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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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