Italy’s failed digital democracy dream is a warning

While the 5SM had already been holding online ballots in previous years, Rousseau was officially launched in 2016, on the same day of its creator Gianroberto Casaleggio’s death. One of the most complex platforms of its kind, it provided the Five Star with a variety of tools, allowing subscribers to participate in the writing of national and local bills, vote in primary elections and referendums, as well as receive online training and legal support. According to its homepage, it currently has some 195,000 certified users, 112,000 of whom with voting rights, and has hosted over 340 consultations, with tens of thousands of people taking part in the most crucial ones.

Within the movement, many are still keen to stress Rousseau’s merits. “Ten years ago, Italy was trapped in conflicts between parties that responded more to interest groups than to the citizens’ needs,” said Tiziana Beghin, head of the 5SM group in the European Parliament, days before the end of the gridlock. “We have freed Italy thanks to direct democracy: thanks to our platform, politicians have been chosen directly by citizens, rather than being selected from the top by a leader or a small group of cadres, as is the case with the other parties”

However, some observers argue that as the movement gradually turns into a more mainstream party, digital direct democracy has in fact become less of a priority – a fact which has contributed to sparking the conflict with Rousseau.

Once a maverick force that rejected any alliance with other political parties, since its election victory in 2018 the 5SM has constantly been in government in a variety of coalitions: first with the far-right League, then with the social democratic PD, and, since February, as part of Mario Draghi’s national unity government.

For the Five Star, these years in power have been marked by some significant achievements, particularly the approval by Parliament of an ambitious basic income scheme – one of the 5SM’s flagship policies. But supporters have also had to swallow many bitter compromises, as the movement teamed up with parties it used to lambast. It is currently polling at around 15 percent, a far cry from the 32 percent it won when it swept to power in 2018.

“The direct democracy project was the brainchild of Gianroberto Casaleggio,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a politics professor at LUISS University in Rome. “His death five years ago spelled the demise, and now the end, of this connotation of the Five Star Movement. Beppe Grillo is not really interested in this aspect, nor is Mr Conte. So the future of the Five Star is away from this notion of direct democracy.”

D’Alimonte expects online consultations to remain part of the Movement’s political life, but in a curtailed, less binding role, alongside a more traditional structure and decision-making process. A scenario that could hardly go down well with Rousseau and its handler, Davide Casaleggio, who “wants to defend the legacy of his father,” says D’Alimonte.

Casaleggio announced over the weekend that he is quitting the party: “This isn’t the Movement anymore,” he wrote: “I’m sure my father wouldn’t recognise it.”

Even in its heyday, however, the Five Star’s model of digital direct democracy was controversial. A first set of concerns has to do with the several security breaches suffered by Rousseau. In 2017, a black-hat hacker announced they had broken into the platform and put its entire database on sale for 0.3 bitcoins (roughly £860 at the time). The Italian Data Protection Authority established that Rousseau had been using an obsolete version of a proprietary management system, which made it particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks. Rousseau says the platform has since been rewritten following the highest security standards.