A Conversation on Solid PODS and Direct Democracy

An essay by J. Paul Duplantis

I recently ran across a study and use case on using Personalized Online Data Stores (PODS) to help the citizens of Flanders, Belgium communicate more effectively with their representative government. Having followed the progress of Solid PODS over the last couple of years and an advocate for decentralizing the web and applications serving the web, I had reached out to the team to see how their technology may one day allow citizens to securely engage with legislation directly. 

Direct Democracy is not a new concept and has been experimented with since Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC but the represented have never had the toolset to engage with the inner workings of government in real-time regardless of their location until now. Yet even though the technology is currently possible; the network, AI layer, and application layer remain a toolset outside of user control compromising the relationship between user data and government data. But recently a major push to decentralize this toolset by companies such as Inrupt with their Solid POD framework and Singularitynet’s decentralized AI framework will begin to move controls over to the user.  

As this becomes a reality, what is possible when these tools are used to provide people a pathway to their government not only through their representatives but through the policies and legislation crafted on their behalf. We might be amazed by what may surface from an electorate engaged beyond the promises of their representatives. As there are many flavors of Direct Democracy, this essay intends to elevate awareness and feedback on legislation as it is drafted. Extending this to the actual vote outside of local levels has the potential to invite a tyranny of the majority to legislate, so there are caveats beyond tech to consider.

But what is the downside to bringing more of the electorate into the process of governing to help see behind the curtain of the cult of personality? To attach their interests to policy ultimately affecting their lives and their communities. Is an involved electorate healthy for society? How could it not be?

Below is my email exchange with Raf Buyle who with Ruben Taelman, Katrien Mostaert, Geroen Joris, Erik Mannens, Ruben Verborgh, and Tim Berners-Lee drafted the study.

As one can see below the technology and the talent is upon us. Now, what do we do with our role in government? Do we participate in it or do we anticipate what is drafted for us by it? Thomas Jefferson once said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.” Which leads me to wonder what the enlightenment thinkers of the day would have rendered with this toolset at their disposal?

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My email to the team….

I’m very interested in this paper you have collaborated on where Solid PODS are used for government applications. I had written an essay titled Emergent Representation of the People where I argue for the ability of the electorate to interact directly with legislation as it is drafted.

As I read through your paper, I am wondering if legislation could be drafted in a POD with each Committee Member involved having their own POD and a commenter with their POD attaching feedback to passages attached to the source material. I would envision the legislators being able to turn on layers of commentary and vote up the contributions best speaking to the passages in question. I would also envision some type of citation or badge that would sit in the commentator’s POD to remind the electorate of their contributions.

Does this sound possible? Or more importantly practical?

Curious to hear your thoughts. 

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Reply from Raf Buyle

Dear Paul,

It might be a good idea to facilitate the drafting process of legislation using multiple PODs.

In the region of Flanders in Belgium, almost all departments, agencies and cabinets take part in the preparation of legislation of the Flemish Government. Both before and during the formal decision-making procedure, many institutions and organisations are involved to give feedback on the proposals for decisions and decrees. The decision-making process in the Flemish Government itself usually goes through several formal approval steps. After final approval by the government, decrees go to Parliament. All regulations are translated and published in the Belgian Official Gazette. Finally, they are integrated into the Codex — which is now available as linked open data — and published on the Web.

The process of requesting and issuing advice, budget verification, related decisions, decrees, laws, guidelines, and coordinated legal texts, is supported by various specialised information systems. Thanks to better coordination, the exchange between the different actors could be streamlined with less need for manual verifications of versions of documents. By applying a decentralised architecture based on Solid to the drafting process of legislation, we could raise the transparency of the decision-making process. By applying the principles of linked data — linking the coined semantics to existing vocabularies — legislation would become more ‘harmonised’ and ‘digital friendly’, which raises legal interoperability.

The regional Government of Flanders facilitates a more transparent local decision-making process by publishing local council decisions as Linked Open Data. This initiative — started in 2015 — created an Open Source editor, which supports administrations to write and publish linked decisions without additional efforts. A vibrant community of administrations, companies and academia are involved in the development of the software.

Given the opportunity of streamlining the processes of the different stakeholders involved in drafting and reviewing legislation, the opportunity to involve the citizen and the potential increase in provenance and transparenty, we think it’s valuable to combine the good practices of the ‘Linked Legislation Editor’ with the strengths of Solid.

The paper on Linked Legislation (early start of the project, now in production): https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/8557584/file/8557588

An impression of the editor and drafting of local council decisions (Dutch):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLJRD3D6tdo

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