The Politics of Internet & Politics

The opening of the conference on Internet & Politics in Munich, Germany, promises to be a global forum on the convergence of politics and the Internet. However, as things have so far demonstrated, little of what the conference has promised to deliver has been realized.

The conference was opened by Christa Maar, the president of the Academy of the Third Millenium, followed by Hubert Burda, the founder of the Burda group which, coincidentally, the Academy of the Third Millenium belongs. Although organizers were at pains to point out the wide social and global base of the conference, with Mr Burda claiming that the event was in itself a reflection of the "global village", reality appeared otherwise. Most speakers come from the upper middle to upper echelons of the economic ladder; also, while Ms Maar may claim that participants of the conference have come from the world over - including Central and Eastern Europe - what is ironic is that the speakers don't reflect this global outlook; if the conference is truly supposed to be more global in its composition, then it would have been better if the range of speakers were not limited to the US and Canada, Germany, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

This is not to say, however, that topics affecting other areas of the world, such as Central and Eastern Europe, are not dealt with. Esther Dyson is one of the speakers whose topic will cover Eastern Europe specifically. Still, there seems to be a western bias that change is happening first and foremost in the west. This, despite the fact that in mid-January the Hungarian Prime Minister, Gyula Horn, was the first political leader to attempt a live on-line interview. Indeed, there must have been at least one Hungarian analyst available who could have informed participants of the results of the Hungarian experiment at "direct democracy", mentioning how and why the server crashed only minutes after the interview began (with answers given only two hours later), and raise the point of why only 10% of questions submitted were answered, and what the selection criteria was for these questions.

As for the conference itself, the main politician at the opening of the conference was Mr Edmund Stoiber, the Minister-President of Bavaria. In his speech he repeatedely outlined that the issue at hand was the protection of children, the need to uphold dignity, and to reinforce ethical responsibility. He warned, like politicans have been warning for the past few years, that the Internet carries with it risks in terms of possible abuse, i.e., in terms of child pornography, the use of networking by extremist groups, and the growing influence of organized crime on the net. Although the issues he brought up are not unique, what was of ominuous concern was his call for increased international co-operation among governments to enforce a standard rule of law. In other words, along with the global economy, a global police force of sorts needs to be developed. Indeed, Mr. Stoiber saw that the main purpose of the conference was to "harmonize" activities on the political level. In addition to this, he pointed out that Bavaria has already a head start on this through a recently established department of the police force in where the police are surfing the net full time, akin to Scientologists, looking out for deviants. Although there has always been a presence of the police on the Internet, this is the first indication that a political body has publicly acknowledged that they are prepared to invest their full attention to make sure that the rule of law, as they define it, is enforced.

While Mr Stoiber's views were more politically pronounced than the others, a common thread which seemed to run through most speakers was that democracy as a system of power and governance was not in need of modernization, as the subtitle to the conference suggested. Instead, what was at issue was the application of technology to reinforce and realign values deemed common and natural, one so obvious that political scientist Claus Leggewie asserted that everybody wants it. Ironically, speakers made continued reference to Athens as the traditional model for democracy, without taking into consideration that Athenian democracy was elitist and discrimminatory. No mention was made at all of Iroquoian democracy which perhaps was the most perfect model of democracy ever developed. Its thorough system for consultation and the role of women was not only very advanced for its day but for generations thereafter.

There is a very good reason why we have heard so little of the Iroquoian variant of democracy and so much of the Greek one. Political scientists are of the opinion that Iroquoian democracy can never work in a modern society, for decisions need to be made quickly and, given its thorough process of consultation, speed is not of the essence. This point would be more than an embarrssment to most participants at the conference, whose ignorance of the real world of democracy would be thus exposed. It would also be the antithesis of what the relationship between the Internet and politics is thought to be about. Those who are intoxicated by the wonders of the Internet are foremost impressed by the speed of communication. Larry Grossman elaborated that "direct democracy", the catchword of the conference, was in itself an acceleration of the democratic process. Hence, there would be more elections, meetings, etc. Under an Iroquoian democracy model, however, the majority doesn't rule: this means if consensus can't be found on an issue, it would be sent back to all parties for re-evaluation. Hence, under this model the Internet would actually slow things down, not speed things up.Thus, it can be seen why Greek democracy is a lot more convenient as a model; it has nothing to do with the notion of freedom.

Although direct democracy has been accepted as an axiom by conference participants, some speakers have raised notes of warning, albeit on a minor scale. Grossman admitted that there was the possibility that while democracy would be advanced by the Internet, there was also the possibility that it would create an excess of democracy. While he did not elaborate further, the point is nonetheless obvious: apathy is one of the main negative attributes of modern day democracies, as the exemplified by the rate of American voter turn-out. Too much democracy, therefore, would mean that people would be so inudated with politics that even those who would otherwise take an interest are likely to forego their democratic responsibilities.

