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Τετάρτη, Σεπτεμβρίου 06, 2006

Θιασώτες του E - Politics ; ; ;

The Internet: A Virtual Road to EU Success?

Can the Internet’s instincts of crossing global boundaries conquer the problems of political apathy and democratic deficits in the EU?

What is most striking about the question of the Internet and politics is just how much of the latter is on the former. Reams and reams of virtual pages are dedicated to the topic and that’s just using the most basic of search terminology. This becomes all the more provocative when it is considered how little the Internet seems to be mentioned in politics.

Yet loud voices persist that the Internet is the saviour of modern day politics, valiantly battling the politician’s dreaded enemies of low voter turn out and political apathy; and few governing bodies are as familiar with these trends as the EU.

E-government and e-democracy are argued to improve participation and bring politics back to the people. It appeals to a younger generation of technophiles whom the politicians are trying to attract for the sake of the future. Not only is the world wide web probably the largest data base on this planet, it, unlike television and print media, is interactive according to its supporters, one of these being Erkki Liikanen, the ex-European Commissioner for Enterprise and Information Society.

The US – Leaders of the e-pack?

The US leads us in this innovative era. It was the first country to use the Internet to support a politician’s campaign, the would-be presidential candidate Howard Dean. Weblogs were set up where the hopeful and his public could communicate with each other; ostensibly creating a chance for open dialogue that is almost unheard of today. The power of the Internet to promote politics can also be seen in the incredible success of Meetup.com, a cyber gathering spot for people all across the States who want to converse about anything. Yet, it is politics that has proved the most popular topic and the site is used as a place where people can vent, exchange information and rally together.

It is this potential for turning ‘talking’ into doing that makes Dr James Moore, a Harvard graduate who concentrated his thesis on this very issue, confident of calling the Internet and e-technology the ‘Second Superpower’. He cites the way in which forums on the Internet helped people in the US form massive protests against the war in Iraq in order to demonstrate their will.

Logically, there seems no reason why such proven potential cannot be swept across the waters over to the EU. A European meetup.com could give rise to non-cyber eventualities of increased participation in developmental and political organisations, as well as giving people a greater reason to jump national boundaries - sometimes enforced by oceans – to unite together. Here, the web of wonders shines again by making more feasible the ideal of free movement that the EU cherishes so. It makes cheap air flights more readily available by slashing out the ‘middle-man’ and by giving airlines a constant catwalk on which to parade their cut-throat deals.

The superpowers of governments

However, as the ‘superpower’ thesis describes, the continuing advancement of this information technology depends in large part on the government. According to a UN survey on e-government, information provision is about as far as even the biggest players of e-technology have reached. But the research claims that true e-governments allow for real interaction with their populations through cyber space, giving the people the ability to make contact through sites, make applications for various needs and assistance, as well as seek and receive further, dependable information quickly. A quick glance discloses that most official EU websites are mainly providers of government and institutional data.

Significantly, the presence of e-governments and hence e-democracy is related to the social, economic and political development of a country. This has serious implications in the case of the developmentally diverse EU, where countries will be on an unequal footing even in this regard.

Not quite there yet: The Internet or the people

No one appears to have explicitly laid out how the Internet would be used to promote greater democracy and participation past a vague notion of e-forums, weblogs and better information provision. There is no clarity with regard to how the information should be regulated so that it is reasonably objective and trustworthy, well presented and not overwhelming in its sheer volume. In the matter of the EU, the obstacles seem insurmountable. A comprehensive set-up of sites with information and interactive forums pertaining to all twenty-five countries in all the major languages used throughout the union smacks of the impossible.

The fact is the technology is not sophisticated enough to make the Internet the interactive Disney World of politics, in any nation, never mind such a complex, heterogeneous entity as the EU. To be honest, we, the people, are not yet sophisticated enough to handle all the implications. The Internet will not miraculously make us recover from political burnout and to suggest so would be to mask the reasons why people are feeling alienated and unwilling.

