TOC Amending the US Constitution (part 3/3)
or Democracy in the Information Age
Your Turn

March 23, 2010

Rising to Lawrence Lessig's challenge to amend the Constitution so as to restore Democracy in the United States, we have shown how to eliminate the corrosive influence of electoral campaign money in candidate selection and in their reaching out to voters.

Were we idealistic, we might think our scheme complete. John Kay would approve, he who writes of politicians "the more attention they pay to public opinion, the less favorably that public opinion regards them" (*). His appeal to leadership as opposed to pandering is as principled as Lawrence Lessig's campaign against corruption. But times of relative peace and plenty do not nurture leadership. The Second World War made Churchill and De Gaulle, the Great Depression made Franklin Roosevelt, the Civil War made Lincoln. Who wants to relive those interesting times?

Peace prompted pandering means money is also needed to gather and analyze data about voters. "Smarter leaders are betting big on data" writes Stefan Stern (**) and James Crabtree lifts the veil on "Merlin" and "Contact Creator", the databases used respectively by the British Conservative and Labour Parties (***). These are "linked to Mosaic, a clever socio-demographic system for classifying different types of consumer groups [from] Experian, the consumer credit and information services group".

Funny that we keep bumping into corporate actors, the credit report agencies, well known to eprivacy activists. Not so surprising if we realize voters are characterized by their personal profiles. Leave it to dictators to use coercive methods to control their citizens' behavior. Candidates rely on persuasion and, to be convincing, simply buy access to the same profile data from suppliers ever ready to do favors for such good clients.

Robbing consumers of the right to their profiles is the same as stealing their attention. Pronaocracy feeds on privacy violation as much as it abets it in a harmonious relationship. We cannot hope to break this collusion unless we cut out the middleman, advertising channels when it concerns time, data aggregators when it concerns profiles, and make it a duty for citizens to freely part with part of their property for the right to vote.

The stakes keep rising however. Contrary to attention whose granting can be carefully limited, once taken, data can be held and resold indefinitely, leaving the citizen exposed to unbounded risks. Fortunately on Internet personalization and privacy can be had both at the same time. True this requires the active cooperation between visitors and the site being visited, but it would be the case of voters' visits to candidates' sites, wouldn't it?

We have suggested voters be compelled to visit candidate sites, spending enough time to be briefed on their programs and get acquainted with their personalities. Why not require they use a "less promiscuous browser" (1), with the appropriate add on? It would allow such sites to gather relevant statistics in all anonymity and customize their message to each visitor at no cost beyond one answering a few questions in total confidentiality.

Naturally no proposal should be accepted without a careful review, especially when the one making it stands to benefit from its adoption (2). On the other hand, nor should it be rejected in view of a such an apparent conflict of interest. A banker who bankrupts a client company against which it took credit default swaps does have a serious conflict of interest, even when her actions are perfectly legal. But is the fireman who launches a venture to manufacture fire retardant materials in the same category? If it looks helpful, perhaps one should rather test the proffered solution.

Some popular candidates may further attack the proposal on the ground that citizens should be free to share their data with whom they wish, i.e. to deny it to the opposition. Nice try, but once again the issue is how to win over fence sitters. And since total confidentiality means no personal profile is ever given to anyone, there is no reason to protect the die-hard supporters, whoever they are, and hence no need to modify the proposal.

More serious are the following objections. Access to voter profiles is one thing. What about the costs of data analysis? Besides, without putting too onerous a burden on each voter, how to account for the dynamic aspect of a campaign? Opinions need time to mature and may vary over time.

These however are practical issues to be dealt with accordingly. Assume all candidates can use enough voter attention and personal profile for free. This scheme does not intend to limit spending, but to eliminate the influence of money, enabling for instance public financing to put the neediest candidate easily on par with the richest. The shorter the time between candidate selection and balloting, the more manageable the remaining issues.

Aren't campaign dynamics and campaign spending such as data analysis and candidate travels in direct proportion to campaign duration? Why not then hold campaigns to last a month at most and require two rounds of visits from each citizen, one to register to vote, the other to cast the vote?

It is true that American citizens have become addicted to the theater of their presidential campaigns. Cutting it down to a month may trigger severe withdrawal symptoms. But why should a wild race to raise and spend more money than your opponents while covering them in mud be billed by the media as national news? Isn't it pure entertainment? Can't reality TV deliver for a fraction of the costs? Pick a farm or an island, invite willing candidates to stay there, isolated in spartan conditions, with ready access to real mud, and let the cameras roll till the official start of the campaign.

My fillip focused on the United States and mentioned the United Kingdom. Should my French readers feel our Republic safe from those Anglo-Saxon defects? Given the muscular way in which our HADOPI law has been adopted, it seems pronaocracy is already a French disease as well.

"The corporations are taking over and deciding who gets elected" said the late Doris Haddock, whose 1999 "3,200-mile trek for campaign finance reform" is recalled in the obituary written by Dennis Hevesi (****). Democracy is indeed about sharing one's convictions with one's fellow citizens.

Running democratic elections without bankrupting this ideal of sharing convictions may be dreaming the impossible dream. It is the test for our Age.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Leaders who panders to public opinion lose respect, by John Kay (Financial Times) - March 3, 2010
  • (**) ..... Smarter leaders are betting big on data, by Stefan Stern (Financial Times) - March 4, 2010
  • (***) ... Unseen technology is shaping the election in Britain, by James Crabtree (Financial Times) - March 5, 2010
  • (****) . Doris Haddock, Cross-Country Walker, Is Dead at 100, by Dennis Hevesi (New York Times) - March 13, 2010
  • (1) see Professor Felten's research quoted in: Redrawing The Route To Online Privacy, by Steve Lohr (New York Times) - February 28, 2010
  • (2) several relevant US patents or patent applications are held by the author
March 2010
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