Direct democracy not only augments an already apathetic electorate, it also poses a direct threat to individual liberty. Direct democracy bears much resemblance to Toffler's notion of anticipatory democracy, in which the role of a government is to continually monitor the views of its citizens, anticipating trends, and thereby providing for or reforming activities so as to please the majority of voters. While this may seem nice, it actually turns out to be an elaborate form of repression. Thomas Jefferson's statement that blood was the natural manure for the tree of liberty is an important aspect of democracy that is far too often overlooked. The creative energies that are associated through direct confrontation is something that can't be supplemented through measures of reform and reconciliation. This may be one reason why politics in the US is so stagnant; the right to revolt, upon which the country was originally founded, is lacking. It is also for this reason the first democratic elections of the former East Bloc and the former USSR (including Chechnya) had voter turn-outs that put the majority of western democracies to shame.

Another danger of direct democracy is the possible emergence of classical fascism, including Nazism. What appears to be ignored is the fact that Hitler came to power by the democratic process, and he did it so in conjnction with technically advanced means in the art of mass communication. Ironically, the issues with which he rose to power seem to parallel those mentioned by Stoiber: the need to maintain law and order, preserve ethical standards, and to safeguard tradition. What is interesting to note is that the Nazis relied on technology to accomplish their goals. Indeed, they can be said to be the first to develop the concept of direct democracy through their use of mass rallies; in the age of the net, this would now be called participatory democracy. In addition to this, the Third Reich was a crude form of an Information Society. Grossman made a comparative mention of the emergence of radio and the Internet. He might have gone further by citing the importance that Goebbels attached to the use of radio, to the extent that the Nazis made every effort to provide the German people with one.

Also, not all speakers were thoroughly convinced that direct democracy was a good thing. Robert Verrue from the European Commission admitted that direct democracy was not the best solution, but failed to say what could be adopted instead. However, he was clear on the fact that within the conext of the European Union, the EU should only be a facilitator and that it was up to national governments to come to terms with the issue of Internet and politics. In his speech there was also the tone of the differing attitudes that Europeans have with Americans on some issues. When concluding with an overview of the EC's view toward the development of the Information Society, he could not resist mentioning that policymakers have to be careful to avoid disorganized censorship, an obvious reference to the CDA. Also, he added that Europe cherished a high level of privacy, making a tacit reference to Europe's tolerance of strong encryption. It just goes to show how politics is never far away when the Internet is concerned.

As the first day of the conference wore on, some dissident opinions were heard. Among the most critical was that of Geert Lovik from the Dutch provider XS4ALL, who was committed to the belief that no authority had the power nor the right to limit the free flow of information. Douglas Schuller followed and took the issue further, dismissing the idea that the Internet possessed any inherent qualities that made it a democratic form of mass media and stressing the need for community based networking, one that is accessible to all at no or minimal cost.

Access and regulatory issues aside, there was also much talk about democracy degenerating into an over commercialized commoditiy, with the Internet becoming (or already in the process of becoming) a mind-numbing outlet of cheap entertainment. Grossman first raised the point, warning against the encroaching negative influences of the entertainment media, namely sex and violence. Mention was also made of the fact that the Internet in itself is a passive type of media, and that surfing the net is not that much different than clicking through the channels on a television set. Hence, Springsteen's famous line "fifty-seven channels and nothing on" applies to the web as much as it applies to television. However, the last speaker of the day, Daniel J. Weitzner, citing examples of the devleopment of cable television and the Internet, nevertheless pointed out that the positive aspect of the Internet that sets it apart from all previous forms of mass media is the fact that it is decentralized and that there are no gatekeepers. This is debatable, for a user still has to rely, albeit at a lower level, on their access providers. Furthermore, with talk now about networked computers and web TV, access providers will end up playing an even bigger role, almost on the level of that of a cable TV operator.

The conference ended on a more political note, with Eli Noam pointing out some basic differences between the US and Europe in terms of applying new technology. According to Noam, the main difference between the two is the willingness of Americans to take risks as opposed to the reluctance on the part of Europeans to do so. His recommendation for European policymakers, therefore, is to focus more on the opportunities available to them rather than the problems that may lay ahead. As for regulating the Internet, he sees the issue taking care of itself in due course. What he failed to mention, either cunningly or out of plain ignorance, is the thorny issue of encryption, an issue which the US is definitely inhibited, and which undoubtedly will become an important aspect of Internet politics in the near future. (John Horvath)