Richard Moore


                     DEMOCRACY AND CYBERSPACE

                Copyright 1997 by Richard K. Moore

[part 7]

Electronic Democracy: dream or nightmare?
"Electronic Democracy" has no generally agreed upon definition - the
term is used to refer to everything from community networking, to
online discussion of issues, to email lobbying of elected
representatives.  What I'd like to discuss here is one of the more
radical definitions of the term: the use of electronic networking to
bring about a more direct form of democracy, to short-circuit the
representative process and look more to net-supported plebiscites and
"official" online debates in deciding issues of government policy.

There are well-meaning groups on the Internet actively articulating
and promoting such radical schemes, and to many netizens this kind of
"direct democracy" may seem very appealing.  It holds out the promise
of cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, reducing the role of
corrupt politicians and special interests, and allowing the will of
the people to be expressed.  In short, it would appear to
institutionalize the more promising aspects of Internet culture for
the benefit of mankind and the furtherance of democratic ideals.

But into this pollyannic perspective I must cast a cynical dose of
realism.  Just as it would be naive to assume idyllic visions of a
global-village commons are likely to characterize commercialized
cyberspace, so would it be equally naive to assume electronic direct
democracy, if implemented, would turn out to be anything like the
idealistic visions of its well-meaning proponents.

In examining the future prospects for cyberspace, what turned out to
be determinative, at least by my analysis, were the interests of the
major players who stand to be most affected by the economic and
political opportunities presented by digital networking.  It may be
the Internet community that is the most aware and articulate about
cyberspace issues, but they are not the ones who own the
infrastructure or make the policy decisions.

Similarly, when examining the prospects for electronic democracy, it
is absolutely essential to consider the interests of those major
players - including corporations, societal elites, and government
itself - who would be directly affected by any changes made in
governmental systems.

If official changes are made to our systems, it is governments who
will make those changes - the same governments who are currently
presiding over the dismantlement of their own infrastructures and
systematically selling out national sovereignty to corporate

The plain fact is that direct electronic democracy is very much a
two-edged sword.  Depending on the implementation details - and the
devil is indeed in the details - it could lead either to popular
sovereignty or to populist manipulation.  It could give voice to the
common man and woman, or it could be the vehicle for implementing
policies so ill-advised that even existing corrupt governments shy
away from them - and in such a way that no one is accountable for the

Consider some of the issues involved:  Who decides which questions
are raised for a vote?  Who decides what viewpoints are presented for
consideration?  Who decides when sufficient discussion has taken
place?  Who verifies that the announced tally is in fact accurate?
Who checks for vote-adjusting viruses in the software, and who
supplies that software?

I don't deny that a beneficent system could be designed, but I don't
see how such could be reliably guaranteed as the outcome.  Even with
our current Internet and its open culture, the above issues would not
be easy to resolve in a satisfactory way.  In the context of a
commercialized cyberspace, the prospects would be even less

Let's look for a moment at a direct-democracy precedent.  In
California there has long been an initiative and referendum process,
and it is much used.  This particular system was set up in a fairly
reasonable way, and in many cases decent results have been obtained.
On the other hand there have been cases where corporate interests
have used the initiative process (with the help of intensive
advertising campaigns) to get measures approved which were blatantly
unsound, and which the legislature had been sensible enough not to

In today's political climate, with elite corporate interests firmly
in control of most Western governments, the prospects for any radical
changes being implemented in a way that actually serves popular
interests are very slim indeed.  The simple truth is that those
interests currently in the ascendency would be blind fools to allow a
system changes that seriously threatened the control over the
political process they now enjoy.

If "electronic democracy" were to be implemented in today's political
environment, one can only shudder at how it would be set up, and to
what ends it would be employed.  The rhetoric surrounding its
implementation would of course be very attractive - direct expression
of popular will, cutting out the corrupt politicos, etc.  But
rhetoric is rhetoric, and the reality is something else again, as has
become apparent with globalization itself, or with the U.S. Telecom
Reform Bill.

The most likely scenario, in my view, would include a biased
statement of the issues, a constrained set of articulated
alternatives, and a selected panel of "experts" who pose no threat to
established interests.  It would be a show more than a debate -
reminiscent of what has happened to public-broadcasting panel shows
in the U.S. today, where the majority of panel experts typically
"happen" to come from right-wing think tanks.

Especially disturbing is the intrinsic unaccountability of this kind
of direct-democracy process.  If an emotionally charged show/debate
convinces people to vote for nuking Libya, or expelling immigrants,
or sterilizing single mothers, for example, no one is afterwards
accountable - it was "the people's will".  The political process is
reduced to stimulus-response: a Madison-Avenue-engineered show
provides the stimulus, and spur-of-the-moment emotion provides the

The history of populism in the latter half of the twentieth century
is not particularly promising.  Mussolini and Hitler both came to
power partly through populist appeals to cut through bureaucracy and
bring "decisiveness" to government.  I'd say extreme caution is
indicated as regards electronic democracy or any other constitution-
level changes at this time of elite ascendency.

"Electronic democracy", like cyberspace itself, threatens under
existing circumstances to only compound the problems faced by
democracy.  In closing, allow me to offer my thoughts on how a
democracy-favoring citizenry might best respond to the onslaught of
corporate globalization generally, and how they might approach
communications policy in particular.

[to be continued]

Posted by Richard K. Moore - •••@••.••• - PO Box 26   Wexford, Ireland
         http://www.iol.ie/~rkmoore/cyberjournal            (USA Citizen)
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