Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Internet Control and Internet Democracy: Participation or Abrogation

Each had a vote; they were proud of that;
But they left all else to the Bureaucrat. (Dennis, 1935)

The internet, particularly in its early days, was often promoted as a medium capable of instituting a new golden age of electronically enabled democracy. The situation today is vastly different: governments regularly censor and restrict the internet, many people have no access at all while others who do exert disproportionate influence, and data without meaning is proliferating. The opportunities for communication and forming new social networks have expanded dramatically, but this alone will not usher in a democratic way of existence unless the users themselves choose to drive the internet in such a direction, countering the corresponding pull to regulate and restrict the internet.Democracy is a political institution, but it also impacts society in a wider manner. In a democratic society, organizations create and control themselves, in pluralistic openness (Defining Democracy, n.d.). Ancient Athenian democracy is often upheld as the first true democracy, a template for the democratic method, yet it was a system that was far from perfect. It was supported by slavery, and was only democratic for the few: women, slaves, foreigners and males under 18 were excluded from the process (Blackwell, 2003b, p.2). If the Assembly was unhappy with an argument, they could simply choose to shout the speaker down (Blackwell, 2003a, p9). Plato considered democracy an imperfect way to organize society, wryly observing “It’s an agreeable, anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety, which treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not.” (Plato, 1987, p.377).

Vedel (2006, p.227) defines three ages of e-democracy: in the 1950s computers were seen as aiding democracy through their superior capacity to number crunch, as “mediators”; from the 1970s, with the advent of home PCs, “teledemocracy” heralded an era of community movements that would effect change at the grassroots; the 1990s brought the internet to prominence, with its global rapid communication and networking capacity, as well as a new ideology. It is notable that fundamental changes to democracy were not effected in the first two ages, nor should it be considered that the current period is, “final”. Further change is not only likely but probable.

The internet ideology of democratic revolution is best exemplified by Barlow (1996) in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Barlow is strong on utopian idealism and a certain naivety about what is desirable and achievable. Nonetheless, Barlow clearly puts the counterculture view, arising from the anti-authoritarian movements of the 1960s, and a belief that they can be realized via the internet. It must be remembered, however, that the internet arose not solely out of a counterculture ethos, but also out of a system of heavily regimented control due to its partial parenthood through the US Department of Defense. Barlow’s declaration was criticized at the time (Jones, 1996) but has persisted as a haunting dream of what the internet might be.

“A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” (Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth & Toffler, 1994) is similarly optimistic, though it does take a more realistic view of how this might be achieved. The authors realize that we are at a transition point, between the old industrial “Second Wave” form of society, and the new “Third Wave” form that is, in their hyperbolic words, “thundering in to take its place.” Such a transition leads to conflict and confusion not just politically, but also in us individually. Resnick (1998, p67) claims “Cyberspace will undoubtedly facilitate the spread of democracy across the world” though multiple issues (informational and legal) are challenging that view and making it increasingly more difficult to realize.

While the nature of the internet’s network of networks is conducive to ideas of allowing all to participate equally, and to create a form of global discussion (Harper, n.d.), this ignores the technology’s capability to equally be used for purposes of controlling such a debate. Wimbush (2008, p.47) points out a number of reasons for this failure to form a cyber-libertarian paradise. Most notably, the cyber-libertarians misjudged the desire of governments to maintain control over their citizens and to regulate the internet.

Cyber-libertarians promote the internet as open, where information flow cannot be controlled. The reality is less appealing. Even without a conscious desire to affect the information flow, cutting an undersea cable can seriously affect it (New Cable Cut Compounds Net Woes, 2008). Censorship is also a problem on the internet. Saudi Arabia and China are prominent examples, but political (OpenNet Initiative, 2008b), social (OpenNet Initiative, 2008c) and other information control (OpenNet Initiative, 2008a) is widespread.

The fact that the internet operates through openly published protocols means, however, that censorship cannot be fully hidden. Clayton and Watson (2006) were able to analyse how the “Great Firewall of China” operated and suggest methods for circumventing the censorship. Of course, as they point out, socially enforced censorship is still a strong force and users bypassing the State control are likely to be noticed. Furthermore, such controls are a digital arms race as methods change and are adapted on both sides. Wimbush (2006, p.63) points out that the structure of the internet leads to such control being possible since some nodes “become more important than others.” In effect, some nodes become more significant or elite than others.

Control does not have to be so overt to still have an effect. Croen (2008) finds that censorship and regulation in Australia, while not on the level of China or Saudi Arabia, is “strikingly severe relative to […] similar Western states.” Content may be illegal online, but permissible offline. This is not the internet as a democratizing force.

