I invented a number out of thin air.” The 10-minute window was closing fast.
Then he showed Altman Instagram pictures of the Trojan horse.
“They were like, ‘What!? What did you do!?,’” Siri says with a smile. “They loved us.”
DEMOCRACY.EARTH’S WHITE PAPER, “The Social Smart Contract,” is a tract that is equal parts crypto-libertarian manifesto and a technology road map for Sovereign. When stripped of its rhetoric (“The internet is incompatible with the nation-state,” “Representative democracies are an accident of the information technologies of the 18th century”), it breaks down into half a dozen major pieces.
In addition to the blockchain and vote tokens, there is also a flexible ruleset for voting called “liquid democracy,” a complicated system for identity validation involving video selfies and “attention mining,” and even a version of a universal basic income scheme that will regularly “drip” new vote tokens into the accounts of Sovereign users.
Fully explicating the potential and pitfalls of any single element of Democracy.Earth’s technology requires a lengthy journey into mostly unmapped territory. Consider, just for starters, the concept of “liquid democracy”—an approach to voting that is radically different from Western democratic electoral systems. In Sovereign’s scheme, users are allocated a stockpile of votes they can use (or spend) in a variety of ways.
They can vote more than once on a particular topic, to express a heavier “weight” of intent. They can delegate their votes on a topic to trusted experts who are expected to understand the issue at hand in greater depth. They can even change their votes or retract their votes after the fact, if they change their minds on a subject or if they believe an elected representative has failed to deliver on their promises.
Log on to the beta version of vote.democracy.earth for the first time, and you start off with 1,000 votes to do with as you please. A scroll of questions, action items, and ongoing debates occupies the center of the screen. Should there be a second Brexit vote? Should Venezuelan opposition leaders maintain dialogue with the repressive Maduro government? Do you think a universal basic income should be granted unconditionally?
Liquid democracy is an always-on mashup between direct democracy and representative democracy. Voters are simultaneously constituents of multiple overlapping organizations: local, international, aspirational. In Siri’s imagination, dipping into liquid democracy’s never-ending flow will fit as naturally into the lives of the smartphone generation as checking Twitter or Instagram.
Moritz Ritter, managing director of Berlin-based advocacy group Liquid Democracy, which is unaffiliated with Democracy.Earth but has been pushing similar ideas about how elections can be reimagined for years, says the purpose is “to take the current system of representative democracy and make it more responsive and distribute power more equally. In our view, this is necessary, because we see a growing disconnect between political actors and citizens manifested by shrinking numbers of members in political parties, dramatically shrinking voter turnout in elections, and growing mistrust of political systems.”
“Democracy.Earth,” Ritter says, “is a really thorough approach for rethinking online voting and allocating political power without centralized institutions.”
As described by Ritter, it’s easy to see the appeal of liquid democracy for a constituency dissatisfied with politics as currently practiced. But it may be a mistake to try to map what Democracy.Earth is doing directly to our current status quo. Whenever I asked Siri how exactly his technology would affect something like the emergence of Donald Trump in US politics or the authoritarianism of President Maduro in Venezuela or, in perhaps the most formidably dismaying scenario, the total power of the Chinese Communist Party, Siri would change the grounds of discussion away from the political exigencies of the moment and toward the contemplation of more ethereal, long-range goals.
The internet and the blockchain, he believes, have smashed the old nation-state era to dust. In this new, profoundly globalized, borderless, and increasingly decentralized universe, we are no longer defined by our geographical location in a particular territory. Instead, we are citizens of the world, and in the future we will require the evolution of new, decentralized organizations aligned with the constraints of our new reality. Democracy.Earth, I gradually came to understand, is an ongoing research laboratory and thought experiment in how to design decisionmaking mechanisms appropriate to this new world.
“Our aim is to provide a token that can be trusted for governance because of the legitimacy we can bring in regarding identity validation and liquid democracy rules,” Siri says. “I think we are discovering the building blocks for creating purely digital institutions—institutions that never need to go through a bureaucracy or a bank or a state in order to exist.”
