An anonymous reader submitted this interesting software request/editorial piece. The idea of digital demonstrations is still more or less in its infancy; various methods have been tried but none have proven to be perfect. Slashdot recently covered one presentation about digital demonstrations given at H2K2 [grep Dornseif] - the slides are online. The writer has glossed over some technical details, and the theoretical system he describes doesn't meet all of Dornseif's criteria for a digital demonstration which mimics physical ones (which seemed pretty well thought out at H2K2), but it's certainly an interesting idea nonetheless.
Votester, A New Tool for Digital Democracy and Digital Demonstrations
The Problem: Free-speech and right to assemble are threatened
Peaceful public assembly, free-speech and even civil-disobedience are essential to maintaining the balance of democracy in the USA and worldwide. Yet as recent public demonstrations have shown us (for example those against war, the IMF and the World Bank) in our modern-day society it is increasingly difficult, ineffective, and even dangerous for citizens to exercise their democratic rights to assembly and free-speech.
- Many nations do not allow open public dissent at all, and the penalties for participating in demonstrations are severe. In several cases, international governing and policy-making bodies have deliberately selected such nations for their meetings, in order to prevent demonstrations.
- Even in democratic nations such as the USA, peaceful demonstrators are often violently harassed, attacked, detained, arrested and imprisoned by police.
- The police are more organized and equipped than ever before with tear gasses, irritant sprays, stun guns, rubber bullets, water cannons, body armor, etc.
- Demonstrators can now be arrested and prosecuted as "domestic terrorists" if they participate in civil disobedience or their actions are deemed a threat to "national security."
- The mainstream media provides only scant, token coverage of large public protests and civil unrest, often whitewashing out incidents of police brutality, human rights violations, and violations of the right to free-speech and assembly.
- An increasingly large percentage of the world population (especially in developed nations) is over the age of 50 and cannot safely participate in public demonstrations due to the physical fragility and health risks associated with aging. They simply cannot risk getting beaten up by the police. In other words, the majority of citizens cannot safely assemble and demonstrate.
The Solution: Votester, a new tool for Digital Democracy
What is needed is a new technology that enables all citizens to safely and peacefully assemble, exercise their rights to free speech, and perform civil disobedience if necessary. This can be accomplished using an innovative application of open-source, peer-to-peer (P2P) technology on the Internet, which we call "Votester." Votester does not exist yet. It is the hope of the authors that one or more groups of technologists reading this document will be inspired to create versions of it and make them freely available to the general public.
Votester enables peers to automatically send recurring email messages and/or HTTP requests to a set of addresses associated with a digital demonstration. The rate at which messages/requests are sent by each peer to each address is determined by either (a) a function of the number of people in the digital demonstration, or (b) the peer-owner's individual preferences.
The Votester function mentioned in (a) increases the number of messages and requests sent per peer, per unit time, proportionally as the number of peers in the digital demonstration increases. In other words, the number of parties endorsing a digital demonstration is used as an implicit measure of its legitimacy and thus allows for the digital demonstration to be "louder." This prevents Votester from being used to harass individuals on a small-scale, while still enabling it to be used for large-scale protests. As the number of peers in a digital demonstration increases, the number of email messages and http requests received per unit of time by the targets of the demonstration can become large enough their organizations and IT infrastructures are overloaded. For small digital demonstrations, Votester results in the equivalent of letter-writing campaigns. For large digital demonstrations - such as demonstrations that attract hundreds of thousands or millions of participants, Votester results in significant inconvenience or even denial-of-service for the targeted addresses.
For example, to protest the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, parties could run copies of Votester on their personal computers around the Internet. They could join a group called "World Bank and IMF demonstration." Members of this group would all receive a set of email formletters, email addresses and HTTP addresses. These might include addresses for the World Bank, IMF, politicians, corporations and even media organizations. Their peers would periodically send out the email formletter(s) to each address, and/or issue HTTP requests to any URLs included in the demonstration as well. The rate at which their peers send out messages and requests is determined as a function of the number of participants in the demonstration group: If more peers participate, each peer is allowed to send more messages per unit/time. For small scale demonstrations each peer might only send the email message once per week, but for large demonstrations each peer might send the email message once per day or even once per hour.
Votester provides a number of additional useful features to users:
- Peers report their activity to other peers in the digital demonstration, thus all peers can see the statistics of demonstrations that are taking place. Relevant statistics are included in email messages sent by peers for particular demonstrations. For example, an email protesting a policy includes information about the protest, stats about the number of peers involved in the protest and the number of messages sent by them.
- Peers also provide a directory of current and proposed protests, and a means for users to join protests, leave protests, post messages to discussion groups, propose new protests to the community, manage protests they start, and send announcements to protest-participants.
- Votester peers may send email messages via their owner's email accounts and/or via built-in sendmail capabilities and/or via public email servers on the network.
- Votester peers have dynamic IP addresses that change each time they are launched.
Benefits of Votester
It's legal. In the USA democratic system, it is not illegal for a citizen to send an email containing their opinion on an important issue to others in the society. Even if they send their email more than once, this is legal. It is also not illegal for a citizen to visit a Web page repeatedly. Since each Votester peer only sends a few messages (such as once per day, or once per hour, etc.) no individual peer can be considered to be engaging in illegal harassment, hacking, denial of service, etc. Rather it is only the totally decentralized, emergent activity of the entire group that results in large volumes of messages and requests being received by target addresses. Therefore no individual is liable. (Please Note: We are not lawyers and the legality of these claims still needs to be evaluated and established by professional lawyers, and no doubt they will be challenged by governments and others if and when Votester is deployed.)
It's non-violent. However annoying Votester may be it is not comparable to violent demonstrations in which property is damaged and/or humans are injured. Votester demonstrations are peaceful, they are simply email and HTTP campaigns. All that is exchanged is information.
It's safe. Participants in digital demonstrations are not physically at risk. They can make their opinions known without getting beaten up, tear-gassed, pepper sprayed, etc. They can also protest without getting arrested.
It's effective. Digital demonstrations get noticed - they may actually cause enough inconvenience to target addresses that they can't help but notice them. They also cannot effectively be blocked by the police, so they last longer and can accomplish their objectives with fewer obstacles.
It's open. Anyone can participate in Votester demonstrations, including people who for reasons such as age, disability, ethnicity, economic status, etc. would not feel safe participating in physical demonstrations, or simply do not have the time or money to travel to a remote location and risk several days of detention etc.
It's unstoppable. Digital demonstrations are hard to block. Since messages come from dynamic IP addresses all over the network, targets have no effective way to shield themselves from them. They cannot anticipate the IP addresses that messages will be received from, and even if they block particular addresses, new parties are always joining and the IP addresses of participants change dynamically.
It is our hope that someone reading this will be inspired enough to create an implementation of Votester, and that they will release it as a free, open-source tool for the public. We believe that creating Votester will be an interesting project in its own right - for it presents a number of technical, social and user-interface design challenges that are worth solving. In particular, in order for Votester to succeed, it must provide strong anonymity protection to users, it must also facilitate a sense of community such that users can easily locate and participate in demonstrations of interest to them, finally it must be immune to attempts at hacking or misusing it so that it cannot be used for harassment by small groups and it cannot be blocked or manipulated by various parties.