Even without control, democracy can be compromised when discourse on the net is subject to monitoring. Echelon (Ward, 2001) may or may not be monitoring your email activity, and may or may not be watching for certain words. These triggers may or may not change at any time. Such monitoring can stifle free conversation and discussion, and is more akin to a totalitarian use of technology.

Corporations, too, are seeking to control how the internet is used. Marshall (2003) observes that surveillance of workers becomes more prevalent the greater their ability to access and modify information. Rather than promoting democratization, these controls “At best […] leave the worker harried, rushed and exhausted. This forces focus on competitive survival, not on creative, or participatory, politics and free exchange.”

Legal constraints are increasing on the internet. Lessig (2001) surveys a number of these issues, as well as how individual jurisdictions are implementing local control of the internet. Noveck (2005) proposes a sort of global, internet-specific legislation, but this is reminiscent of Barlow’s earlier utopian ideals: states have already demonstrated they are loath to forego their territorial prerogatives, both on the net, and in real world issues such as trade or conflict.

Two examples that are often put forward for how the internet can promote democratic interaction are Wikipedia and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Whether these actually lead to a truly new democracy, or whether they actually exacerbate more traditional non-democratic structures is debatable. Wikipedia can be updated by anyone, but some users have more control than others, forming an elite that has an Orwellian more equal say than other contributors (Metz, 2007). Leadbetter (2008, Chap. One, p.9) states categorically that “creative communities are not egalitarian”. Noveck (2005) describes social networking as a new, non-geographical, “entrance to a social space”. Leadbetter (2008, Chap. One, pp.1-2) argues that connections determine relative importance in such networks, and privileges those with the most powerful connections. Williams and Gulati (2008, pp.19-20) point out two other problems with sites such as Facebook (particularly in relation to true political activity, but the problems noted go beyond this strict application): members must actually be motivated enough to engage in the political process, otherwise their democratic potential remains ineffectual; secondly, social networking sites are not popular in societies that are already strongly connected in the real world (such as Latin American countries) but are used more in countries where ties are disjointed geographically. Furthermore, these sites all have various constraints on users and, being non-democratically controlled, they can impose arbitrary conditions, such as no users over the age of 36 (Out-Law.Com, 2008).

The ability for anyone to communicate on the internet is also not automatically conducive to democracy. “Data smog” (Marshall, 2003) is a very real problem. Rather than a democratic discourse, a tumult of competing voices emerges. Selecting relevant information becomes proportionately more difficult as the amount of information increases. Inevitably, some form of filtering is required and bias affects these filters. As Marshall (n.d.) points out, even without commercial sponsorship, “issues of authority, of being noticed or selected are not simply overcome.”

Mass panic phenomena existed before the internet, but the speed of the internet and the diversity of information on it can lead to the creation of cyber-cascades, or social cascades (Sunstein, 2001) where panic or misinformation is promulgated faster than any correction. Noticeboards that are effectively global can be publicly placed on the internet to rate various occupations, including university lecturers (NET12 The Internet: A Socio-Technological Introduction, 2008) with the belief that opinions will be accurate and unbiased.

In the case of e-Democracy, applying the internet strictly to the political process itself still has a long way to go. Baer (2001) looks at online petition signing in California and finds various difficulties implementing such a procedure, from the high initial cost, to questions of access and equity (where, again, those with access to the internet – those of certain income and ethnic backgrounds – are privileged by the process), as well as technical issues of security and accountability. Nonetheless, it can be useful in more focused areas, as exemplified by the Zapatistas disseminating information about their rebellion online (Cleaver, 2000).

The internet, far from being a technological solution to a social problem (democratic discourse) provides only the means for groups to bend it to their purposes. Marshall (2003) states “the internet is transgressive because it enables instantaneous many to many communications, dislocates communication from the space of the nation, and accelerates ‘postmodern’ subjectivities.” As has been seen, groups tend to establish hierarchies rather than remaining flat associations of equals. (Leadbetter, Chap. Three p.10, 2008) points out the inequality of participation on the net, and how this leads to “aristocracies” who then exert more power in shaping the group.

The internet is not totally undemocratic, of course. Lessig (2001, p.40), while being cautionary about the various controls that authorities are placing on the internet, proposes the concept of the electronic “commons”, functioning in a similar way to the pre-industrial commons, where innovation and collaboration can flourish via the technical medium. While sounding reminiscent of Barlow, Lessig remains deeply aware of the challenges to his vision. In one interesting case, however, he relates how Native American tribes, as “sovereign nations” within the USA, are subject to their own laws and are therefore getting technically superior broadband before their neighbours (Lessig, 2001, p.81).