The Internet - weapon of mass attraction

Three ideas for how new technologies can be used in the fight for freedom across the world.

During the last World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) the UN General Secretary Kofi Annan termed freedom of opinion and expression ‘the cornerstone of the information society’. The sonorous declarations of principles must, however, be followed up with concrete proposals and action.

Following Soros’s example

Contributing to the further spread of the internet is the first task that the richer states should take on (and also could take on).
George Soros’s work in Russia can be taken as an example. Since founding a Russian branch of the Open Society Institute in 1998, the billionaire and philanthropist has supported the growth of so-called ‘civil society’ and has invested more than one billion dollars in education, research and, above all, the development of the internet.

For example, a project whereby dozens of Russian universities, research centres and libraries were connected electronically has already been finalised, which appears to be an attempt to create a climate of freedom, competition and research activity similar to that which prevailed in the early days of the internet in the USA. Similar experiments, also led by the OSI, have been carried out in
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan. And when we consider that ‘only’ 10 million dollars was initially allocated to the internet project, we realise what the aforementioned states could achieve with just minimal budgetary resources.

Another potential plan would be to make the internet indispensable for all dictatorial regimes wanting to share in the economic advantages of globalisation. If electronic networks are developed in democratic countries for trade purposes, it will surely be difficult – and grave from an economic point of view – for important trade partners such as
China, to reject these developments. This is the only way we could exploit politically the economic openings in such countries.

The Global Internet Freedom Act

But that’s not enough. The best idea comes from the US Congress, to whom Cox and Lantos presented a draft bill, which we Europeans can also draw inspiration from. The two Congressmen are working on the assumption that ‘we need more than military force to win the war on terror’ and are convinced that new technologies could turn out to be strategic weapons in getting rid of dictatorships. The bill, christened ‘Global Internet Freedom Act’, refers to ‘the governments of
Burma, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam’ – among others – who ‘want to deny their citizens free access to the internet’.

But the two delegates go further than that. In their view, a ‘solid policy of internet freedom’ should be pursued immediately, putting the most authoritarian regimes under political and diplomatic pressure, even with the help of UN measures. And that’s not all. Cox and Lantos maintain that an office should be created within the International Broadcasting Bureau, with the express function of accelerating ‘the development and application of technologies guaranteeing worldwide internet freedom’. This aim cannot be achieved merely with the state funds that have already been invested in international data transmission, but will require bringing in ‘the private sector involved in developing and implementing such technologies, so that many of the technologies being used now in trade circles to safeguard financial transactions are used to further freedom and democracy’.

Big Brother is watching you?

Setting out on the road of non-violent struggle to destabilise authoritarian governments is a precarious undertaking, but a farsighted one as far as promoting democracy is concerned.
USA, Europe and all other states wishing to take part, would have to support the independence of the media under such regimes. The proposal put to Congress by Cox and Lantos is pointing in the right direction. Adapting it to the reality of transnational politics and presenting it to international organisations for inspection - such as the UN, the EU and the future World Democracy Organisation suggested by the Radical Transnational Party - might help to finally avert the ‘1984’ danger that constantly looms over countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. A danger which nips all possibility of developing more freedom in society and politics in the bud.

As far as the practicability of the project is concerned, those behind the bill are optimistic. For American Senator Wyden, ‘there are technologies that can be wiped by the firewalls and filters dictatorial regimes have in place. Applications such as proxy servers, intermediary servers, so-called “Mirrors” and encryptions may all be useful here.’ But the American government has done little so far to encourage finding a technological solution to the problem.

’This country invests a considerable amount in preventing the radio programme „Voice of America“ from being cut abroad. Up to now, however, only one million dollars have been made available for creating technologies against censorship and screening on the net.’ The principle of free circulation of ideas, that in the past has always been positive for everybody, remains a principle that must be emphatically upheld and advanced. The international community will have to monitor, curb and tackle certain states’ drive to stifle freedom, in order to protect and nurture that ‘libertarian spirit’ seen by
Manuel Castells as a basic prerequisite to the rise of the internet. If we want to protect the libertarian chromosomes in the internet’s genetic makeup and prevent monstrous mutations, then we also have to protect the possibilities the net offers in terms of assuring freedom and democracy for all.

