Dr Rossana Deplano - written evidence (DAD0014)

 

Q. 14 What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?

  1. Introduction

1.1            Ascertaining the content of news items circulating in the media features as a priority in the political agenda of several states, including the UK. Targeted and aggressive political advertising in social media is one of the most common and dangerous manifestations of the spread of disinformation and fake news online. The case of the Cambridge Analytica intervention in the monitoring of social media users’ data to devise a campaign of targeted political advertising against vulnerable users during the 2016 US presidential election is exemplificative of the severity of this ongoing phenomenon.

 

1.2            The UK Parliament is aware of the danger posed by targeted political advertising in the short, medium and long term. On 18 February 2019, the The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons published its final report on ‘Disinformation and fake news.’[1] Among the recommended actions to Parliament are: (1) the adoption of a compulsory Code of Ethics for tech, including social media, companies to be overseen by an independent regulator and (2) passing legislation establishing an obligation for social media companies to take down ‘proven sources of disinformation.’

 

1.3            This submission provides evidence of the actual and potential benefits of resorting to blockchain technology as an instrument complementary to the legislative reforms referred to in paragraph 1.2 above. By enabling fact checking by educated citizens, blockchain technology can be effective in detecting sources of disinformation and tackling the spread of fake news. I will focus on a single case study, which I think has the best chances of success among the existent blockchain solutions: Kleros, a multi-purpose system of dispute resolution.[2] Section 2 provides a brief description of the main features of Kleros. Section 3 discusses its practical applications in addressing and redressing the spread of fake news.

 

  1. Kleros: a brief overview

2.1            What is Kleros?

Kleros is a peer-to-peer system of dispute resolution. Inspired by the ancient Greek tradition of randomly selecting public servants (including jurors in the courts) through lottery (kleroterion), it is designed to be an instrument of digital democracy. It is run on a blockchain in order to exploit the power of cryptography to randomly select the jurors for each dispute while generating a public, immutable record of each transaction. Like in the kleroterion tradition, the selection of Kleros jurors takes place in an open public space – only this time a digital space.

2.2            How does it work?

The kleroterion was essentially a randomization machine. Small bronze plates called pinakia were used to identify each citizen from the ancient Greek cities. Pinakia were randomly inserted into designated slots of the kleroterion, each column of the machine corresponding to a city. Public servants and jury members were then selected in equal numbers from each city through rolling dice. In order to select jurors randomly, Kleros has created its own token – the ‘pinakion’ (PNK). Perspective jurors must buy their PNK to signify their interest to be selected and stake their tokens for each dispute they would like to arbitrate. The cryptography underlying the blockchain then selects PNK tokens randomly from the lot, thus assigning a panel of jurors for each dispute in an unbiased way.

 

2.3            Who owns Kleros?

The blockchain is a decentralized system, meaning that it is owned by nobody but its own users. Accordingly, as a blockchain application, no single person owns (or can own) Kleros. Quite the contrary, it is a digital ledger open to anyone who wishes to join the network of users.

 

2.4            How do jurors decide?

Kleros aims at rewarding honest jurors.[3] In brief, once randomly selected, jurors are required to analyse the evidence submitted by the parties to the dispute[4] and vote within a given session time. (The arbitration fees to be paid by the parties in advance are proportional to the session time). Jurors do not know or communicate with each other and are expected to apply honest judgment in voting for the outcome of the case. They are also required to justify their decision. Once all jurors have voted, the decision is revealed to the parties.[5] Jurors that voted with the majority are rewarded with a share of the arbitration fees (PNK redistribution). Those who voted with the minority, have the tokens they staked to be considered for selection as jurors redistributed proportionally to the jurors who voted with the majority (in addition to the arbitration fees). As a result, honest behaviour is rewarded while dishonest, careless behaviour is penalized through an economic loss.

 

2.5            Kleros and digital democracy in practice: basic statistics

Created in 2017, Kleros is up and running, making a growing impact on society. Up to 19 August 2019, Kleros has adjudicated 300 disputes. Most disputes so far have arisen from cryptocurrency platforms. The largest claim so far has been worth £6,400 while the smallest £95. Of the 300 disputes adjudicated, 54 have been appealed within Kleros to a larger jury. Among the decisions appealed, 5 disputes (out of a total of 13) relate to listing of cryptocurrencies on the exchange while 38 disputes (out of a total of 196) relate to a blockchain based game run by Kleros as a pilot project to test the efficiency and credibility of the system.[6]

 

  1. Kleros and fake news

3.1            A specialized sub-court on fake news

Kleros’ organigram includes a general court and specialized chambers, each dealing with disputes falling within thematic areas. One such specialized chamber deals with fake news. Jurors with an interest and expertise in this area can stake their PNK tokens to be considered for random selection to arbitrate disputes assigned to this chamber. Fake news submitted to the specialized chamber can also be sorted by language or region with a view to finding an optimal match between type of dispute and expertise or interest of perspective jurors. This option boosts the parties’ confidence that the system is fair.

