The Internet: Democracy’s Defence?
“In an age where participatory democracy is seen to be in decline, the emergence of the internet as a tool for communication seems variously to be an agency for that breakdown of democracy, yet also a vehicle for mass communication and political participation on a scale exceeding anything our governments have yet been able to achieve. The internet is a medium which requires significant financial and intellectual investment, yet it is also without centralised control.”
The Internet and Democracy by Joanne Jacobs
The world is at a tipping point. Democracies are being challenged. Philosophies are being criticised. Politicians are becoming the scapegoats of societies. In a world that has become a mass of failure and controversy, what role does the Internet have to play in restoring faith in Democracy?
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There is great interest in the potential for the Internet to invest its focus on democratic processes and the continued development of a ‘self-regulating structure of information’ (Self-Regulation of the Internet).
Proponents of this view include Howard Rheingold who argues that “virtual communities could help citizens revitalise democracy, or they could be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse.”
The argument has both positives and negatives. Rheingold suggests that those with access to hardware can, in essence, revitalise democracy. He also suggests that we, as a community, have the potential to create a version of democracy.
Which is better; the revitalisation of democracy or the development of a systematic government based on democratic governance?
Rheingold, to some extent, ignores the influence of the government itself in the propagation of an ‘e-democracy‘. He has failed to consider the impact of other political theories of governance such as Communism in Russia and China.
China is a prime example of the undermining of democratic processes through the Internet. It has banned such popular websites as YouTube and has often been quoted as having ‘The Great Firewall of China‘ or the ‘Golden Shield Project‘.
Is it right, however, to judge the actions of one state and state that a union of technology and democracy is impossible?
American sociologists would beg to differ. Sociologists from the Chicago School argue that the new communications are a means to ‘a great public of common understanding and knowledge’. The problem, however, is inherent in this form of American thought.
The birth of the ‘Electronic Frontier Foundation‘ is a Western concept and the democratisation of the Internet and, to a lesser extent, virtual communities. It cannot be applied to such places as the Middle East, China or the United Arab Emirates.
“…it is the story of the progressive liberation of the human spirit. More information is available and is made to move faster: ignorance is ended; civil strife is brought under control; and a beneficent future, moral and political as well as economic, is opened by the irresistible tendencies of technology”
Some politicians have extend the concept of virtual communities to refer to the extension of participatory democracy, promising a ‘Greece without slaves’, ‘a new Athenian Age of democracy forged…’ (Al Gore).
In 1994, Vice-President Al Gore stated the following:
“The Global Information Infrastructure …will circle the globe with information superhighways on which all people can travel. These highways …will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community.
From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and – ultimately – a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.
The GII [Global Information Infrastructure] will spread participatory democracy. In a sense, the GII will be a metaphor for democracy itself.”
Can this statement be verified with evidence?
Despite the Golden Shield Project in China, numerous organisations have breached the firewall to promote human rights, democracy and freedom within the Communist state. The exiled Dalai Lama and his followers in Taiwan have often dared to venture into the cyber-world to promote their beliefs and the international community is on its side.
Critics respond with the argument that this idealised hope for the Internet is reminiscent of the idealisation of cable television. When it was released, it was meant to ‘improve education, prevent crime and urban decay, break down social isolation, help people to communicate and enhance democracy’.
None of these things have happened. Cable television has, in fact, had a worsening effect. Education is second to entertainment, crime is often idealised and social isolation and communication has become a divide in many households.
Is this the true destiny for the Internet? Are our hopes for a revitalisation of democracy too ambitious, perhaps even premature?
Numerous issues can be raised with this view and the greatest of those is the idea that the Internet can, just as it is a tool for democracy, be a tool for for surveillance, control and disinformation. Michel Foucault propagates such a view, arguing the following:
“Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens’ privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance”
The view that the government controls will diminish the ability of the Internet to support democracy effectively are best voiced in Barack Obama‘s cybersecurity proposals before Congress. In two different Bills, President Obama suggested that, in situations of ‘national emergency’, the U.S. Govt. should have the power to ‘switch off the internet’, an evident violation of the rights of the individual.
Furthermore, it was suggested that particular networks and servers could be ‘monitored and switched off in situations where the information could have an impact on national security’.
Rheingold, far from ignoring his critics, argued that totalitarian manipulators would begin with information gained through the Internet. He suggested that governments would be able to track information about individuals or groups using the electronic information they create.
There are numerous examples of this form of surveillance, including the following which are listed below:
- One jail in Phoenix Arizona has begun webcasting live footage of its inmates being searched and prisoner shakedowns (Mieszkowski, June 2001)
- Advertising companies such as DoubleClick track users’ travels between sites (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2001, 2)
- Employers can and do keep records of all emails sent to and from employees. At the time of writing, Australian employers are not prevented by law from this type of monitoring and they may not even be required to inform employees that they are doing so under the Commonwealth Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act 2000, which comes into effect on 21 December 2001 (Electronic Frontiers Australia, 2001).
- The Chinese government jailed several people in October 2001 for their activities on the Internet. For example, Zhu Ruixiang, who emailed a pro-democracy newsletter to some friends, is likely to go to jail for three years
- China has shut down political bulletin boards and instituted strict censorship schemes that prevent people within China from accessing some Western sites such as news from CNN, the BBC, Reuters and The Washington Post. (Hong Kong Voice of Democracy)
- Overseas web sites by banned group Falun Gong are also unavailable in China
- In most major Chinese cities, Internet cafés are required to have monitoring software that automatically reports people who try to connect to certain sites (Chandler).
What does all this tell us?
It provides the view that there are proponents of both views; the Internet can become a component in the revitalisation of democracy or it can be a means to a totalitarian government through information consumption.
Individuals have as much a role in deciding how the pendulum swings as governments do. As ‘virtual communities’, individual groups have the power to create a force of social change and oppose the continued Blitzkrieg of surveillance and control on the Internet.
The Internet could be the last line of the defence against the falling standards of democratic governance and I for one will stand with fellow activists in the fight for revitalisation. I stand as an individual and it is as a democratic group that we must show the path.