The Internet has changed almost every facet of our lives. The way we consume content, the way we get to work, the way we exchange money. But what if governments and organizations made decisions according to the opinion of the Internet? That’s the vision behind one of the tech nonprofits in our 2016 cohort, Democracy Earth. Born out of an Argentinian political party, “El Partido de la Red,” or “the Internet Party,” Democracy Earth was founded by Santiago Siri and Pia Mancini as a means to end the political corruption that is all too common in our world today.”
Democracy Earth leverages blockchain technology to make voting transparent and incorruptible for the first time ever. So what exactly does this mean? When an organization or government incorporates on the Democracy Earth platform, a specific number of satoshis (votes) are allocated based on the number of citizens or employees. Building this voting software on the blockchain mandates that a signature is tied to any transaction, or vote, made on Democracy Earth so organizations always know where the votes are coming from and what they’re going toward. This technology has revolutionary potential, and last week co-founder Santiago Siri did an interview with us to share more about his background in politics and the Democracy Earth mission.
Can you tell me more about how Democracy Earth works?
What we’re building is a tool for digital democracy on the blockchain. Our first version of the product will enable blockchain based voting for small and large communities. Any organization can implement this technology. We call this liquid democracy: You can vote directly on issues and delegate your voting power to someone you trust.
What exactly is blockchain based voting?
The blockchain is an incorruptible ledger, a distributed database. Any transaction stored in the blockchain is impossible to erase or modify. It has this incorruptibility element that guarantees transparency in any democratic process. From my past experience in politics in Latin America I know that the main enemy we are fighting is corruption. Leveraging this kind of technology guarantees that we can count the votes of everybody. There is no need for a central authority and there are no citizens with special rights. By storing information in an incorruptible public ledger, those votes and identities can be counted by anyone. This works for governments and all kinds of organizations and layers in a level of trust that is otherwise impossible to guarantee.
How do people get access to their votes?
With Bitcoin, each unit has 8 decimal positions. The minimal nominal expression is 0.00000001. That’s a satoshi. We are tying this idea to mean that 1 vote is equivalent to 1 satoshi. The cost of one satoshi is extremely low; it’s a fraction of a cent in US dollars. When you incorporate your organization in Democracy Earth, we allocate a specific amount of satoshis that can then be redistributed and allocated for use within the software. As long as the organization is small we can subsidize those satoshis to small organizations. For larger organizations and even countries, there is a cost. However even a million satoshis is just a couple of dollars.
How do you prevent corruption within the network since each organization decides how to allocate the satoshis?
Open source is about opening up the black box that can corrupt the system, and in a democracy that black box is who gets to count the votes. That central authority can be completely disrupted by using blockchains. The bitcoin blockchain allows you to track any transaction that’s made and makes the task of auditing permissionless, it lets anyone clearly see where everyone else is standing on certain issues. As we look further into the product we want to explore the idea of shares and what makes each individual a legitimate voter for an organization: for example, having users that are stakeholders and can own a certain amount of shares in an organization. So it’s not just about voting, but also about institutional design.
What types of organizations or governments do you foresee using this?
One of the pilots we are working on right now is with Colombia. They are working on a peace treaty after almost 50 years of Civil War between the Marxist Guerilla and the government. The situation is similar to Brexit. We are working with representatives on both sides of the discussion. Opposition leaders are interested in blockchain based voting to better understand different aspects of the referendum. The government is interested because this is a way to engage almost 7 million Colombians who live abroad. It lowers the cost for those that live in different countries and allows them to engage online and participate in a secure way. This is a perfect example of a situation where we see this kind of technology making an impact. At this point we see potential for small organizations, cities, companies and town halls to all use our platform. Our goal is to identify a standard for electronic voting on the Internet.
What was your inspiration for launching Democracy Earth?
I started this in 2012 and the initial idea was to start a political party. The “Partido De La Red,” or the “Internet Party.” We wanted a party in which candidates always committed to voting with what citizens decided through the Internet. We ran in the election and captured 1% of the votes. We learned a lot through this process and connected with activists and politicians around the world. I realized there is a rising generation who is looking at politics through a new lens: the Internet. As we started developing this technology, in the time of Edward Snowden and Satoshi Nakamoto, we saw the rise of a new generation and new political movements that come out of frustration in places like the US, Spain, Italy. There is a lot of political turmoil in the world and the rise of blockchain technology speaks to the Internet becoming a bureaucracy. This idea of universal bureaucracy thanks to the blockchain means we can establish trust online and start building a post-nationalist world.