THE PROPOSITION THAT new solutions are necessary for our strange new world is hard to argue against. The problem lies in proving that something as complex as Democracy.Earth fixes more than it breaks. Consider the most fundamental piece of Sovereign’s infrastructure, the blockchain.
The case for the application of the blockchain to voting systems is that blockchains are supposed to be perfectly transparent scorekeepers that can’t be hacked by Russian bots or bought off by Super PAC fund-raising or corrupt Argentine politicos. The immutability of a “distributed ledger” shared on multiple computers is an article of faith in the crypto community. Using Sovereign, Siri says, voters will be able to track their votes on the blockchain; they will know without any doubt that their vote was cast and counted as intended.
Herb Stephens, a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur who serves as Democracy.Earth’s treasurer, says the goal is a system in which “everyone has a copy and everyone can monitor the things that matter to the public in general.”
Or, as the white paper puts it, “with a blockchain-based democracy votes become censorship-resistant and every single voter can audit an election without requiring any kind of access rights to infrastructure.”
Experts in secure voting systems disagree.
“It is a terrible mismatch for the voting and election space,” says Josh Benaloh, a senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research who has spent 30 years researching secure voting systems. “It seems attractive, until you scratch under the surface. There are so many ways in which blockchains don’t solve the real problems, they just make everything worse.”
Dan Wallach, a professor specializing in computer security at Rice University, believes that the crypto-infatuated generation is far too optimistic about what their new toys can achieve.
“Blockchain people haven’t really been paying attention to the threat models inherent in voting, particularly bribery and coercion,” Wallach says. “They tend to make naive assumptions about voters’ ability to control the cryptographic keys and software used to express their votes. None of these systems are suitable for use in real-world municipal elections.”
Wallach and Benaloh both reiterated the classic “garbage in, garbage out” problem that has long afflicted computer programming. Certainly, once things are recorded on the blockchain it is very hard to change them. (As Harper Reed, Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign chief technology officer, told me, “the blockchain is great for knowing whether people are messing with your stuff.”)
But Benaloh is worried about vulnerabilities that occur before data is encoded in the blockchain. There could be malware on your smartphone that alters your vote as soon as you try to spend your token. Even worse, there could be an agent of a repressive state with a gun to your head dictating exactly how you vote.
Or, your vote could just get bought—something that some researchers think will be even easier on the blockchain than at the old-school ballot box.
Although Democracy.Earth intends for Sovereign to ultimately be “blockchain-agnostic”—that is, it should be compatible with a multitude of different public and private blockchains—right now it is being designed to take advantage of the “smart contract” capabilities built into the Ethereum blockchain.
These contracts automatically execute transactions on the blockchain when certain conditions written into the blockchain’s code are met. Sovereign’s vote tokens, therefore, can automatically trigger smart contracts. For example, an organization debating whether to spend funds on a particular project holds a vote; if a majority spends their tokens voting yes, the funds are instantly released.
But in a system where the decisionmaking entity—the vote token—is itself something bearing a financial value, the potential for smart-contract mayhem is enormous, says Ari Juels, a Cornell Tech computer scientist who studies blockchains and smart contracts. In early July, Juels coauthored a blog post pointing out that smart contracts could be equally as effective at “buying elections” as they would be properly executing the results of an election.
“The Democracy.Earth scheme offers a clear and simple illustration of the type of attack we’re concerned about,” Juels writes in an email. “Very simply, someone can anonymously launch a smart contract that buys people’s votes by purchasing their Democracy.Earth voting tokens.
The broader point is that the very transparency of blockchains can be a liability in elections, as it exposes the choices of voters. Smart contracts can automate vote buying, guarantee payment, and otherwise undermine election integrity. The white paper suggests that the connection between identities and cast votes might be broken using new techniques. But breaking this connection when a voter wants it in place in order to sell her vote is hard.”
“I hold the same opinion as the rest of the international experts in crypto and elections,” says Kiniri of Free & Fair.1 “There are nearly only ‘cons’ to using blockchain technology in the voting process.”