Direct democracy – just a click away?

Electronic voting is beginning to be thought of as a possible remedy to low voter turnout during elections. A good idea, but a bad solution.

Online voting. The issue may raise a lot of questions, but our answers are often of a purely technical nature. Some say – no doubt with justification - that such a project is not feasible. Others are seeking simply to discredit, using technical arguments as a pretext, the renewal of a mode of political participation – in this case, the people voting in a ruling elite.
Of course, not everybody today has the wherewithal to vote at home on the net. It would be pointless, if not downright absurd, to ask voters to go somewhere else to vote online. The ‘new’ situation would revert right back to polling booth voting.

The technical solution will come from (technical) progress

This question of internet access in the households of today’s market economy-based democracies echoes that of limited TV-ownership in households of the 50s and ‘60s. If the problem really is just technical, the solution will come from technical progress itself, and from the ‘democratisation’ (economically speaking) of the internet as a tool.

The mistake would be to believe, or to make believe, that the question really is merely technical. Placing such considerations, rightly or wrongly, above the internet’s significance as an agent of democracy is harmful for the political community. If the authorities provide the means in the short term, as they have done for tax declarations and other administrative procedures, voting via the web could become a reality some day soon.

‘Natural selection’ at work

Underlying the purely material question of IT equipment is the fundamental issue of ‘natural selection’; only citizens motivated to vote make it through. Thus all attempts to revolutionise democratic participation are condemned to suffer setbacks. As far as the use of the internet is concerned, it is not so much a case of ordinary citizens being held back by their socio-economic circumstances, but that the economic and political elites are putting up resistance. Indeed, the older generations who are relatively unfamiliar with technology, as well the most marginalised members of society, are ‘victims’ of a ‘technological gap’.
This form of ‘natural selection’ that prevents a potential full turnout has been to known to vary according to context and era, but persists in an almost systematic way . Illiterate people, the most isolated group whether from an intellectual or a material perspective, with few points of reference for keeping themselves informed, are effectively excluded from voting. For these people, online voting is not an important political issue in so far as the right to vote is not a real right.

Nurturing the principle of joint action…

Internet voting will not create a two-speed democracy. Our modern political system already has. This state of affairs, partly a result of social deprivation, should in theory encourage political commitment. But democratic spirit is no doubt being crushed under the weight of an omnipotent private sphere, in which the market economy and individualism reign. This leaves little room for participation in a public arena à la Hannah Arendt where both universality and plurality could prevail.
The issue of online voting be a starting point for opening up the debate on full participation in the political community. As it stands today, the vote is used as a bargaining counter by political elites and their parties. It is not perceived as representing real political power. Power passes around between a small section of individuals who vary and change little. Demonstrations and ‘anti-majority’ protest votes do not have significant political repercussions. This explains a certain disaffection on the part of voters, the spectators of a game - a race for political representation - which nevertheless concerns them directly.

An ancient political aim… still relevant today

The virtual vote or the old slip of paper in the ballot box… That is perhaps not the issue. It is the future of our modes of political participation that is at stake. We’re not going to achieve a Rousseauist direct democracy tomorrow. Nonetheless, we could easily bring mechanisms of ‘direct democracy’ to our democratically ailing political system. Unlike under the first republics of ancient
Greece, then the Italian models (for example, in Florence), the people are cut off from political expression. The concept of a ‘republic of experts’ so lauded by the Founding Fathers of America, such as Madison and Hamilton, was disparaged by their contemporary Rousseau in 1787 on the grounds that it could only be led by gods. In the Europe of tomorrow, let’s hope that the internet will bring the people closer to Olympus.

