Can the internet really change how the world is run?

David Rodin
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If we want to create a peaceful, law-governed world, then it is obvious that we require an appropriate body of international laws. But we also require a fair and impartial way of applying them. We need a mechanism to decide whether the laws have been followed, and what should happen if they aren’t. This is the function of “authority”, something that is critical to any fair and effective system of law.

The problem is that at the international level, the world suffers from an authority deficit. There are reasonable laws to be found in many areas, but no really effective way of applying them. A good example is the new understanding around “responsibility to protect”, or R2P.

There is now considerable consensus that when a state commits atrocities against its own citizens, the international community has a responsibility to take action to protect them. But who will decide when those conditions are met? Is Syria liable to R2P intervention now? If so, who should be responsible for acting? The UN Security Council is legally mandated to decide these issues, but often fails to perform its duties because of the veto power of its five permanent members. The result is that the law is not appropriately applied.

Why does the international domain have this authority gap? Traditional legal systems, such as courts, are centralized, top-down and state-centric. This model works well in domestic society, but it struggles when applied to issues between states, because states guard their sovereignty jealously.

However, with the rise of the internet, something extraordinary has happened. Through online communities, entirely new models of authority have emerged that are decentralized, bottom-up and organic. Think, for example, of the way that product assessments are conducted on Amazon, the way that risk analysis is done in peer-to-peer lending, or the way that entries are drafted in Wikipedia. Authoritative judgement here doesn’t come from above, it emerges organically from the interactions of a group.

The question I want to ask is: how could these new models be used to address the global authority deficit? This is no easy task. After all, deciding whether to intervene in Syria is very different to assessing a toaster on Amazon.

The first step is to move beyond the simple aggregating of preferences (star ratings or “likes”, for example). This is a form of majority rule in which some people’s preferences are overridden by those of others. What we need to focus on is the giving of reasons.

When I give you a reason, I give you something to engage with, accept or contest. If you accept my reason, it becomes yours and your preferences change. Decisions made after a reasoned exchange are always better than those dictated by the majority rule. The challenge is how to conduct this process of deliberation at scale.

Online communities provide a potential solution. I believe that the gaps in international authority can be addressed by the development of a MOOD platform.  MOOD stands for “massive open online deliberation”. This would be an open forum in which concerned citizens from around the world engage in a process of deliberation – the giving and testing of reasons – in order to reach authoritative decisions.

Together with colleagues, I have been developing a methodology to do just this. We call it the Open Justice Initiative. The objective is to enable a large community of users to repeatedly confront judgements about what particular actors ought to do, armed with a conception of general rules or principles that must apply equally to all actors. As we move backwards and forwards between the rules and judgements, modifying each in accordance with the collective deliberation of the community, we approach an assessment of both that is maximally coherent and stable, and represents the balanced view of the community. This is what the great American philosopher John Rawls called the “reflective equilibrium”.

Facebook has given us the social graph; what we are trying to develop is a “reasons” graph. Ultimately we want the Open Justice community to deliver authoritative judgements about ongoing crises (such as the situation in Syria) that are open, defensible and made in real time.

But even if this can be achieved, whose job is it to listen? In the short term, the answer is no one. An online deliberative community has no official status under international law. But if it can make judgements that are fair, impartial and timely, it may come to wield substantial power over time, possessing a legitimacy that is earned rather than conferred.

It is a giant task, but if we can achieve it, we will have helped lessen the authority deficit and brought the world a little closer to peace and justice.

Author: David Rodin is a philosopher and Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum.

Image: Scales of Justice are seen in Brittany’s Parliament in Rennes, western France April 2, 2009. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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