THE SON OF a corporate lawyer and slipper company entrepreneur, Siri grew up in Buenos Aires, idolizing both Steve Jobs and Che Guevara. Before getting involved in Argentinian politics, he carved out a successful niche as a videogame designer, launching two game companies as well as cofounding a game developer association. He dreamed, he tells me, of building a game like SimCity, “only with actual citizens.” He jumped on the blockchain bandwagon early, although he notes, just a tad ruefully, “I wish I bought more.”
“But I bought enough,” he concludes.
As far as his own politics are concerned, Siri says that he’s been “introduced in different places around the world as either a revolutionary leftist or a Davos-man entrepreneur engaging in politics. Both are flattering to me.”
There’s no question he’s hard to put in a box. Every conversation I had with Siri was a roller-coaster: Game theory, the quantum nature of reality, the failure of the Bolshevik revolution, the internet’s responsibility for the polarization of our current information ecology—in real time, you can feel Siri restlessly trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together. He’s a big thinker, tackling problems that are as big as they get.
But the more we delved into the nitty-gritty of Democracy.Earth’s technology, the more difficult it became to evaluate its objective merits. When I pointed Siri toward Juel’s blog post about smart-contract vote-buying and shared Benaloh’s critique of the blockchain as applied to real-world elections, his answers took me further into the labyrinth.
“Of course there are all kinds of concerns as we expand our understanding of how to architect systems built only with information,” he wrote via email. “We are aware of the diverse set of attacks that can happen. But voting isn’t a uni-dimensional problem. It’s just the name we give to transactions happening within the wider realm of governance. Elections, as we understand them under the traditional sense on how they’ve been held by the nation-state, are probably not the fittest form of governance to be delivered in digital form … That’s why intrinsically understanding how blockchains can scale social consensus is definitely the way to go.”
What Siri seemed to be saying is that Sovereign isn’t really intended as a replacement for how the United States elects a president or California passes an initiative. Instead, it’s really an exercise in figuring out how to use the blockchain to make group decisions in the crypto-digital domain. Sovereign, in other words, represents government of the crypto-people, by the crypto-people, and for the crypto-people.
Ultimately, maybe, the crypto-people will soon just be the people. But we’re not there yet. Underlying everything in the Democracy.Earth platform, and more generally in the whole crypto-libertarian project to remake society into a decentralized utopia free of coercion and exploitation, is a near-evangelical faith in the premise that computer code can solve the messy realities of human life.
“The interesting thing about crypto,” Siri says, “is that you can start creating institutional models that no longer rely on the fallibility of human authority but are strictly based on code, mathematics, and encryption; you can start building an institutional reality where the checks and balances are protected by hard promises, by fundamental mathematical constructs that are simply impossible to break due to the intrinsic properties of how information works.”
This is a difficult argument to challenge by picking away at potential smart contract vulnerabilities, or any other objective critique of the blockchain as it exists now, because the answer to every problem is a new technological solution that just hasn’t been discovered yet. And it’s an impossible argument to challenge by pointing out such things as the possibility that a centralized database with really strong security provisions is probably a more efficient way to run an election than by using the blockchain, when the whole point of the project is to avoid having a central authority in the first place.
A PRIMITIVE VERSION of Sovereign was tested during the 2016 Colombian referendum held to approve a peace treaty between the government and the FARC rebels. One thousand expatriate Colombians who were unable to register to vote in the actual election took part. In a preliminary stab at implementing the flexibility of liquid democracy, the trial group was given the opportunity to cast a symbolic vote on seven different propositions relating to the peace accord, rather than just a binary yes/no on whether to pass the accord.
Siri says the approach helped explain the surprise real-world defeat of the accord, because the Sovereign-using voters approved six of the peace-related proposals, while overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal to allow FARC to participate in government.