Europe.com vs Europe.eu

Who controls the internet? What’s the EU’s role? Are we in a position to cope with the challenges of the new century? Although the outlook isn’t too bleak, Europe’s technology gap continues to impede its development.

The technology gap in figures.

The EU currently has 197 million internet users, a number which represents 25.1% of the total number of internet users in the world and a market penetration of 43.4% of the European population. At first sight, these indicators appear healthy but you only have to compare them with US indicators to realise that they’re not that good. With 150 million fewer inhabitants than the EU, the
US has 10 million more internet users than the Union. In other terms, it has a market penetration of 70.4% of the population, which equates to 26.4% of users around the world. It is obvious that the EU is behind the US in this respect but the problem appears even worse when you look beneath the surface and discover the enormous internal inequalities that divide us. It could be thought that the statistics have been distorted by the new member states as a consequence of enlargement. However, there is no clear pattern dividing the older member states from the new ones. Sweden, with 76.8% of market penetration, is the only member state which tops the US. At the other end of the spectrum we find Greece, with a worrying 15.3%, followed by Hungary, Portugal, and Lithuania, each with less than 20% of the population connected to the internet. The statistics for the 6 largest countries of the EU aren’t harmonious either, and vary between the acceptable percentages of the United Kingdom (60.6%), Germany (54.9%) and Italy (50.9%), and the mediocre ones of France (38%), Spain (34.5%) and Poland’s tiny 23.5%. The EU can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. It must act immediately to cancel out these enormous differences. Countries such as South Korea (with a level of development similar to that of Portugal) became aware of the importance of the internet some time ago, and implemented policies destined to lower the price of broadband connections, subsidise the purchase of hardware, and provide lessons in computer literacy. As a consequence, in the space of just a few years, 62% of South Koreans have gained access to the internet.

One body, fourteen (open) hearts?

The European technology lag goes far deeper than mere statistics. If the internet was a circulatory system, it would have 14 hearts to make it work, pumping out information to even the most distant of modems. 10 of these ‘hearts’ –or root servers- are in the
US and only 3 are in Europe (United Kingdom, Sweden, and Spain). All the information circulating on the World Wide Web goes through one of these primary servers, which means that the majority of it goes through the US. Is this a problem? Yes it is. And not just because the servers are located in the United States, but because of the existence of the so-called Carnivore and Echelon programmes developed by the FBI and the NSA (National Security Agency). Both projects started off with good intentions: one was destined to combat international terrorism; the other was born of the Cold War. It wasn’t long before both were being used for other ends. Both programmes are capable of intercepting millions of exchanges per second, be it through the internet, telephone, or radio. Although the US government has not officially acknowledged their existence, the European Parliament has, owing to a number of cases of industrial espionage, in which European firms were being ‘attacked’ in order to make their ideas accessible to other firms such as Boeing or Lockheed, and, more generally, to the big firms of the founder countries of the system, which, as well as the US, include the United Kingdom (!!!), Canada, Australia and New Zealand. From that point on, the EU realised it had to adopt measures in order to lessen the gap with the US. One of the first such measures was the creation of a new ‘supersafe’ system of encryption as a response to Echelon. The question is: should we resign ourselves to adopting defensive counter measures or, on the contrary, should we be more active and hit back instead of protecting ourselves? The debate is open: the EU must decide whether or not to create its own Echelon programme. Several projects are being bandied about but we must not forget that these types of system can usually be used to violate our civil liberties with comparative ease. Associations of internet users have already taken a stand against a putative ‘EuroEchelon’ system, and they’re not wholly unjustified in doing so. One thing is for sure: it’s time to act. We must find a way of devising our own espionage system without becoming the pawns of Big Brother. We must launch a counterattack against those who attack us by turning their own weapons against them. However, we must not renounce our own principles. This last point is the most difficult part to achieve, but achieve it we must; otherwise we would be close to introducing into our society the very defects that we on this side of the Atlantic criticise in American society.

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