What has been the greatest challenge so far?
For us a key challenge as we deploy our first pilot is understanding how we can scale blockchain transactions. Since we are working with blockchain identities, registering in the blockchain can take up to several hours. From the user experience side we are working to understand how users engage with the tech to determine if we are properly communicating the delegations they have. We will be studying how people are voting and using delegated votes. It’s essential that we understand those networks of trust that people are building in a simple, easy way so we can make this sort of decision making model take off.
What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned running a tech nonprofit?
Tech and nonprofit are very different worlds. With tech you have the expectation that you will deliver a product that can tap into exponential growth. The nonprofit world is more mission driven so the challenge is making those two sides meet and become compatible. We are trying to understand if the Internet can become planetary jurisdiction. It’s hard to find supporters in the short term because of that. We have to identify the key challenges along the way that could help strengthen our mission and give our supporters a stronger grasp of the goal we are pursuing. The Colombia pilot is very relevant —the idea of connecting expats to referendums in their own countries. It speaks to the reality of something that is not addressed by any government.
What personal experiences motivated you to launch Democracy Earth?
I started a political party in 2012 after meeting a lot of young leaders from Latin America at a conference in Mexico. I met a young chilean guy Giorgio Jackson, the leader of the student movement in Chile, who is now a Chilean congressman. When I spoke to him back then he was a passionate politician, but at the same time he was a guy who spoke to me about social media and memes. He was speaking a generational language that had to do more with the Internet than what you’d expect from a conversation with a politician. Watching and learning from Giorgio was very inspirational for me. When I got back to Argentina I realized I wanted to start a political party —I realized it was my generation’s turn. I was determined to figure out how to connect the Internet with the political system. What really defines us as our generation is that we were raised by the Internet. Then along the way I realized through working in politics and starting up a political party, especially in Argentina, there is a lot of corruption. It was a shocking experience. People warn you that politics is a nasty environment and in reality it’s even worse than you think. In politics you will receive death threats and people will go to great extents to discredit you. This was something I experienced firsthand and when you face corruption and manipulation at that level, when you are asked to pay a bribe to a federal judge, you don’t even know what to believe. It’s really, really messed up.
Were you involved in politics before you founded El Partido de la Red?
I’ve had an inner calling toward politics since I was a teenager. I discovered literature like the Communist Manifesto, the biographies of Che Guevara and Steve Jobs. My father once said to me, “You think this Communist thing is cool? Go to Cuba, live there and see what it’s like.” So I went and lived there for one month and traveled through the country with a Marxist professor. In La Havana I met an 18 year old who was also living in the house. He had a little dog named Linux, 15 hours of Internet access a month, and a computer. He bribed the guy from the phone company for more Internet. This was the dystopia of Cuba. While there, I came to understand what living under a dictatorship really means. The truth is not really there. The TV was just Fidel Castro all day. It was really a scary place, especially for someone who was born and raised in a young democracy like Argentina with the Internet. That was the first heartbreak I had from politics. When I got back to Argentina I decided to forget about politics and become an entrepreneur. Today I am against ideological mindsets. But yes, politics has always been there as something I care about. Look at the French Revolution and American Revolution, and then you had the enlightenment. That happened through the Internet in the last decade.
What’s your 5-year company vision?
What we are trying to bring to life is the idea of an institutional Internet. Money has already been disrupted with the rights of blockchain and bitcoin. A lot of fundamental questions about governance will pop up as this technology matures. We are building institutions in a purely digital way. We hope to see small and large governments running on the Internet at a transactional level. In the US, maybe this is not a relevant thing. In the US you can incorporate a business in five days. But in the developing world, the fact that you can turn on your phone and get access to financial instruments and building an organization from your computer without requiring special permission—this speaks a lot about the reality that needs to be built for our generation. This will not be a century of competition. It’s going to be about the cloud (Internet) versus the land (nationalism). We are already witnessing this in other parts of the world. The Internet becomes the main actor in the institutional reality of the world. We want to make our contribution to that with Democracy Earth: an incorruptible ledger as an antidote to the corruption in the developing world and its governments.