As an experiment in how voting could be conducted with more nuance than conventional models, the FARC referendum is interesting. But it still falls short as proof of how a full-fledged Sovereign exercise of vote-token fueled liquid democracy might work, because too many pieces of the puzzle still remain in development. Most critically, there has been, to date, no real-world test of the use of Sovereign’s blockchain generated vote tokens. And that is precisely where the whole Democracy.Earth experiment is most provocative.
The main reason voting-technology researchers cast a leery eye on the merger of cryptocurrency and voting stems directly from the example of bitcoin, which evolved from means of exchange to speculative commodity. Instead of being used to actually buy things, bitcoin has turned into the digital equivalent of gold—a way to get rich by simply buying and selling when the price is right.
So what’s to stop “owners” of vote tokens from buying and selling them as commodities instead of using them to vote?
Siri and Stephens both acknowledge that the potential for vote-token speculation is a real concern. At the very moment I was posing them the question in early July, the entire Democracy.Earth team held a one-week retreat to figure out how to guard against exactly such a scenario. After the retreat was over, Siri sent me a preliminary draft of their new “token economics” white paper. Along with another dollop of rhetoric—“we consider token-based liquid democracies to be the most flexible form of democratic governance that can be constructed with digital technology”—the paper made a pledge that Sovereign’s vote tokens would be built with incentives designed to keep token prices stable.
Like many elements of the Democracy.Earth technology roadmap (and this is a common aspect of ICO white papers) the goal sounded more aspirational than grounded in executable code. But two different academic cryptocurrency researchers with whom I discussed the plan said they were hard put to figure out why a vote token had to have monetary value in the first place. One suggested that the primary motivation was likely “business reasons”—that is, funding ongoing operations or, more simply, profit.
Even worse, to participate in this form of voting, you have to be able to afford the vote token in the first place. Someone has to cover the cost of computation on a public blockchain. In the world of old school politics, “paying to play” is generally frowned upon. Perhaps in theory Democracy.Earth’s outline of a universal basic income scheme could address that issue, but that’s also another example of adding complexity to an already Rube Goldbergian contraption.
Siri’s rejoinder is that there has to be some real skin in the game to make online voting meaningful. “The purpose of using a blockchain is for decisions that aim to be immutable, and hence able to trigger cryptocurrency transactions or execute smart contracts,” Siri says. “Our aim is to evolve the experience using social media into something that is effectively able to push institutional change with transactions that are backed by economic drivers brought in by the users themselves.” In other words, paying to play is a good thing.
HARPER REED, OBAMA’S former CTO, professed himself a bit befuddled by how blockchain dreams intersect with the kind of door-knocking and phone-banking that modern American election campaigns are built on. “Winning an election is all about committing to a space, committing to a locale, and actually organizing,” Reed says. “I have a hard time understanding how, as a borderless crypto person, you can effect change. By definition, you are standing outside of a space instead of committing to it.”
Siri agrees that politics work best on the ground. “That’s how politics works everywhere,” he says. But he thinks he is as committed to grassroots organizing as any clipboard-wielding pavement pounder. It’s just that his precincts are all online.
“We are on a mission to create a ‘new space’ and breed a sense of global citizenship within it,” Siri says. “In essence, we want to help you migrate from your political system without needing to change countries. Think of the people in Venezuela: They’re under a tyrannical regime that has a hyper-inflationary currency, and the majority is unable to leave their families and loved ones. Our aim is precisely to work with those communities to provide them a set of tools able to empower them in a way that gives them an exit.”
What he means by “exit,” however, is not a chance to physically leave the country but a chance to “leave” oppressive financial and political systems of authority. He sketches out a scenario: Imagine there’s an organization that aims to represent Venezuelan dissidents. Some have left the county, some are still inside the country, but all of them have identities validated on Democracy.Earth’s blockchain. The members take a vote (with their anonymity protected) on whether to digitally “airdrop” some cryptocurrency assets on a group of dissidents within the country. A “yes” vote executes a smart contract that releases the funds. Now the dissidents are no longer trapped by the hyperinflating insanity of the bolivar or state controls on currency exchanges. In theory they will enjoy financial security backed up by the blockchain. (Provided, of course, that there are ways to actually spend that cryptocurrency on food or shelter or whatever, which does not seem to be an insignificant quibble.)
