By Jim Dempsey and Deirdre K. Mulligan, San Francisco Chronicle
We see evidence of the Internet’s revolutionary impact in spheres ranging from commerce to entertainment to the way we now stay in touch with friends. The Fourth of July invites particular consideration of the Internet’s impact on democracy.
Moreover, it calls for a deeper understanding of the sources and conditions of the Internet’s influence: What is unique about the Internet? From what technical and policy choices does its power derive? And, most urgently, what must be done to maximize its potential to support democracy at home and abroad?
The Obama campaign was not the first to embrace the Web, but it set a new standard, using the Internet to raise millions from small donors and adopting online social media to mobilize volunteers and voters. Conservatives leveraged the same tools in electing a Republican to Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.
Perhaps more important, the Internet is reshaping the daily processes of decision making at all levels of government. An extraordinary amount of official information is online. No longer are bills and drafts of regulations available only to lobbyists. Sacramento is one of a growing number of American cities that stream and archive council meetings, integrating video with agendas, minutes and other documents on a single Web page. Increasingly, e-government systems are becoming two-way. The Environmental Protection Agency has an online system for submitting technology solutions for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the Department of Homeland Security is running an online consultation, open to all, on its draft strategy for improving the security of Internet transactions.
Some of the most exciting developments are at the neighborhood level, as citizens organize themselves, identify common issues and develop solutions that can then be presented to elected officials. One small nonprofit, e-democracy.org, hosts more than 25 forums in 15 communities across the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, providing a set of templates citizens can use to organize their discussions and build a shared understanding of a problem. Facebook, on the other hand, hosts 390,000 “causes” and uncounted advocacy groups.
Around the globe, the Internet is having similar effects. Online activism and networking permeates national politics across the spectrum of the world’s democracies. The Internet’s most striking ramifications, however, are in authoritarian countries, from worker walkouts in China coordinated with text messages to the Green Revolution’s use of cell phones in Iran to broadcast police violence to the world as the government blocked coverage by cable networks. And in terms of participatory use of the technology, other countries are actually ahead of the United States. Last year, La Plata, Argentina, combined in-person meetings, paper ballots, electronic voting and texting to allocate the city budget. Over 10 percent of the city’s voters participated.
Why is the Internet such a powerful platform for democratic activity? Fundamentally, the Internet’s technical architecture facilitates participation and connection. Unlike the concentrated mass media of the past century (newspapers, movies, radio, television), the Internet is uniquely decentralized, abundant and user-controlled. Production and distribution of content are inexpensive. Barriers to entry are low. Anyone with a computer (and increasing millions with mobile phones) can speak in the public forum, access a world of information and organize.
Equally important, in the early days of the Internet, policymakers, advocates, companies and coalitions built a policy architecture to steer the technology toward democratic ends. These policy choices embodied the principles of openness, innovation, interconnection, nondiscrimination, user control, freedom of expression, privacy and trust. It is this symbiosis of technology and policy that produced a platform on which individuals across the globe exercise their democratic muscles.
However, this framework is not guaranteed. Technologies can change. Features being built into the servers at the core of the network could facilitate censorship. Monitoring software deployed in the name of copyright protection or cybersecurity could be exploited to maintain political control.
The Internet’s legal code also is being challenged. Governments worldwide are seeking to force Internet service providers, Web 2.0 platforms and other intermediaries to filter content for a variety of purposes. Shifts in societal use of the Internet can outstrip legal protections, eroding core values when policymakers fail to act. Notably, the laws that protect privacy have not kept pace. For example, the cell phones we carry double as tracking devices, allowing governments to map our daily movements as courts and Congress fail to update rules.
Business models, too, can threaten openness. In the absence of rules enforcing nondiscrimination, service providers may cut deals favoring some content over other, and may even block controversial speech entirely. Several years ago, one service provider quickly reversed itself after briefly blocking pro-choice text messages.
Debates on these and other issues critical to the democratic future of the Internet are under way. The Federal Communications Commission launched a proceeding to re-establish rules of neutrality for Internet access providers. A coalition of companies and advocates is calling on Congress to strengthen standards for Internet surveillance. Internationally, things seem to be heading in the wrong direction, as countries from Italy to China are increasing regulatory burdens on Internet services.
Valid criticisms of the Internet abound. Sometimes it seems more like Bedlam than Independence Hall. The Internet’s cult of the amateur threatens to drown out sources of insight and knowledge, such as this and other newspapers. Social systems for verifying information online are still emerging.
Yet, taking stock on this July Fourth, it is clear that people around the globe have found in the Internet a powerful force for democratic ideals and action.
Our nation’s founders provided a durable framework for democracy and an inspiration to the world. Two hundred years later, the technical and policy architecture of the Internet can serve democracy as much as the concepts of limited government and separation of powers still do. Just as preserving democracy demands vigilant participation, so too we must actively engage in shaping the technical and legal code of the Internet.
Jim Dempsey is vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology and head of CDT West in San Francisco. Deirdre K. Mulligan is a faculty directorat the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law and Technology, a professor at the School of Information, and a board member of theCenter for Democracy & Technology; her current research focuses on information privacy,cybersecurity and surveillance.