Digital identity and building a democratic infrastructure online

So what if I'm a dog

I have a long running sofa argument with my husband about the fact that he believes that at some point soon the googleplex (the Howe domestic shortcode for machine based decision making in the cloud) will take over the business of government and that messy old democracy will fall by the wayside. I disagree (hence the argument) but I believe that if we don’t get our act together with the basic digital building blocks of a democratic infrastructure then the the chances of him being right are growing and while that might be good for domestic harmony its bad for society*.

This piece is in preparation for a panel I am on at the “Doing and thinking democracy differently” conference on 7th November where I will be putting forward the idea that if we really want a digital democracy then we need to address the question of digital identity.  I have argued elsewhere of the need to design civic qualities into digital environments (Howe 2014) and in this post I want to expand on the importance of digital identity and the need to view it as more than a transactional requirement in the online space.

Counting stuff is not democracy

The transaction at the centre of a democratic system is the vote – and as we have seen the social media as a democratic medium the like, share or retweet have been treated in many cases as votes – signalling approval, popularity or strength of feeling. However we have a poor understanding of the underlying data and infrastructure that provides these results and a poor understanding of the social signals and intent which is behind an individuals click on the like button. These arguments have been outlined elsewhere (Davies & Gangadharan, Karpf) but this point is that there is a clear gulf between the discipline of the ballot box and the fuzzy logic of the social web. But voting is just one part of democracy and counting stuff is not enough to crate a democratic system even if we actually know what we are counting.

Social signals are of course not the only thing that we can count – decision making based on the evidence of the digital trails which we leave online around transactions, searching or less directed browsing is possible but risks an increasingly group homogeneity where different views, ideas or values get drowned out. Data driven policy making has huge potential to help shape our democratic landscape but only if taken as part of a democratic dialogue.

With respect to digital democracy I think we need to be considering digital infrastructure – the potential for a bit of democracy everywhere rather than a single place or action. This is what I mean when I talk about the democracy stack. This democratic infrastructure should give us the ability to deliberate and debate with each other as well as counting things. We can’t do that if we don’t look beyond transactional identity (we know who you are right now) and consider social identity (we know you are the same person we spoke to before) online.  Identity is a social construct online and offline (Goffman, Hogan) and we need to be able to reflect this in our online spaces.

Shortcomings of online debate
We are well versed in the early hope and idealism that talked of the potential for the internet to provide the home for a new kind of democracy. The reality of the social web is somewhat different and at least lives up to one of the early aspirations that ‘all human life is here’. Recent examples of misogyny on twitter with the abuse of MP Jess Phillips, the SXSW spat about the behaviour of the gaming community and the ongoing debate about moderation and behaviour on Reddit are just a few examples that give pause to anyone who believes that the internet, without some kind of design intervention, is going to provide the environment for open and fair democratic debate where people can debate with each other respectfully. Identity plays a massive part in the terms of moderating the way in which people behave online (Donath) – anonymity does not bring out the best in us. Identity without privacy however is just as dangerous – our identities are layered and we should be able to show different parts of ourselves in different contexts however hard this is to maintain online.

There are many many reasons why the identification of the individual to the state or even society at large may inhibit your democratic interactions – fear of intimidation, lack of self-efficacy or just a lack of trust in an unbiased outcome within your transactional interactions with government if you were to show a negative view (Morozov). There is also the need to make it possible for civil servants to voice views that may differ from their political leaders and the need to separate their personal from their professional lives in order to ensure that they are not disenfranchised.

It is possible to have accountability without making your identity transparent – you can be discrete about who you really are. Screen names are common place online and serve a valuable function in allowing people to participate in instances where they actively seek to conceal who they are in ‘real life’. As long as we have some processes that validates these screen names against a legal real world identity then all forms of identification could be accommodated within this model and individuals would have the freedom to participate without the risks of connecting all elements of their online and offline identities together in an externally transparent way.

The question is how do we create an identity system which respects the privacy of the individual and their right to chose how to present themselves with enough personal accountability to moderate some of the worst excesses of online behaviour.

Self-efficacy and agency
Belief in our own self-efficacy – the belief that our actions have an impact – is crucial to any kind of participation (Davies & Gangadharan, Rowson & Norman). We want to be listened to and we want our views to have an impact. While on the one hand the online space can provide an echo chamber for anyone who wants to broadcast their views their is currently no compelling reason or requirement for the state or politicians to actually listen. This doesn’t discount the impact that any kind of media has on politics but it is not the same as debate being considered as part of a democratic process.

At the same time one of the most insidious aspects of a digital democracy which emphasises the potential of data driven policy making is the way in which this ignores the fact that we have so very little control of our data online.  If we write ourselves into being on social media (Boyd. Donath) then we click and transact ourselves into being across the rest of the internet and decisions are being made based on the aggregate of these clicks. Shouldn’t we know where this is happening?

How could this look?
NHS Citizen is  a national programme to give the public a say on healthcare matters and influence NHS England decision making.  Hidden in plain sight on the proposed technical architecture is the idea of a participation passport which would enable a number of things:

  • A persistent identity which could apply across different platforms and contexts
  • A personal data store that would give the identity owner control over their data within the system
  • The ability to chose a pseudonym if the identity owner did not wish to use their physical identity

The democratic vision for NHS citizen is of a deliberative democratic environment which can help connect conversations which are already going on together and to give them a process and a route by which they can be considered by NHS decision makers. It is not a vision of a huge new platform for NHS debate – instead its designed as a way of creating a democratic infrastructure which connects together the participation and debate already happening in order to make it unavoidable by decision makers.

The participation passport is a crucial part of that and perhaps the most ambitious part of the admittedly already ambitious NHS Citizen project as it goes against the grain of current digital democracy design which either looks to create tools and platforms which create democratic identities within those spaces or go with the easy option of using a social sign-on and validating against Twitter or Facebook credentials. I don’t believe either approach will work – the former requires a tremendous dose of luck alongside great design in order to create critical mass and the latter puts democracy in competition with global corporations with respect to own our identity and unless we get focused on the problem at the moment those corporations are winning. Projects like D-Cent are looking at open architectures and collaborative solutions to this question but I am not sure this is enough and we should be thinking carefully about the role of government in designing a more coherent digital identity landscape than we have currently.

Citizenship and social movements
Part of the thinking behind the participation passport was the concept of citizenship – and in the context of NHS Citizen the idea that people might opt in and declare their citizenship of the NHS as a social movement and use NHS Citizen as a vehicle to work collectively to improve it. Citizenship is an integral aspect of democracy and another reason for looking at how we describe identity online as something more than social (Facebook and Twitter), economic (Amazon) or transactional (taxing the car or renewing your TV licence). The ability to use the same identity in different contexts and on different platforms is both convenient for the individual and helps to create ties and connections between those platforms which help widen and strengthen debate and avoid the filter bubble of online content which is tailored to provide a mirror to your own views rather than enabling you to encounter different ideas from different people.

Technological confession
When we designed the participation passport I was heavily influenced by the idea it being linked to a personal data store and I still see this as an important element. I am aware however that I need to research more into the digital identity space and provide a more nuanced set of arguments here and this is one of my jobs for the next few months.

Identity matters in a democratic context because our democratic contribution should be greater than the sum of our votes and because respectful, constructive dialogue requires us to act as the best version of ourselves and not the worst. Civic participation is distinct from professional, economic or personal participation and needs to be treated as such online. Identity needs to be persistent across platforms and to help connect us to people who are different as well as those we agree with. If we want that we’re going to need to build it.


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* We’ve been happily married for 18 years so this kind of thing clearly works for us!

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