It is precisely in a place like Venezuela, Siri argues—where the politics are irremediably broken and civil society is in such shambles—that people will be most likely to experiment with new ways to exercise their sovereignty. But the goal isn’t necessarily to replace President Maduro with someone else. It’s far more radical than that—the goal is to make the president, any president, irrelevant to the needs and desires of a self-organizing population taking advantage of blockchain-generated tools to transcend primitive electoral democracy.
“If we can effectively build a new model that makes the existing one obsolete, maybe we are worthy of not needing governments anymore,” Siri says. “I know it’s ambitious. But either we build tools that help us adapt to our new weird reality or we go back to the dark ages.”
More than once, listening to Siri, I found myself inwardly gaping at what seemed like windmill-tilting to the nth degree. Getting rid of government altogether? Come on! But every time I emerged from my daze and took a hard look at the world around me, the prospect that a new dark age was looming on the horizon seemed less fanciful.
And the notion that our weird times might call for weird measures seemed less quixotic.
1In an earlier version of this story, this quote was misattributed to Ari Juels.
French President Emmanuel Macron called for “dialogue and multilateralism” to resolve the world’s crises in a speech at the UN Tuesday delivered minutes after US President Donald Trump blasted international “interference” in policy-making.
“What will bring a real solution to the situation in Iran and what has already stabilised it? The law of the strongest? Pressure from only one side? No!” exhorted Macron. “We know that Iran was on a nuclear military path but what stopped it? The 2015 Vienna accord,” he said.
In his address to the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York, Trump hailed his decision to pull out of the deal and claimed that “so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported my decision to withdraw from that horrible deal”.
While Macron did not name his US counterpart during his address, the focus of his speech – including highlighting the dangers of unilateralism that helped lead to the birth of the UN – centred on international dialogue and cooperation.
Noting that “nationalism always leads to defeat”, Macron urged his fellow world leaders not to “accept our history unraveling”, adding: “Our children are watching.”
WATCH MACRON’S FULL SPEECH AT THE UN
No alternative to two-state solution
While Trump – a staunch Israel supporter — did not mention the Palestinian quest for statehood, Macron underscored that a two-state solution was the only way to resolve the longstanding crisis.
“What can resolve the crisis between Israel and Palestine?” asked Macron. “Not unilateral initiatives, nor trampling on the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to legitimate peace. There is no credible alternative to the two-state solution.”
In a swipe at Trump’s stated allegiance to his Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia –and the Gulf kingdom’s own opposition to the 2015 Iran deal – Macron warned that “we should not aggravate regional tensions but rather, through dialogue and multilateralism, pursue a broader agenda that allows us to address all the concerns caused by Iranian policies – nuclear, ballistic, regional”.
While admitting that there was widespread scepticism toward multilateral institutions such as the UN and the EU, Macron noted that one “may be tired of multilateralism”. But complacency and isolationism, he stressed, were detrimental to both global peace and prosperity.
Can Bitcoin save Argentina 🇦🇷? The country is in yet another currency crisis, with the peso down 45 percent against the dollar and inflation at 25+ percent. In Venezuela 🇻🇪 consumer prices are expected to increase 14,000% this year, a currency collapse that has millions scrambling to pay for basic necessities.
In both countries, Bitcoin transactions are soaring, with citizens turning to the cryptocurrency as a more stable store of value than the nation-state can offer. CoinDesk’s analysis “Can Bitcoin Save Argentina?” reports the mission of our co-founder Santiago Siri, who visited Buenos Aires earlier this month to discuss a crypto proposal with government officials: to diversify a portion of the country’s official reserve holdings, shifting away from US policy-dependent dollars to cryptocurrency — which many Argentinians are increasingly holding. For a country with no success in containing its inflationary crisis, maybe the time has come to look to bitcoin.
