Democracy in the Age of the Internet

By Longford, Graham; Patten, Steve | University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview
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Democracy in the Age of the Internet


Longford, Graham, Patten, Steve, University of New Brunswick Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

As access to the Internet and the World Wide Web expanded in the early 1990s there was considerable optimism that an age of low-cost information production and egalitarian public conversations in cyberspace would transform and deepen democracy. The hope was that technological advances and improved access to the means of producing, distributing and receiving information would allow ordinary citizens and organic civil society groups to become broadcasters and publishers capable of sidelining the once powerful barons of the mass media. The unidirectional broadcast model of mass communication would give way to more interactive and democratic forms of public communication. Citizens would have access to a greater diversity of information and opinion as new voices found expression in a more vibrant and inclusive virtual public sphere--indeed, the term netizen was coined to conjure up notions of politically engaged Internet citizens coming together online to identify and deliberate upon the issues of the day. Governance would also be transformed as communications technology improved access to information and enhanced the state's capacity to engage in formal dialogue and deliberation on matters of public policy. In short, the new media would invigorate democracy by creating new egalitarian public spaces, empowering ordinary people with better means of communicating and organizing, and allowing governments to pursue more open, transparent and consultative relations with citizens.

Today this optimistic assessment of the Internet's potential to transform the public sphere and deepen democracy seems profoundly naive. While some dimensions of democratic life have benefited from popular access to the Internet, this has not been true for other dimensions of democracy. In assessing democracy in the age of the Internet it is evident that the Internet has had different consequences for the electoral, deliberative and monitorial dimensions of democracy. (1) Moreover, to understand the complexity of the relationship between the Internet and these three distinct dimensions of democracy, we must recognize that the democratic potential of any communication technology will always be limited by the character of existing social, political and economic power relations, as well as by the attitudes, orientations and activities of governments, citizens and corporations. For example, in recent years, governments have been unceasingly cautious when embracing potentially democratic technologies, citizens appear to be increasingly caught up in the consumer identities of market society rather than being meaningfully engaged in politics, and powerful corporate enterprises with significant Internet-based commercial interests have been engaged in efforts to control the social, legal and technological architecture of cyberspace. The Internet's impact on the character and quality of democracy is tempered by these basic social, political and economic realities.

The discussion to follow is organized around separate assessments of the electoral, deliberative and monitorial dimensions of democracy. We contend that because our governments and political parties have been cautious, even reluctant, to embrace the Internet as anything more than a tool to supplement existing methods and techniques of political communication, the Internet has altered the practice of electoral democracy but has not transformed the character or quality of this dimension of democracy. With regard to the deliberative dimension of democracy, the aspect of democracy for which hopes were highest, the corporate colonization of the Internet has hampered the potential to facilitate a democratic transformation of the public sphere, thus undermining the democratic contribution of critical communication. In the realm of monitorial democracy--that is, of citizens taking action in response to political events or policy developments--the Internet has truly enhanced democracy, transforming social movement networks and empowering grassroots movements with new tools, allowing interested publics to mobilize and monitor policy-makers.

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