Anonymity and Distributed Governance: A Bad Idea

It Ain’t Real

The example of the Genesis DAO was somewhat trivial, because it was a small number of people who actually did know one another. None of the anonymous people seriously asked for budget (though there was an anonymous troll), the amounts of money in question weren’t huge, and it was a small enough community that everyone pretty much knew one another.

Does It Really Depend?

Personally, I think it doesn’t depend on the situation at all. At almost all stages of governance, you need to know some information about the person. You almost never need to know their actual name, but you almost always need to know, at a minimum, whether they have the right to influence a particular situation.

What’s in a Name?

Throughout most of the decision-making process, therefore, full anonymity is not appropriate. Knowing people’s name isn’t particularly important, but in each stage of the process, some identifying information is helpful to democracy.

  • In discussions and sentiment signalling, you need to know a person’s affiliation and expertise. Are they a resident? Do they work for the solar panel company? Are they an expert in urban planning? Is the electric company going to make a bid to buy up their land if this project is approved? Did they educate themselves and read multiple perspectives on the issue at hand? In the best of cases, you would also show an indicator of their reputation in the domains being discussed.
  • In problem definition, you need to know the person’s sentiment and perspective on the issue as well as something about their cognitive abilities. Are they good at detail or systems-wide analysis? Can they integrate multiple perspectives and listen well to others? Does the makeup of the problem-definition team appropriately represent enough different perspectives on the problem? Are they good at asking deeper questions, or do you use a highly-facilitated problem-definition process?
  • For proposal-making, while it is often optimal to let everyone propose ideas, it’s equally important to have the right experts in the room. Is this person an electrician or architect? Have they done other successful projects in this specific area? Again, the best ideas might come from someone who doesn’t have the proper background, but the process of solidifying the proposal needs to be grounded in reality.
  • For voting you need to know that this is the individual they said they were, and that they are voting in accordance with the rules of the voting system.
  • For execution of the decision, you need to know the qualifications of the people carrying out the work.
  • For accountability, oversight and assessment of the process, you need to know the qualifications and the vested interests of the people.
  • Finally, for whistle-blowing, you need some level of anonymity but you may also need verifiable evidence. Throughout the entire process, there needs to be some mechanism for people to give feedback safely when their own self-interest might be endangered. Scientists at a chemical company are the best qualified to expose if there might be unpublished side-effects to some new product. If there are good enough privacy and anonymity controls, such information could be leaked more transparently while verifying the reliability of the sources.

Collapsing reality and desire

One of the reasons people clamor for anonymity is that the tech collapses our identity and name and private data. Identity isn’t just your name. All of your data doesn’t have to be identified in every transaction — collapsing these concepts is sloppy and leads people to think there are only two possibilities: complete anonymity and complete exposure.



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Founder, and Author: "So you've got a DAO: Leadership for the 21st century"