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How lobbyists are denying you a voice and destroying democracy

This content is 14 years old and may not reflect reality today nor the author’s current opinion. Please keep its age in mind as you read it.

I came across an unsurprising but nonetheless disconcerting revelation today that is gives a very good example of what most of us knew all along: that “public comment” process are routinely subverted by commercial interests, generally at the public’s expense. It comes in the form of a smoking gun courtesy DSL Reports: Who Knew Senior Citizens Hated Net Neutrality?

There is currently an extremely important battle underway over securing Net Neutrality regulations and another where big media are actively attacking (by way of three-strikes policies like HADOPI in France) what is fast becoming a legal right: broadband access (thanks to Finland for getting the ball rolling: Fast Internet access becomes a legal right in Finland).

Us (US?) consumers recently had a big win with the FCC getting on board the Open Internet bandwagon but not afraid to flog a dead horse, industry lobbyists have rolled out an army of puppets parroting their position; that Net Neutrality is somehow opposed to broadband adoption (which could not be further from the truth). In this case it’s the Arkansas Retired Seniors Coalition, purporting to represent (surprise, surprise) retired seniors in Arkansas, ignoring the fact that your average senior quite probably doesn’t know what net neutrality is, let alone care about it!

They do care about Internet access though and as the slowest state in the south all it would take would be a seemingly suitable scapegoat and you’d have pitchforks in the streets. My guess is they don’t even know the position taken by their representatives which makes this letter sent on their behalf at least deceitful:

The problem which such astroturfing is that it makes public opinion both harder to reliably collect and easier to dismiss. Such shenanigans appear far more prevalent in the US than other countries I’ve lived in, but regulations there (e.g. DMCA) tend to flow on to the rest of us eventually so it’s in everyone’s interest to have their say.

There really should be something done about the issue, however most solutions are relatively difficult to enforce. Examples include requiring a statutory declaration component such that egregious abuses can be punished (and to make people think twice about misrepresenting others), or requiring the individuals represented to make an overt act such as signing a petition. Rejecting messages that are too similar, and therefore obviously templates, raises the bar somewhat but does not stop determined attackers.

The long term solution likely comes in the form of digital identity, whereby each individual can be reliably authenticated and the cost of involving them in decisions trends towards zero. As referendums are extremely expensive and inefficient (despite the availability of technology that could put them within reach for routine decision-making) we appoint representatives who we hope will accurately reflect our views on each of the topics. Obviously this is rare – for example your representative might share your views on fiscal policy but reject gay marriage in which case you have to choose what is more important to you.

An arguably better solution is where individuals can take part in all decisions they care about, which is called a direct democracy (or pure democracy), and the use of technology to achieve better representation is a separate but related concept known as e-democracy. We should be paying more attention to both as it’s like we only got half way there by establishing representative democracies in most of the western world.