 

3.2            How does it work?

Once randomly selected, jurors are presented with the evidence submitted by the parties – that is to say, both the person or entity which posted the news item and the challenging party. After examining the evidence, each juror votes on the outcome of the dispute (in this case, a binary outcome: the news item is either fake or not) and provides an explanation of her vote. In doing so, she is incentivized to behave honestly, meaning acting in good faith. The majority rules whether the submitted item is fake news or not. The jurors dissenting from the majority lose their PNK tokens, which are redistributed to the majority judges along with the arbitration fees. The losing party can appeal the decision and have the dispute decided by a new panel of jurors. However, because the system is specifically designed to incentivize the honest behaviour of jurors, appeals require higher arbitration fees. Multiple appeals are allowed, each being more expensive than the previous one.

 

3.3            Statistics

As of 19 August 2019, Kleros has run a gamified pilot trial containing a curated list of disputes similar in quality and stakes (that is to say, time and cost) to upcoming fake news disputes. The results from the trial show that the largest claim at stake was for £11,500, where the Kleros Cooperative was itself a party to this case as it concerned whether a prize from the gamified pilot trial should be awarded. Conversely, the smallest claim was worth £6.[7]

 

3.4            Advantages

Kleros is particularly effective in facilitating fact checking surrounding claims of fake news through an unbiased system of incentives rooted on a combination of computer science and economic theory. By providing credible assessments of the facts submitted as evidence, it proves to be reliable. The same cannot be said of fact checking conducted by a single person or entity, which unavoidably provides ‘her own’ version of the truth, thus making the assessment prone to bias. Another advantage of Kleros is that the system is resilient – it cannot be easily tampered with by a single user. For instance, an individual or a political public relations firm trying to tamper with the system would have to be in possession of at least 51% of all the PNK tokens in circulation (there are currently 364,000 circa). This means that she would have to find and convince PNK owners to sell her their tokens. This is extremely difficult. It would also be extremely costly, since the price of PNK tokens usually raises at each new sale.

 

3.5            Disadvantages

As a blockchain application, Kleros’ major limitation at the moment is the fact that it requires its users to open a wallet to buy and deposit PNK tokens. Blockchain is still a nascent technology in its manifold applications and the lay person may not be aware of it. Until blockchain technology becomes mainstream, Kleros, as a young technology, will face the difficulty that users may not be either aware of or fully understand it. However, the future looks promising, with Facebook, for instance, launching its own cryptocurrency.

 

  1. Conclusion

4.1            Summary

Kleros is a tool of digital democracy. It is open to anyone wishing to submit a dispute or arbitrate one. It is a multi-purpose, multi-chamber court that harnesses the civic virtues of peer-to-peer arbitration by incentivizing honest behaviour and penalizing the dishonest one. It is not owned by a single person or organization and is run by a self-sustaining, unmediated cryptographic system. This makes Kleros an unbiased mechanism for dispute resolution. It has proven effective in tackling the fake news problem and should feature prominently in policy making debates.

 

4.2            Recommendation 1

The proposed Code of Ethics for tech companies could include a provision requiring social media companies to provide means for settling disputes among their users. Customer services and online dispute resolution mechanisms already exist. Kleros would be a further option the availability of which social media companies should bring to the attention of their users. Creating a dispute resolution tab on their home page (or elsewhere) listing available dispute settlement options should suffice to provide the necessary means for access to justice to social media users at no extra cost for the social media company.

 

4.3            Recommendation 2

Unless circulating fake news is made a criminal offence by Parliament, requiring social media companies to remove posts containing potential fake news bears too great a risk of them infringing fundamental rights currently protected by national and international legislation, such as freedom of expression and information. A better proposition would be to encourage peer-to-peer monitoring and amicable dispute settlement among social media users through cheap, fast and reliable mechanisms like Kleros. Achieving this objective can be greatly facilitated by having a campaign of sensibilisation about the dangers of disinformation and fake news online. Social media companies could refer to it and make it visible in their websites while constantly reminding users that there is a variety of mechanisms at their disposal to run reliable fact checking on suspected news items, including Kleros.

 

4.4            Recommendation 3

Enhancing democracy through the new technologies requires civil society at large to be knowledgeable about such developments. Therefore, educating civil society about blockchain and new technologies in general, and alternative dispute settlement mechanisms like Kleros in particular, appears a precondition to providing access to justice to social media users, who are daily exposed to disinformation and fake news. Parliament should promote a closer interaction between research institutions such as universities, businesses and civil society to discuss the role of technology in society. Informed citizens are the best antidote to targeted disinformation.

 

Date of submission: 20 August 2019

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[1] Available at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/1791/1791.pdf (accessed 20 August 2019).

[2] https://kleros.io/ (accessed 20 August 2019).

[3] In order to incentivize the honest behaviour of randomly selected jurors, Kleros creators have devised a system of crowdsourcing dispute resolution grounded on a combination of computer science (cryptography) and economic game theory (the concept of ‘focal points’ developed by Thomas Schelling), which falls within the nascent field of cryptoeconomics.

[4] The evidence submitted is secured by public key cryptography.

[5] Although more expensive, appeals are possible. They are decided by a new jury.

[6] Data provided by Kleros on 20 August 2019.

[7] Data provided by Kleros on 20 August 2019.