Whether the internet is a democratizing force is, of course, only of relevance to those who actually have access to it. Internet usage statistics can be difficult to determine, but one site (World Internet Users December 2007, 2008) states that only 20% of the world’s population uses the internet. Users on the internet therefore represent a minority, which is further skewed by the fact that representation of some groups is higher than others in terms of education and income. Jacobs (1998) refers to this as the divide between “information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.”

The internet is not a democratic force. Fundamentally, it is a technological construct. It is a series of networks operating by open protocols. What is done with that technology is a user decision. Regardless of the early espousers of the internet as a democratic, utopian space, users have chosen to define that use to their own particular ends. Even in nominally democratic applications, such as open source software, elites (which in earlier times may have been military or oligarchical, but which now also include informational and social elites) form. Lessig (2008, p.11) compares this to a lattice: decisions are made in the open by everyone, “but the way decisions are made is rarely democratic.” Noveck (2005) who is, overall, more optimistic, points out that the benefit of the internet is that the technology makes collaboration more possible. This collaboration may be democratic. It may also be censorial, or monitoring, or any of a number of forms. Jordan (1999) argues that the ultimate ascendancy of an elite is not predestined, but that an interaction of complex agendas plays out on the internet as it does in real life.

In this sense, the Social Shaping of Technology is determining the meaning of the internet. As Winner (1980, p2) writes, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.” Cowan, (1985) discusses the complex issues that shape the use a technology is put to, from the intentions (or the oversights) of the inventors and developers, through the marketers and providers, to the end users in all their diversity.

Ultimately, the internet is a passive force. It does nothing until a user logs on and then chooses whether to share information, to control it, to distort it, or to simply lurk. The internet is an anarchic force: it provides opportunities for various social forms to emerge, in competition with each other or in collaboration. If the internet is to become a democratic force (and voices such as Lessig (2001) argue that this is becoming less likely) then participation is essential, since it is the users that will determine its eventual form. Those who don’t participate, abrogate responsibility to those who do participate. (Harper, n.d.) warns that communication is a social task, not a technological one (even when technology mediates it), and that it may be used just as easily to create the virtual panopticon or for creative purposes. Talbott (1995, Chap. 8) states “Many observers […] are convinced that “cyberspace” is an intrinsically egalitarian, democratizing, community-intensifying medium. But this is to project the historical truth just stated onto the technology, while at the same time betraying a poverty of imagination.” Vedel (2006, p.9) also notes the lack of a democratizing force emerging on the internet, but states that this is because we are in a transition period: “The idea of electronic democracy is still in its infancy. It looks like an explosive cocktail, blending a dose of Athenian agora, another of Rousseau, shaken with bits of Jefferson and Mill, plus a zest of Californian ideology.” The potential is there, but it is not yet realized, nor is its final form obvious. Williams and Edge (1996) point out that the Social Shaping of Technology approach requires constant reassessment, as social needs and social urges form and reshape a technology.

The internet, particularly in its early days, was often promoted as a medium capable of instituting a new golden age of electronically enabled democracy. The situation today is vastly different: governments regularly censor and restrict the internet, many people have no access at all while others who do exert disproportionate influence, and data without meaning is proliferating. The opportunities for communication and forming new social networks have expanded dramatically, but this alone will not usher in a democratic way of existence unless the users themselves choose to drive the internet in such a direction, countering the corresponding pull to regulate and restrict the internet.

Bibliography

Clayton, R., Murdoch, S. J., & Watson, R. N. M. (2006). Ignoring the great firewall of China. Paper presented at the 6th Workshop on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PET 2006), Cambridge, UK. Retrieved May 14, 2008 from http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rnc1/ignoring.pdf

In this paper the authors investigate the technical aspects of China’s firewall filtering system, and also provide an overview of other methods of filtering or blocking unwanted traffic (unwanted, in this sense, by various authorities). The Chinese Firewall (at the time of the paper) specifically searches for keywords and returns false Reset packets to machines attempting to connect where one of these keywords is found. What is interesting about this paper is how it demonstrates the arms race between the controlling and the liberating strands of the internet. Just as the internet’s open protocols make controlling it a trivial exercise for those with the technical knowledge, they also mean that circumventing that control is always possible. Furthermore, of course, reconfiguring that control is always possible as well. This clearly shows how the internet is not a force itself, but provides a method to take either path, as required. In other words, the Social Shaping of Technology is the determining factor here.

