How To Fix The Government I: Identity

The Information Diet concludes around this theme: “Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction. Let the legions of information-obese fight on the front lines, and join me in nudging the small nuts and bolts that hold the ship together.” This week, I’m writing a post a day talking about those nuts and bolts. I hope you’ll join the discussion.

Our national identity system is entirely broken, and must be fixed if our democracy is to remain healthy. Right now, when you identify yourself to government – whether that be through a phone call to a member of Congress, or through a comment to a regulatory body like the EPA or the FCC, you give them your street address. Sometimes, that’s checked against an address verification service to make sure that your address is actually correct. Sometimes it’s not.

It’s always trust based, too. If you want to make a political contribution to a federal candidate’s campaign committee, you’ve got to also add your employer and occupation to that list of information. Which humourously yields a battle between Domestic Goddesses and Freedom Fighters, as well as weird problems like this one where Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels uses one job to donate to republicans, and another job title to donate to democrats:

Contrast this to our public social identities from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or even just our email providers. There is no Lorne Michaels problem on Facebook – few of us maintain a different profile between our job and our home life, and fewer of us do what Michaels is doing – maintaining a different profile between two different jobs that he has. It’s also difficult to be fraudulent and participatory with a social media account. Sure, spambots exist, but not many with actual friends. A spambot on Facebook is more detectable as a spambot than a spambot filling out fake information on a webform.

The good news is that the Feds get this, sort of. They’re working on the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace that’s aiming to create a way to eave your various social media profiles together to identify themselves to governmental entities. The idea is that you’ll pick an identity provider that you’ll prove your identity to: either a government agency, or companies like Google and Facebook. They’ll become your primary identity provider that will then authenticate you to the rest of the participating providers. Technically, it’ll work a lot like Facebook Connect works today, but with the added benefit of being attached to your physical identity.

There are three problems with this approach. The first problem is that it’s a little passporty (in the microsoft sense). You’re handing over the goods to a singular organization and giving it a whole lot of power. The second other problem is that they’ve been working on this for nearly two years now. At the present rate of progress, it’s likely that we’ll see widespread adoption of this service by 2035. Finally, this problem revolves around private, one-to-one transactions with government that generally involve commerce: like banking or tax payments. The website doesn’t mention a whole lot about talking to your member of Congress or regulatory comments.

To solve this problem for real, you need three things:

To solve problem 1, we need some kind of non-profit organization (ahem, Mozilla you’d be awesome at this) that allows people to link their social media profiles together and agrees to not sell the index (a la Rapleaf). In other words, I want to say that I live at XYZ street in Washington, DC, and I’m @cjoh on Twitter, I’m clayjohnson on Facebook, and I’m 100258208745065110297 on Google+. Let’s not limit the index to these three particilar services, obviously. This index ought to be freely queryable by anybody whose gotten my oauth permission to query against it.

This does something really important: it gives government permission to engage with people where they are for things that matter. Presently, because government only accepts the street address as an acceptable form of identification, it means that agencies cannot and members of Congress do not take into account what we tell them through the various social networks for official business.

Things get more interesting if we have this index built because then we start solving the second requirement: a way to verify that the person is someone who should be listened to. With this index built, it’s easy for a member of Congress to start sorting out who is a constituent and who isn’t. Members want to give the most weight to what their constituents have to say, an we want them to do that. With an index of social media profiles like the one I’m proposing, Congress can do just that. They can say things like “show me what people in my district have to say about SOPA.”

For regulatory agencies it’s even more interesting because it’s easy to start sorting out experts from non-experts. In weighing out whether or not a bank should be purchased you could start sorting out the employees of that bank from the non-employees of that bank to see what they have to say. Or you could see how many physicians are concerned about the mmrb vaccinations.

The final portion of these requirements is the creation of political consequence for not listening. In other words: if a constituency tells its representative not to do something, and the representative does it anyway, then that representative needs to be seriously concerned for their job safety. In the case of the SOPA/PIPA argument the Internet claimed victory, but how many blackouts by Wikipedia can be had before Congress decides to see if it has an electoral consequence?

Electoral consequences rarely happened unless the incumbent, the challenger and the press is equipped with the knowledge of what’s happened. Services can be built on top of this identity provider such that all three parties can see what people told their member and what their member did. Opposition researchers for political campaigns spend weeks scouring vote records to see how many times a member of Congress voted against their district, but since most votes are never polled, it’s impossible to tell. But if there was an open service that just did it, it’d be a vital way of holding members accountable for their votes.

This is important to our democracy because the only democracy that’s got more people in it than ours is India’s. India’s democracy is also much more impacted by the Golden Rule (those with the gold rule) than ours. Part of the reason large democracies start to have scalability problems is because of volume. Less than a century ago, our population was small enough that you could knock on the door of the White House and ask to see the president, but today that’s an absurd notion. As population continues to grow, government itself grows farther from its citizens and only those who can command attention get it.

Get the book