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The rise of cyber-democracy?

By Peter McMahon - posted Saturday, 15 June 2002


New information technology like the Internet is affecting all our key social institutions, including those of government. Indeed, there is a the global trend towards ideas of a ‘cyber-democracy’, a trend some see as an alternative to existing parliaments and representative politicians. In this piece I raise some of the underlying issues and present some possible options in regard to a new form of politics which exploits the possibilities inhering in the new information and communication technologies.

The decline of faith in Western style representative democracy and the rise of the Internet as a truly popular phenomenon are two of the most significant developments of the last years of the 20th century. What are the relationship between these two signal developments, and what does it all mean for modes of governance in twenty first century society?

Modern societies are usually defined by their key political and economic character. Hence, Australia, along with most of the rest of the developed world, is known as a liberal democracy. Democracy, a system of government built on popular elections and representative parliaments, is often seen as the most important social invention of the nineteenth century, and the most ideal form of government. However, there has been a marked decline in popular confidence in democratic government around the Western world, as indicated by opinion polls, low participation rates in elections, and the growth of ‘anti-political’ political parties, such as One Nation in Australia. Opinion polls regularly rate politicians lower than used car salesmen in public confidence.

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Although this is no doubt due in part to the growing consensus between political parties as to the essentials of good government - especially regarding ‘sound’ economic management – leading to the ‘Tweedle Dee-Tweedle Dum’ phenomenon, there is also a strong perception that the political mainstream has become the captive of certain collective interests, most notably global corporations and finance markets. The clearest problem seems to be in the US where for years now a Congressional ‘logjam’ has existed that virtually precludes serious policy reform. Instead, Congress is considered by many to be controlled by a whole strata of well-paid professional lobbyists, numbering as high as 40,000 according to one recent assessment. But even if the actual constraints on government are not as great as many assume, the perception of such a situation leads to lack of popular confidence, and this is a problem in itself.

At the same time, however, as our key political institutions are increasingly losing the confidence of constituent populations, we are seeing the rise of a true historical phenomenon: the Internet. Growing at a massive rate, and now involving hundreds of millions of people connected around the globe, the Internet is the first genuinely popular, global, high capacity communications network. Anyone on the internet is in effectively instant communication with everyone else on the system. They can exchange text, image, audio and video reasonably reliably and almost instantaneously. Nothing like this capacity has ever existed in human experience before.

Although much of the attention in relation to the Internet has been on its potential for promoting business and sex, an increasingly important aspect lies in its potential to transform politics at all levels. Politics is essentially no more or less than the negotiation of power, and the key to any process of negotiation is information. The Internet is a massive information exchange, and although currently most of that information is still being disseminated by large political and economic institutions, there is a growing network of political activists on the Internet whose intent is to spread information and effect policy making at the grassroots level.

The use of the Internet as an important tool of political influence by movements outside the mainstream was noted as long ago as the 1992 Rio conference on Global Warming when environmental groups sometimes out-manoeuvred governments and even corporate interests by adroit use of information networks. Later, the ultimately successful opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was largely carried out on the Internet. More recently, the upheavals in Seattle and elsewhere when anti-globalisation forces mobilized large numbers of demonstrators, and which so shook the hitherto unassailable global economic managers, were seen to be a result of effective Internet organisation by a number of otherwise disparate interest groups.

Certainly, the world’s two most important governments – those of the US and China – have responded to a perceived challenge to their power from this source. In the US the Rand Institute – a US think tank funded by the Pentagon – recently argued that the Internet was directing power away from governments and towards shifting alliances and networks of non-government organisations (NGOs) and other activist interests. The Rand report treated the rise of Internet activism as it might a military threat to the state, arguing that governments would have to deal with it through new information war strategies of their own.

A number of national governments have attempted to control content on and usage of the Internet, including Australia, France and Saudi Arabia, but perhaps the most important is the effort by the Chinese government, currently one of the most politically repressive administrations in the world. Recently imposed regulations meant that all organisations and individuals are now forbidden from releasing, discussing or transferring what was described as ‘state secret information’ on bulletin boards, chat rooms or in Internet newsgroups. All websites or large organisations with Internet links now have to employ monitors, or ‘secrecy checkers’ to enforce the new regulations.

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Internet usage in China, as elsewhere, has been growing very rapidly, roughly doubling last year. Furthermore, Internet users are often the key people of the country, the political, economic and technical elite, with home usage quickly replacing work or internet-cafe usage. China is clearly heading in the direction of becoming an information society. However, in such repressive nations as China the relationship between information and state security is often unclear. Indeed, in many cases no one really knows what a state secret is until they have broken the rules and find themselves in trouble. And this problem of uncertainty plagues all attempts to control content on the Internet. The fact is that, as in everyday life, the myriad exchanges of information on the Internet include all sorts of information, much of it unclassifiable. Where, for instance, does gossip end and state secrecy begin?

Overall, the evidence would suggest that effective censorship of Internet content is ultimately impossible. The technical trends and the commercialisation of the actual Internet infrastructure – computers, pipes and software – all indicate that attempts at control by governments through administrative or technical means are unlikely to work. There are just too many options to avoid such traps, and the Internet is technically too dynamic. There is of course the possibility that non-governmental interests, such as monopolistic corporations, might try their own version of Internet control, but technical advances and commercial competition will make such an effort very difficult.

No, ready or not it appears that the crusty institutions of national government are in for a challenge from cyberspace. Whether this will lead to greater international harmony and revitalised democracy, only time will tell. But as of now, the sclerotic and inward looking political institutions of national government increasingly appear as shaky as did the creaky European monarchies at the beginning of the last century.

This is not to say that the Internet is anything like a workable decision-making entity yet. It is great for information and communication purposes, but arriving at policy out of all this discourse is something altogether different. Some means by which opinion can be channelled into alternative action will be necessary. But then this is just the same problem as faces our current political structure, and even it is steadily moving towards some form of electronic voting in elections. So the shift to Internet voting, perhaps done regularly or even constantly as opposed to the current irregular voting, is not such a big step away.

This may all seem a long way off, but the growth of electronic systems like the Internet has already been phenomenal, and if anything, novel utilization of these new technical capabilities has been comparatively slow. Since government is so important it is not hard to see that it will become a subject of review in the light of these new possibilities. All in all, it is clear that eventually our existing forms of government will either adapt to the promise, or threat, of the new technologies, or be, in functional terms at least, replaced by them.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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