Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Swedish parliament embraces big brother

It seems like the lex orwell will be up for vote around 5 pm today. After a record-breaking short second round in committee, it will very likely pass with a slim, but sufficient majority. I have been loitering around the parliament for some time, taking to protesters and observing MPs hurrying in and out of the building, trying to avoid the angry questions from concerned citizens. But one thing is clear: the Swedish blogosphere lost the battle, but what a glorious battle it was.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Collective intelligence and citizen experts: not democracy

Since the 1990s, a number of government agencies and other public authorities have experimented with increasing availability and possibilities for civic participation, using terms as e-democracy or e-government to categorise what they are doing.

Increased participation in this form has most commonly been seen as a way of increasing or improving input legitimacy in governance. In the example I will delve on here, output legitimacy is far more important.

The main idea behind collective knowledge systems can be summarised in the words of the French philosopher Pierre Levy: “Nobody knows all, everybody knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity.” Knowledge produced as an aggregate of what many people know is better than knowledge emanating from a single individual. Extrapolating, political decisions made on these premises are better than decisions made on information provided by a single bureaucrat or government expert.

However, no more than Wikipedia is the result of equal participation of peers, collective intelligence as a method for information gathering for government purposes will almost unavoidably gather expert knowledge effectively rather than democratise the production of knowledge.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is since June 2007 using collective knowledge systems to evaluate patent applications in the Peer To Patent Project. The public is invited to scrutinise applications, and, according to the agency, the project will “empirically demonstrate the role that lay experts might play in improving decision making”.

The main problem of evaluating patent applications is to find out whether the patent brings something new to existing knowledge. The technical term is “locating prior art”. With the base of knowledge and the number of innovations growing exponentially, this becomes increasingly difficult, and it is impossible for a single bureaucrat to attain the knowledge needed in the process of establishing prior art in any given field. By opening up the process, someone or some people who have actually got that knowledge might be able to help.

Community reviewers register on the project site and have the possibility to go through applications and existing patents, scientific articles or other documents that might be said to define the prior art in the relevant field. This is a work carried out by a group of community reviewers and the participants discuss what document should be seen as important. In the end, what is agreed upon as the most important documents are sent to the Office.

For the sake of argument, I will not comment on the fast that the project seems to have failed: the number of community reviewers are at the time of writing alarmingly low. The relevant question is whether this is a form of democratised knowledge production.

A community reviewer must, in order to give relevant input to establishing the prior art concerning for instance computer software, have some form of pre-existing expert knowledge in the field. Potential participants might be anyone, but it doesn’t seem likely that anyone who hasn’t got the interest and knowledge would care the least for working - for free! - for a government agency. Also, the agency would hardly worry about any concerns raised by unknowing amateurs. The participating citizens must therefore be experts.

Apologists nevertheless maintain that the project is about enhanced democracy. I would rather hold that this is about expanding an elite of experts, not increasing political participation or contributing to equality. This does not mean that collective knowledge systems in public agencies shouldn’t be used. Only that they should not be used with the argument that they increase democracy.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Lex Orwell: Will the Swedish blog quake beat the government?

In the aftermath of 9/11, several countries were pressed hard by the United States to reinforce their security systems and augment laws on surveillance and counter-terrorism. This "securitisation" trend was evident even before 2001, but the pace with which civil rights are being sold out around the world by flashing the terrorist card has been astonishing.

This Wednesday, the Swedish parliament is voting on a bill proposing a law, named the Lex Orwell, that will make it possible for the government to monitor digital communication passing the national border. This means in effect, taking into account the fact that almost all communication in one or another stage passes the border, that the government will be able to read e-mails, text messages and listen to mobile phone calls from every citizen. For a summary in English and a European context, read this.

This law proposal has been the subject of a heated debate in the Swedish blogosphere for years, although traditional media has not picked up on the debate. Until now.

The government planned to take the law proposal through parliament when no one, it was assumed, would care about politics - in the upcoming week, when all eyes will be diverted towards the Euro 2008 football tournament, as well as enjoying the first hot Summer days of June. In that way, the bill would be accepted quietly and smooth, without a debate in the media.

For once, it actually seems as if the Swedish political blogosphere is going to make a difference in domestic politics. The campaign against the law proposal, spear-headed by liberal bloggers feeling that the Center-Right government is betraying liberalism's core views on private integrity, has grown to an anti-government blog quake in the past weeks. Thousands of blog posts, linking to each other, among other things made that the Swedish blog portal/billboard didn't show anything but Lex Orwell-related material for days.

Finally, traditional media cathced on (here as summarized in English in The Local). The government coalition parties' youth organisations are pressing "their" MPs to vote "No" on Wednesday. So are regular citizens. All the methods of viral political mobilisation are being used: YouTube videos, Facebook groups, massive text messaging - all encouraging liberal MPs to follow their convictions rather than the party whip and for citizens to call their MPs. The opposition parties are all against the bill, and all that it takes for the law proposal to fall is for four liberal MPs to go against their party lines.

The vote is on Wednesday morning, June 18, 2008. Is this the defining moment of viral politics in Sweden?

Oh, and here are some other blog posts, mostly in Swedish, debating the law:

blogge bloggelito, bloggen Bent, Thomas Tvivlaren, deep.edition, Johan Ronström, Henrik Alexandersson, Svensson, Drottningsylt, Erik Hultin, Mina Moderata Karameller, BetaAlfa, ProjO, Herr Klokbok, Felten fabulerar, andra sidan, I huvudet på Svenssons, Åsiktstorped, piratjanne, Seo-Sem, Ur Hjärtat, Nalles tankar från roten, Alter Ego, Christian Engström, Tantrablog,, Badlands Hyena, Den osynliga bloggen, Free and thinking, Det progressiva USA, Other blogs on the subject.

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