When we created Open Source Politics, in the heart of the democratic ferment of spring 2016, we used to conclude our presentations by noting that civic-tech had not yet proven anything and that the first challenge to ensure its progress would be to find a sustainable economic model.
Two years later, a first selection naturally took place. On the one hand, the citizens' initiatives that had an electoral horizon were at the end of their experiments; they will form the basis for sedimentation in the next iterations, with a crucial need for access to new funding. On the other hand, several companies have begun their growth phase by successfully marketing platforms and applications to public institutions and private players.
Since we are often asked about the OSP model, we have taken the time over the last few months to analyse the different approaches to our market being structured. An opportunity to reflect on our own specificities and to anticipate the long-term consequences of the political and economic choices currently being made.
Let us first point out that the search for a cost-effective model is not mandatory: for projects of an associative nature, relying essentially on voluntary and militant contributions, the call for philanthropic donations and/or public subsidies may suffice. One example is the association Regards citoyens, which regularly warns of potential abuses of civic-business.
On the other hand, for official approaches to participatory democracy to benefit from the potential of civic-tech, it is necessary to invest in the development of ever more effective tools and in professional methodological support. This is the path we have embarked on with OSP - without abandoning our associative actions for all that.
In the United States, the Knight Foundation lists eight variants but, for our part, we identify at this stage 4 major funding models for our industry: raising funds, selling data, selling licenses, selling skills. While they may all prove to be viable and lucrative in the short and medium term, these models will certainly not have the same democratic consequences in the long term.
This is the classic financing model for a start-up to accelerate its growth. By projecting himself on the future economic success of a company, a venture capitalist (also called venture capitalist or business angel ) will inject a lot of money in exchange for shares in a company. This cash injection allows the company to recruit new employees, invest in research and development, implement a more ambitious communication plan and stifle competition in the logic of being the dominant player in the market to eventually pocket a stake almostmonopolistique - the winner takes all.
At the end of 2016, at the world summit of the Partnership for Open Government held in Paris, we expressed our fear that French civic-tech, in a reversal of international trends, would turn away from the creation of digital commons and move almost exclusively towards the financing of proprietary software.
Our diagnosis is in the process of being carried out since some of the most visible French "civic-tech companies" have raised several million euros over the last six months. They have thus been able to double their workforce in a few months and intensify their communication, sometimes jointly, to institutions and the general public.
Raising funds is not a problem in itself, quite the contrary, but it is actually only temporary funding to accelerate the implementation of a company's real business model. Therefore, the key question is: what is the business model that has convinced public and private investors to engage with these civic-tech players?
As early as June 2015, on the occasion of a test of the American application Brigade, which was presented as the "Tinder of Democracy", the economic potential of the political big data was perceptible. The platforms that collect our opinions in their databases in the form of responses to micro-surveys or signatures on petitions are veritable gold mines behind our backs.
Even if they would not do so today, what guarantees do these companies give us that they will not exploit this data for commercial purposes tomorrow, when the level of supply and the need for cash are too irresistible? Political decision-makers, journalists and major economic players, who are already investing fortunes in the opinion measurements carried out by polling institutes, are only waiting for this: tools that make it possible to precisely target a segment of the population in order to address them with the content they will like in terms of their political background and thus ensure the success of an election or lobbying firm.
Two concrete experiences with the discretionary power of these platforms have lifted our last suspicions.
During the recent "Digital Democracy" consultation, which we moderated and summarized for the National Assembly, a third of the overall traffic recorded on the platform came from a direct link to its own proposal that Change.org shared with 1.5 million fans on Facebook and emailed to its 500,000 users most interested in institutional issues. Logically, this proposal was by far the most popular (almost 20% of all votes cast out of a total of 1700 contributions). In a single targeted message, Change.org had more impact than a month's worth of daily communication by the National Assembly on its social networks and a dozen interviews with the President of the institution and several MPs, which were nevertheless relayed by our largest print, radio and television media! It's great for many causes that a platform like Change.org has reached such a critical mass, but such great power imposes great responsibilities.
In the context of missions to accompany local public consultations, we have also had the opportunity to broadcast "Facebook Ads". These are sponsored publications for which we were able to calibrate the audience with great precision: in exchange for a few dozen euros, we could place the invitation to a public meeting or the link to a questionnaire in front of the eyes of several thousand Facebook users living in this or that neighborhood, corresponding to this or that age group and having shown an interest in this or that subject through their likes.
If the sample is large enough, the investment is considerably more efficace - notamment with young people citoyens - que than distributing leaflets on the market or sending mail to mailboxes. The problem is that Facebook deliberately limits the scope of the messages to encourage us to add a few euros in exchange for a larger display. Petition platforms work the same way: pay 10 euros to have your petition sent directly to 1000 additional potential signatories. And so on and so forth.
The adage is now famous: "On the Internet, when it's free, we're the product."
In an "attention economy" where it is increasingly difficult to get a civic message out of the bubbles of already convinced and involved insiders, can the definition of the democratic agenda now only depend on paid filters imposed without transparency or counter-power by private platforms?
A mistranslation of "free software" misleads many people who solicit us: it is not because software is free that it is free.
Without even mentioning the development of the software, using it has costs for deployment, configuration, hosting and maintenance. Conversely, once it is developed and outside of the above-mentioned costs, duplicating software has a zero marginal cost. Since the development has already been financed and carried out, anyone can benefit from it. In exchange, it is necessary to invest in the next developments, which will benefit everyone in return. Conversely, in the case of proprietary software, it is necessary to pay a license fee for a software that already exists, in order to make the initial investment profitable as in the case of a manufactured product. By the way, in the case of a dominant position tending towards monopoly, chances are that you will pay more and more since you have no alternative.
Thus the French State has paid more and more to use the same proprietary platform. Instead of increasing the skills of public administrations in the management of a basic solution and investing in its amélioration - quitte to entrust the latter to development companies privées - la public authorities agree to pay, licence after licence, for a platform of which they have no control over the source code or the evolution strategy. In a funny way, it is already a public investment, via a participation of the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, which partly finances the development of this solution that deprives the State of its sovereignty in terms of online participatory democracy!
Using the Software as a Service (SaaS) offer from a proven company is a comfortable choice that takes the responsibility off the decision-makers and technical teams of ministries and local authorities. According to nous - et we say it as citizens beyond the competing interests of our entreprise - un major risk of privatization of tools and skills that must instead be shared with the greatest number.
Should the State instead create its own platform or buy the rights of its preferred provider? This would be potentially just as serious, in the unforeseeable event that a government with liberticidal practices used such platforms to record the opinions of participants or to modify their contributions a posteriori. This is notably the position of our Barcelona inspirators who designed the Decidim platform of which we are partners. Virgile Deville developed this argument at the beginning of December 2017 duringa conference of the think tank Decide Together around the relationship of institutionalization or independence between civic-tech and representative democracy.
Every design and integration choice made by a technical team on a platform has, even unconsciously, an impact on users. Let's take an example: knowing the result of a vote before participating changes our behaviour. With free software, we can have a debate on whether or not to give access to this information to participants - quitte possibly to develop both options. In the case of proprietary software, a module for displaying positive, neutral or negative opinions is part of a global offer to take or leave because these decisive choices have already been arbitrated by the developers who, in the end, control the meaning of your participatory process. Code is Law.