Global trends point toward increasing decentralization and individual personal sovereignty. Fans of new technologies and a new, "3.0"-style of governance, however, may be well advised to look at the scaling issues currently stymying blockchain developers; because as much as the decentralized web must contend with centralized legacy platforms and the blockchain's capacity issues, those looking to decentralize political governance must find ways to interface with legacy political entities. Like … nations.
The Election Virus
Nestled on the northeastern edge of the Iberian Peninsula, the contested Spanish region of Catalonia has been a subject of political debate since the Middle Ages. As the area rose to become industrialized and wealthy, it has struggled to set itself apart from the rest of Spain.
It's staked out varying degrees of autonomy since the beginning of the 1900s, languishing under Francoist oppression from 1939 to 1975; in 1979 it adopted a new Statute of Autonomy under the post-Franco democratic Spanish Constitution. Since then, however, citing its distinct culture and what it considers an oppressive tax burden by Spanish authorities, the affluent "autonomous community" – which contains Barcelona, many banking institutions, and the highest GDP in Spain – has embarked upon increasingly emphatic attempts to secede.
This October, in the wake of a contested election that resulted in violence, broken peace talks between Catalan President Carlos Puigdemont and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy resulted in Rajoy dissolving the regional government of Catalonia, under the auspices of the Spanish Constitution and the Constitutional Court.
The move forced new elections on December 21, 2017. Pro-independence parties chalked up a qualified win, maintaining their majority in the Catalonian Parliament, but finding their lead somewhat undercut by the anti-secessionist centrist party Ciudadanos. However, these new elections are likely to remain meaningless to separatist Catalonians: Spain has jailed nine former members of Catalonia's government. And an international warrant has been issued to arrest Puigdemont, along with four of his aides, for crimes including rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement.
Problematic referendums and elections like this one, often invalidated, have created a pervasive sense among Catalonians that representative governance has gone out the window.
When one party's main leadership is camped out in jail, with no campaign funding, how can an election deliver equitable and representative results? How can it be verified for accuracy? How can the electorate remain informed? How can those with little funding still reach their constituency in any nation, when modern campaigning currently requires a mind-boggling media budget? Some say that new decentralized, democratizing technologies might transform not just Iberian, but global, politics.
The Freedom Hacker
One man who decidedly stayed off the sidelines in the ongoing conflict is Ethereum developer, white hat hacker, and Catalonian freedom fighter Jordi Baylina.
Baylina believes people should have the right to vote without fear of repercussions, with anonymity. And one of the big issues he sees with the latest Catalonian election is the disproportionate ability to campaign between pro-independence candidates – some of whom are currently jailed – and state-backed ones, who have more resources.
Baylina, in an exclusive interview with ETHNews, divulged his take on the situation: "I would say it's a very different and very unique situation right now, because there is one political party that has their leaders in prison. Here, this political party, they cannot … campaign, they cannot work, and on the other side the Spanish central government-controlled parties are spending a lot of money marketing, a lot of money on publicity. They control the central authority of the elections, they are censoring things in the public television, and the public press; they're saying 'You can't say this, you can't say that.'"
Baylina thinks a novel way to deliver a system of governance to the people of Catalonia, in light of fears of violence and censorship, is the Ethereum blockchain. Baylina told ETHNews it is a project to which he has dedicated the better part of his life.
JB: "My hope is that at some point Catalonia – and not only Catalonia, but many countries in the world – can be governed in a more decentralized way. That means that the people have more power to decide ... and in order to optimize that, governance systems like liquid democracy [a form of democracy that enables voters to fluidly delegate their vote or override their delegate's position as they see fit, and which can be made relatively simple using Ethereum's blockchain] can be applied, can help out a lot."
Baylina expressed that while technology is important, education is also equally significant, and the two must grow together, saying, "Ethereum and blockchain in general will be a key technology, but we are in a very early stage."
Bugs In The System
Baylina isn't wrong about it being an early stage; there are obstacles in the way of deploying an Ethereum-powered voting system.
One obstacle he highlighted is identity provenance:
JB: "When you want to do one-person-one-vote, you need technologies like proof of identity and identity systems. You may want to create a census that's decentralized, and that's hard to do. There are also some limitations like scalability … There are some technological [breakthroughs] like anonymous voting; a lot of things can be done in that direction."
Systems like this need to be fine-tuned so they can't be gamed. Baylina expressed that it might be easy for someone to sell votes. He said, "You can start having problems with markets and votes and all that stuff that makes governance systems more complicated." Still, Baylina remains optimistic about the technology's ability to get results.
To navigate the immediate obstacles standing in the way of identity, Baylina contends it will be necessary to integrate partially-centralized systems with decentralized ones. "If you want to go fast, you need to be a little pragmatic; and maybe going in a fully decentralized way, the long run is where you need to put the vision."
Baylina described this approach to syncing centralized and decentralized systems: "You can have a kind of federated identity system; this could be a first step in a fully decentralized identity system." He said that for him, "that is probably one of the best ways to … try to go fast," even if it's "not the most pure way to go."
One Person, One Server
Describing "two passions" that "have crossed paths," Baylina said, "Building a new country from scratch ... getting this identity, and putting the people together, and constructing and creating a new country; this has been one of the passions that I have been working on for the past twenty years."
Facilitating the backbone of the system Baylina seeks to create, is a network of personal servers, or nodes, on the Ethereum network. These nodes would provide a decentralized web upon which would rest nation-building tools – like voting systems.
"This is going to be an infrastructure layer, but this is a piece that I think is important in the space. Because if you don't want to have the centralized data centers … you [need] a decentralized system." He explained that the decentralized infrastructure layer on the network of nodes cannot be removed, or taken down easily.
Leading up to and after a controversial October 1 Catalonian independence referendum, the Spanish government engaged in a campaign to suppress the referendum vote, raiding the .cat domain registry, blocking over 140 websites. A decentralized network would make it far more difficult to carry out such censorial acts, since every single node would need to be taken offline – as opposed to a single central server.
According to Baylina, everyone will eventually own a personal server, or node, but at the beginning it's more likely that node deployment will be closer to a 20-person-to-1-node ratio.
He said, "Ideally, it will be one personal server for each person, and this personal server will be connected to the internet 24-hours. We have some hard disk, we have some resources, and all of them will connect in a peer-to-peer network. It will create the real infrastructure, so it will be the new data center: the new server infrastructure that's needed anyway."
Onward, To (Decentralized) Victory
Baylina notes the decentralized network won't just be for politics.
JB: "If you connect all these servers in a peer-to-peer way, you can create very cool decentralized infrastructures. Something like YouTube, something like Google, any application [currently] in centralized servers, can also run in these decentralized servers; and [they can run] in a more autonomous way, that doesn't depend on an infrastructure [with] a central point of failure. It will be much more resilient, and it's a much better way to do stuff."
"This blockchain technology … solves all the problems that any central system has," said Baylina.
He pointed out the frailty of central systems as points of failure. "It's very easy to censor this place, or to control or manipulate. You can corrupt easily, or you can even attack these central servers. They are much easier to create, but they are more vulnerable." Given this, it makes more sense that an Ethereum-based decentralized network would be preferential to a citizenry feeling shut out of its own governance.
As he spoke on the eve of the December 21 election, Baylina admitted to a degree of uncertainty. "I don't know what's going to happen. I would say it's a very different and very unique situation right now."
Even with a symbolic win under Catalonia's belt, Baylina knows that the greater global fight for self-determination is not over. For him, the battle is just beginning; and technology is the theater.
"If we are not independent as a country, we will become independent as individuals."