"Peak Democracy" -- Linked first essay of City of Encinitas adoption

March 7, 2014

The city council of Encinitas has approved (3Yes to 2 abstentions)  the adoption of a software system for on-line communication between citizens and city government.  The provider, Peak Democracy Inc.,has grown rapidly during the recent expansion of the internet, promoting a ostensible* tilt towards "direct democracy."   This is a major change for Encinitas, and of philosophy of local governance; yet there seems to have been minimal evaluation or in-depth discussion of the merits, disadvantages and dangers of this program. 

There are multiple specific dangers in giving an exclusive contract to a single private company to have this degree of control public to official's communication.  It may be in violation, in spirit if not detail, of the California Ralph M. Brown Act.  The Brown act states that, "members of the public cannot be required to.....fulfill any condition precedent to attending a meeting"  With this program, everyone using this system in their homes is attending a virtual city council meeting, but only if they fulfill a "condition precedent," which is agreeing to the terms of service (TOS) of the supplier. While technical breaching of this law can be avoided by assiduously defining the product of PD as mere information gathering and not part of deliberation, such polling programs are available for minimal cost with no "condition precedent" of agreeing to a contract that is required with P.D.

 With this acceptance that allows them to insert tracking devices, or cookies,  Peak Democracy can identify the individual user, even if he/she is using a pseudonym.   While they guarantee privacy of any sign-on application data, they do state that they will retain, and possibly modify any communication that is sent to city officials, something that should be troubling.  One possible use they may make of this is described in this promotion directed to commercial companies or political interest groups on their advertising page:   
"We now offer more ways to reach our more than 9,000 local government members, and more than 105,000 monthly visitors to icma.org." (BTW, that larger number is you!)

There is the potential that comments you address to the Encinitas City Council from the privacy of your home could be aggregated into one of hundreds of demographic categories such as "opposed to higher taxes" and while not personally identified, made available to entities who will use that for targeted messages without any reference to where they got your name.  While such action is rejected by PD itself, it does state that it can share this information with it's partners, who may have no such restrictions. Such messages that may arrive in one's email list will be tailored to be responsive to the demographic's known values, --  and thus more effective and more valuable to those who want to influence your purchases, or your votes. At present, according to their privacy policy, there are not doing this.  They do however, describe commercial advertisements that may be placed on the web sites that will be tailored to information gleaned from user comments. (TOS 13.1)

This recent segment on 60 minutes aired March 9th illustrates how this is covertly occurring to a far greater degree than the public is aware of.   While it is a fair question whether an advertiser should be allowed to identify a group who enjoy driving fast cars, the more meaningful societal question is whether the ideal of democratic government is subverted by facilitating targeted marketing based on private communications to an elected official--which is what this relationship with Peak Democracy reserves the right to do, even if they are not presently doing so.

A review from the Wall Street Journal of a new book by Jason Lanier, "Who Owns the Future" describes companies such as Peak Democracy this way:  ".... Huge wads of money are being made by tech entrepreneurs and investors off users' unpaid labor, the results of which are sold to advertisers or used to attract other users. Our search behavior, book reviews and mortgage applications have become fodder for a small elite in charge of "Siren Servers," systems that know far more than ordinary people do, creating an oppressive information inequality"

Many of my particular objections mentioned here could be corrected by revising the Terms of Service that must be accepted by all citizen users.  These are legal contracts engaged in by every user with the simple click of the "I agree button" but going further than most, clause 2.2.2 states that merely using the product implies such agreement with the terms.  

Yet, after watching the two hour presentation on video there is the distinct sense of subcontracting out the essence of government, how questions are formulated and how the results are aggregated, being entrusted in this corporation.  While writing from your home, or texting from your car,  certainly will increase contact with local government, it will not require the commitment required to actually prepare a comment to speak in front of the council and the public.  This was expressed eloquently in an article about Peak Democracy in Dissent Magazine, Politics Fatal Therapeutic Turn.   

 I agree with the respected  Annenberg Center report that looked at this movement, "2004 Annual Review of Political Science"

"Prescriptions about how to improve democratic government are too important to leave to the realm of wishful thinking.  They are also too important to leave to suggestive and promising, but to date still inconclusive, research"

*Direct Democracy as illusion, my article that explores this premise as applied to this issue.  

Home town Berkeley paper describes devious activities of Peak Democracy company, and its founders--- you can skip the local details to get to the principle of selective reporting of their surveys to reach the results they, or their sponsors desire. 

Email Conversation ( in article April update) with unnamed city council member who followed up on some questions raised here.  It includes focused questions to the city manager on the economic value of the D.P. contract, and the larger issues of governance. 

Link to Column that accuses Peak Democracy of being dedicated to helping city government ignore the wishes of the public.

Link to Article by Zelda Bronstein  in Dissent Magazine that describes the formation of P.D., along with an intensive analysis of the deep harm of trying to transform the inherently emotionally stressful participation in local government into- as it's President describes, something to "delight and thrill"
UT article on the city's adoption of this service. 

Peak Democracy Terms of Service
required to be accepted by citizens to use this system.  I was told personally by the City attorney that this would be replaced by one dictated by the city.  Subsequent communication by Mr. Cohen to a member of the council, did not indicate any such global revision was anticipated by his company. 

Special notice should be given to this item from the terms of service which confirms the "60 minutes" story that exposes these practices:

13.1.Some of the Services may be supported by advertising revenue and may display advertisements and promotions. These advertisements may be targeted to the content of information stored on the Services, queries made through the Services or other information. 
13.2.The manner, mode and extent of advertising by PD on the Services are subject to change without specific notice to you.

Hackers Lurking in Vents and Soda Machines- N.Y Times article that describes how anything short of paranoia over these dangers is unrealistic.  Assuming that no harm will come with new internet based connections is gross irresponsibility.

Article describing the European Parliament advancing legislation to prevent Internet unapproved commercial use of private information. This would negate several of the TOS clauses of Peak Democracy--for them, not us.

Full Meeting Video (first 2hr. 40 min.) of presentation and discussion on March 5 of this issue

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