Just last week, millions of Argentinians watched Santi on national television: the #SiriConFantino interview onAnimales Sueltoswas the #1 trending topic on 🇦🇷 Twitter. Watch the full interview in Spanish here or segment highlights 1, 2, 3, and click below to watch our favorite excerpt:
SiriusXM host Randi Zuckerberg talked blockchain with Santi on Dot Complicated – click below for some great studio outtakes!
In August, Democracy Earth was an impact sponsor of the Chicago Voice of Blockchain event. The conference was a visible reminder there is no lack of builder and influencer focus and momentum on blockchain for social good initiatives. We were proud to take the stage with partners The Good Country and the Women’s March in a panel discussion on the role of blockchain in building new models of global citizenship. Citizenship enrollment for The Good Country opens this week.
Recent and imminent milestones include:
Bringing more Sovereign functionality on-chain and making the VOTE token migratable and upgradeable
Advancing Sovereign development on a UI revamp and furthering blockchain integration
Seeking tester/user input on Democracy Earth development priorities on the Sovereign alpha platform – to review and vote on features, click 👉Vote.Democracy.Earth
We are conducting an ongoing case study with our partner The Fourth Group, as part of a coalition to define citizenship in the global age. Check out our interview with CEO and World Economic Forum Global Shaper Alvin Carpio about the initiative on the 🎧 Democracy Salon podcast. Stay tuned for the next phase update in November, and catch the next development update by subscribing here.
Token Pre-Sale ad Public Sale Update
We are very pleased to announce the opening of our global public token sale is slated for November 15, 2018. The price will be $0.12 per token, offering 200 million tokens for a total potential raise of $24 million. The public sale will be open to all buyers around the world, excluding banned jurisdictions (China, NY, others).
For accredited investors, the Foundation is extending the pre-sale purchase until the opening of the public sale November 15th. Pre-sale tokens are available with 6-month and 12-month lock-ups, priced at $0.08 and $0.06 respectively. Verified accredited investors excluding NY and China can start the pre-sale SAFT execution process now.
What’s Next 🇺🇸 🇬🇷 🇨🇿 🇦🇷 If you’re in the vicinity of these upcoming co-founder appearances, reach out to us!
Herb Stephens will hold investor meetings in New YorkNovember 1-4
Pia Mancini is a featured speaker at CryptoSprings 2018 in Palm Springs October 2-4 (🎟️ tickets)
Santi Siri will deliver a keynote at Ethereum’s much-anticipated annual developer’s conference Devcon4 in Prague Oct. 30-Nov 2 (🎟️ tickets), the C20 conference in Argentina November 18, and at the DGov 2018 distributed governance conference in Athens Dec 7-9.
Thank you for reading! Follow us on Medium to stay up to date on interesting news (like this post on “tyranny of the majority” by our Democracy Earth Ambassador at the Hague🇳🇱). And as always, thanks for being part of the Democracy Earth community!
Global retail giant Walmart hosted a presentation on its work with blockchain during an annual investor event last week.
The company began working with IBM and Tsinghua University of Beijing last year to test blockchain-based supply chain applications, with a particular focus on China’s massive pork market. In follow-up statements, Walmart indicated it wanted to apply the tech to various areas – and more recently, CoinDesk reported the company is looking at blockchain as a tracking solution for unmanned delivery vehicles.
The results of the initial trial, though, will arguably set the tenor for Walmart’s use of blockchain, and according to the firm, its food-focused testing has produced “very encouraging” results.
And this is only the beginning, according to Walmart, which said of the presentation:
“This is just the start of our blockchain exploration. We plan to continue to test the technology, by including more data attributes, for example. And we will continue to test how we can use it to improve food traceability and transparency by collaborating with others throughout the supply chain. This means farmers and suppliers and other retailers.”
Walmart explained that the technology has helped it reduced the time it takes to track food from days to minutes, enabling more effective response in the event that tainted products are discovered.
“This will help enable precise and rapid recalls to preserve consumer trust in the food industry, while increasing traceability and transparency of the food system,” the firm said.
The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.
