THE MAN WHO’S DIGI­TIS­ING DEMOC­RACY

Stuff Singapore - - APPS -

If there’s one thing the politi­cians who will be jostling for your vote this year can agree upon, it’s that David Babbs has them wor­ried. His or­gan­i­sa­tion, 38 De­grees, is at the fore­front of ‘click­tivism’, giv­ing mil­lions of peo­ple easy dig­i­tal ac­cess to their MP, and by the sim­ple acts of email­ing and sign­ing dig­i­tal pe­ti­tions, they’ve pestered politi­cians into chang­ing the law. They even took the gov­ern­ment to court, and won.

38 De­grees is not a po­lit­i­cal party, but we have more mem­bers than the big three po­lit­i­cal par­ties put to­gether.

We don’t have mem­bers in the same way – we don’t charge peo­ple money to join, and each of our cam­paigns is op­tional. It’s up to our mem­bers whether they sign a pe­ti­tion or get in­volved, rather than hav­ing to sign up to a ‘party line’. The big po­lit­i­cal par­ties tend to be fairly cagey about re­port­ing how many mem­bers they have, but for Labour and the Tories I think it’s some­where in the re­gion of 100,000 each, with con­sid­er­ably less Lib Dems. We have over three mil­lion mem­bers.

We wouldn’t be able to do what we do with­out the in­ter­net.

With­out email and so­cial me­dia, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with three mil­lion peo­ple would be very dif­fi­cult – it would mean stamp­ing a lot of en­velopes. This kind of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion makes ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble at speed and at a scale that would be hard to imag­ine us­ing tra­di­tional means, from com­mu­ni­ca­tion to fundrais­ing. Of­ten when peo­ple do­nate to 38 De­grees it’s to fund a spe­cific goal: to get some ad­verts in a news­pa­per, or to hire le­gal ex­perts to chal­lenge a de­ci­sion by a com­pany or the gov­ern­ment. Of­ten you need to move quite fast to do those things, and thanks to the in­ter­net we can quickly get an email out invit­ing peo­ple to do­nate. Within 24 hours, we have the money in the bank ac­count ready to spend on the tac­tic.

The in­ter­net is like a town cen­tre, in a way: there are ar­eas that feel like pub­lic spa­ces, but ac­tu­ally they aren’t.

So, if you go into a shop­ping cen­tre, it can feel like a pub­lic space where you should be able to say what­ever you like (within rea­son, ob­vi­ously) – but if you start hand­ing out leaflets, for ex­am­ple, se­cu­rity guards will show up and you’ll be asked to leave. And that’s true of a lot of the in­ter­net. For ex­am­ple Face­book isn’t a pub­lic space, it’s owned by a com­pany. One of our long-term wor­ries is whether we’ll al­ways have free­dom of speech in th­ese ar­eas. This is some­thing I think about a lot, be­cause one is­sue we cam­paign about is how to get com­pa­nies like Face­book to pay their fair share of tax.

There’s a group of coders call­ing them­selves Democ­racy Club.

They’re build­ing a set of tools to help ci­ti­zens get more in­volved in the next gen­eral elec­tion – they’re mak­ing things like hav­ing a free, open-source repos­i­tory of cam­paign leaflets, so you can com­pare what dif­fer­ent can­di­dates are say­ing, and the prom­ises they make dur­ing the elec­tion can go into a data­base so we can see if they break them.

One MP has said he thinks po­lit­i­cal par­ties are a bit like HMV – they’re an out­dated busi­ness model.

At the mo­ment, we have a democ­racy based around a time when the most high-tech thing you could do was to elect a man who had a horse and send him to Lon­don. Surely modern tech opens up greater pos­si­bil­i­ties for lis­ten­ing and con­ver­sa­tion?

“Ed Balls”

In what may have been a bril­liant piece of so­cial me­dia strat­egy, but was more prob­a­bly a ham-fisted at­tempt to search for his name, Ed Balls sim­ply tweeted “Ed Balls”. Over 30,000 peo­ple retweeted him, and con­tinue to do so.

“In­ter­nets”

Ge­orge W Bush, whom you may re­call from his time run­ning Amer­ica, re­peat­edly re­ferred to “in­ter­nets” dur­ing his time in of­fice. Maybe they have more of ’em in the US.

“A se­ries of tubes”

...is how the 82-yearold sen­a­tor for Alaska, Ted Stevens, de­scribed the in­ter­net. He also com­plained that some­one on his staff had sent him “an in­ter­net”, and that it had taken over a day to ar­rive, prov­ing that hand­writ­ten let­ters are still bet­ter.

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