Blackwell, C. W. (2003a). Athenian democracy: A brief overview. In Mahoney, A. & Scaife, R. (Eds.), Demos: Classical Athenian Democracy. Retrieved April 30, 2008 from http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/democracy_overview.pdf

Lessig, L (2001). The future of ideas. New York: Random House. Retrieved April 8, 2008 from http://thefutureofideas.s3.amazonaws.com/lessig_FOI.pdf

In this book, Lessig surveys the nature of freedom on the internet, contrasting the early days of innovation and creativity, with the current (2001) situation where more and more constraints are being placed on the uses of the internet (such as DRM, expanding copyright, and patents). He does not argue that the internet will disappear, but that it is being constrained by ‘the old’ (those whose interests are threatened, from AT&T in the 1960s on), what he describes as the “old Soviets” faced by the collapse of their government (p.146) and challenges us to create a more innovative internet, one where resources are free (in the political sense, not in the sense of price), where people can gather in a virtual “commons” which he describes as a “resource for decentralized innovation” (p.85). While he adopts a gloomy attitude, feeling that the turning point to maintain this freedom and creativity may have passed, the benefits and advantages of a commons for “non-rivalrous” resources that he delineates are still extant today, perhaps even more so with the greater promotion of open source software and Creative Commons licenses. Lessig calls for a number of reforms to increase the availability of the commons, and to increase creativity, though many of these (drastic changes to copyright law, for example) would meet strong opposition from the very forces he fears. This book was helpful in showing the various forces working on the internet, but also how those forces are open to change when a user consciously decides to do so.

Noveck, B. S. (2005). A democracy of groups. First Monday, 10(11). Retrieved April 17, 2008 from http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/1289/1209

This article is helpful in that it, unlike much of the other papers used, takes an optimistic view of democratisation on the internet, while still being realistic about the challenges (ie it is not purely utopian like Barlow). Noveck discusses the power of groups, rather than individuals, in the sense of a “democratic corporation” that “comprises the actions of its members”. She looks at how the social shaping of technology is affecting “us” rather than “me”, particularly in the light of recent growth areas such as P2P and social networking. Nonetheless, Noveck still sees some problems, and posits the creation of law specifically for internet groups, and “citizen juries” to coordinate groups, both of which I see as problematic, and possibly leading to a lessening of democracy. This paper was helpful in discussing the power of groups rather than individuals on the internet – an individual may initiate a change, but nothing will happen until others concur with that change.

Talbott, S. L. (1995). The future does not compute — Transcending the machines in our midst. Sebastopol CA: O’Reilly & Associates. Retrieved April 8, 2008 from http://netfuture.org/fdnc/fdnc.tar.gz

Wimbush, C. (2006). Cyber-libertarians: the internet unleashed, a Government Challenged? Politics and Technology Review, March 2008 45-47. Retrieved May 1, 2008 from http://www.ipdi.org/uploadedfiles/March2008PoliticsandTechnologyReview.pdf

Wimbush addresses the utopian views of early users of the internet (specifically formalised by John Perry Barlow) and assesses how applicable they are today. In fact, the internet is shown to be more controlled and undemocratic now than users perceived it to be in its early days. While Wimbush’s approach is generally an SST one, he also points out that the technology itself was never a libertarian one (certain nodes of the network, for example, are more important than others). Corporations are exerting more control, not less; user tracking is becoming more prevalent; governments (not just totalitarian states) limit what information is available. This paper raises many issues that need to be considered before one can simply declare the internet “democratic”, and it shows how the technology itself can be equally used for non-democratic ends.

Zittrain, J. (2003). Be careful what you ask for: Reconciling a global internet and local law. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Retrieved April 21, 2008 from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/sites/cyber.law.harvard.edu/files/2003-03.pdf

In this article, Zittrain looks at the broad issue of law and jurisdiction as applied to a global construct (the internet). While he doe not provide any answers as such, he does provide a broad overview of the current situation, and gives examples of how case law has been applied in the past. Zittrain discusses various approaches to the difficulty of applying law on the internet (or perhaps more correctly, the many ways of applying it) which impact on how democratic or otherwise the internet can be. Two broad approaches are: global law specifically for the internet (such as proposed by John Perry Barlow) which is dismissed as outdated and impractical; and local law (which is the situation we have today). Local law, while more easily implemented by courts, can lead to a splintering of the internet, so that different users have access to different information (the most notorious cases being China and Saudi Arabia). Clearly, if the internet is to be “democratising” it cannot also be “balkanised”. Zittrain also points out that, as the internet becomes more ubiquitous in everyday life, law on the internet and law in Real Life become indistinguishable. Whether democracy is enhanced by the internet also needs to address this issue. This paper was helpful in elaborating how Real Life constraints impact on the internet, and that the internet does not exist by itself, quietly “democratizing” the world.

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