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Consensus building and verbal desperados

In representative democracy, legitimacy in decision-making comes from the devolution of individual power by a substantial group of citizens to one person in what is called an election. That the electors are seemingly free to chose who they elect, is the essence of democracy. I say "seemingly" because even though they may appear to have a choice of candidates, depending on their affiliations, there is in reality often only one person they can vote for. The person elected is accountable to those who elected him or her, but he or she is rarely revoked before the period of office is terminated.

In order to reach a critical mass of elected people with like opinions so as to ease decision-making and to have their opinion prevail, candidates club together in parties of mutual support and interest. These groups need to be seen to be distinct from other such parties, if they are to be preferred, so they are obliged to stress what makes them different, which can lead to divergence, conflict, inefficiency and finally mismanagement. Consensus and compromise with other political parties can be seen as a potential weakness in their identity as a group, which once again puts the emphasis on divergence rather than commonality. As their power depends on being chosen by others, there is a tendency not to take decisions that would go against the short-term interests of those who elected them.

New forms of democracy using the Internet seek to solve these problems by bypassing elected representatives especially in new areas like Internet governance where political jurisdiction may not be clearly defined. Those advocating these new forms are helped in their efforts by a growing tendency to reduce the influence and the role of the State. Advocates set out to reach a consensus on proposed solutions. It is this consensus, coupled with a process that is seen to be inclusive and wide-ranging, that lends legitimacy to the solutions advocated and enables their adoption. It is this consensual road that has been adopted in seeking a solution to the Internet domain name problem.

In such a process, it is very easy to become a hostage to a minority or even an individual who persistently advocates one unchanging proposition. Such behaviour is very difficult to handle. Consensus is generally reached by reasoned discussion if not by the play of power between the various parties involved. However, no amount of reasoned discussion will avail on those who refuse any change or compromise. In a reasonable exchange about ideas, it is possible to recognise the value of some of the things that the other person puts forward. Even those who adamantly defend one point of view, have things to say that are worth considering. Given the rigidity of their position, however, any such move to openness only fuels their will to defend their position. Openly pointing out or opposing such obstructive behaviour is construed as an attack on freedom of speech and in turn hardens resolve on the part of the individual to defend his or her position. A polarised opinion generally ends up producing a similarly polarised but opposing point of view, even if those engaged in discussion initially have an opinion full of nuances.

In a system that is heavily anchored in the inalienable rights of the individual, there is currently no mechanism that gives distinctive weighting to a group opinion over that of an individual. It is this lack of rules of the game that makes it possible for an individual to block the whole process of consensus. Note that before the advent of the Internet, mass media were not within the reach of isolated individuals and the corresponding impact of the individual voice was limited except in the case of extreme acts.

Unlike the web page, where visiting it is an individual choice, a mailing list, the major tool in consensus-based decision-making processes, is a "open space" with a captive audience in which all those who are subscribed receive anything and everything sent to the relevant address. As a result participants can easily be held hostage of their own openness and desire to discuss by the vociferous individual.

Those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo - NSI, for example, in the case of domain names - have quickly understood that it is well worth while discretely encouraging those vociferous people - whose only concern is to promote their personal point of view. The nature of that point of view is totally irrelevant to those who sponsor it, their only concern is short-term gain.

The major question raised here is that of the place and value of the individual voice in a collective decision-making process. Practically speaking, it is not possible to govern if isolated individuals or splinter groups can block decision-making processes. This should not, however, be used as an excuse to curtail the individual voice. In systematically giving preference to the majority, society would miss out on good ideas and run the risk of provoking either individual apathy or extremist positions. The voice of the individual needs to be heard and the Internet allows that. At the same time, in decision-making processes based on consensus, mechanisms need to be introduced to limit what one might call "verbal desperados".

Alan McCluskey, Geneva, 1999-06-29

You might also like to read:
The Voice of the Individual and
Open, consultative government, an example from WIPO, an interview of Francis Gurry, Assistant Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)

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Created: June 29th, 1999 - Last up-dated: June 29th, 1999