Thu, 5/13, 8 am — Martín Arboleda, Governing Utopia: on Planning and Popular Power — The global unfolding of capital is a deliberately planned process and this mode of late-capitalist planning has led the way to an era of mass extinctions and extreme social inequality. Current debates on radical economic planning foreshadow new and more intricate visions of state, money, and markets, and of the role that they could perform in a transition towards a future that is exciting and radically alternative — Arboleda is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago de Chile and is the author of… Continue reading →
Thu, 5/13, 11 am — Anticapitalism and Work with Vijay Prashad, Dalia Gebrial, Amelia Horgan — Why is the U.K. government afraid of anticapitalism? Why is it being barred from schools? Why now? And how can we teach anticapitalism? — Organized by the The Left Book Club: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/anticapitalism-and-work-with-vijay-prashad-dalia-gebrial-amelia-horgan-tickets-149161346603?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch&keep_tld=1
Thu, 5/13, 11 am — Revolutions — Join Michael Löwy, emeritus research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research; Marianela D’Aprile, a writer and member of the DSA National Political Committee; and Aline Klein, on the editorial board of Jacobin Brasil, for a multi-media discussion of Löwy’s new book, Revolutions — Moderated by Todd Chretien, who has has contributed to several books, including Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics — Sponsored by Haymarket Books: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/revolutions-tickets-151555722245?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch
Thu, 5/13, 11 am — The Economy of Care with Cassie Thornton — How do we organise care under current neoliberal conditions? Can precarious conditions lead to uncovering new solidarities and organisational forms? — Thornton is an artist and activist from the US, who makes a “safe space” for the unknown, for disobedience, and for unanticipated collectivity. Her new book The Hologram: Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future is available from Pluto Press: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-economy-of-care-with-cassie-thornton-tickets-150403281263?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch&keep_tld=1
Join us Thursday for another engaging conversation on our national organizing call at 6PM EST. We’ll be discussing the Supreme court and Birddog strategies with Center for Popular Democracy’s very own Julia Peters from CPD’s Innovation Team! We’ll also be discussing Medicare-for-all and Senate filibuster updates happening in our progressive fight. Hope to see you all Thursday at 6PM. Register here to join! Thank you, Innovations, Center for Popular Democracy CPD Action 449 Troutman Street, Suite A Brooklyn, NY 11237 United States
Show Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Workshops SURJ (Show Up for Racial Justice) hosts workshops on important issues regarding race. Here are a few upcoming events worth checking out: Living on Ramaytush Ohlone Land – Wednesday, May 12, 2021• 5:00-6:30 PM Pacific White Supremacy Culture Characteristics – Thursday May 13, 2021• 5:00 PM Pacific
A Discussion of African-American Labor History: Peter Cole discusses his book about Ben Fletcher Join us this Thursday, May 13th at 6:30 p.m. for a discussion of Peter Cole’s new book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly. Ben Fletcher was one of the most important labor organizers of the early twentieth century, and yet his name is almost unknown today. Peter Cole remedies this by shining a new light on Fletcher, one of the founders of the IWW and organizer of the one of the few interracial union locals of the time. Join us for a discussion and celebration of Fletcher’s… Continue reading →
San Francisco Democrats, We are thrilled to welcome Tom Ammiano as our guest for “Let’s Get Loud” a special virtual event we are hosting on Thursday, May 13th at 6:30pm. The time has come, to get all of the T from Tom Ammiano! Join mistress of ceremonies Honey Mahogany as she talks to Tom about his life, his loves, his book, and his thoughts on what is going on in the world of Politics. This will be an edifying and entertaining evening that is not to be missed! We’ll also have a comedic set by Tom’s friend and Bay Area staple Karen Ripley! So don’t wait, get… Continue reading →
ISF Federal Working Group meeting: Thursday, May 13, 7–9 PM. Register here to help us develop strategies to influence our Members of Congress and the Biden administration to enact a progressive agenda. Zoom room opens at 7 PM for discussion and orientation, and the meeting agenda starts promptly at 7:30 PM.