“The 'Twitter Revolution' in Iran, the clean democratic elections in Egypt following their revolution that ousted Mubarak, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, Occupy Wall Street, and even the 6 million people who took to the streets earlier this month in Syria -- all were aided by the technological advances that have decentralized the flow of information. Who would have dreamed a hashtag would transform journalism, empowering individuals to report the news in real time?” (Fox 2012)
Since the globalisation of the internet, it has been widely discussed if those new technologies help advance the cause of democracy in the contemporary world. Over the past decades, the internet has evolved into more than just a place for people to meet, in many ways. There are two opposite views of the contribution of the internet to democracy. William H. Dutton, professor of Internet Studies at the University of Oxford, says that those two opposite views see the internet as “either a technology of freedom or control.” (Dutton 2007: 4) Hereby, “the optimistic view is that the Internet will tend to democratise access to information and undermine hierarchies” (4), whereas the negative view is that governments, institutions and companies will use the internet to extend their “control of existing institutional structures and organizational arrangements.” (5) Dutton describes the most extreme form of that kind of control as a surveillance society, an image that strongly resembles the dystopian state of surveillance in George Orwell's 1984. In the following part I am going to trade the positive influence of the internet on democracy off against the possible negative consequences the internet could have on the process of democratisation.
In Contribution of Internet to a Democratic Society, Abrar Haider argues that “the fundamental principles of democracy are freedom and equality” (Haider 2009: 3). Furthermore, he notes that for citizens to participate actively in a democracy, they need to “be able to make informed decisions that impact on society. This requires people to have the freedom to access information and to have freedom of expression.” (3) In today's modern society, the Internet has become the place to go to for information. It has taken on a central role in our everyday lives. The web now provides the answer to almost every question we have ever wanted to know. Whereas access the internet is still limited in many areas of the world, each and every day more people gain access to the World Wide Web. All those people have access to the same information. The internet has made it possible to communicate with people who we would have never met in our real lives and therefore opens us up to relations with people other than those in our direct environment. People within our natural environment are usually similar to us as they share the same background in education, views and values. In conclusion, through making communication with people all over the world possible, the internet opens us up to people who are different to us and it therefore supports open-mindedness towards foreign cultures.
Since the internet is the place for information everybody can access, it also functions as a means of education. It is the place for receiving news from all over the world. Because of the immediacy of online newspapers or social media platforms such as Twitter, internet users can gain access to information about an event the exact same time it is happening. “The Internet is enabling people to network with other individuals and with a vast range of information, services and technical resources. This is being achieved in ways that can support greater accountability not only in government and politics, but also in other sectors.” (Dutton 2007: 2) An informed society is more open to different viewpoints, discussions and ideas, it is more aware of the values of democracy than a uniformed society. Citizens, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), companies, institutions and large governmental and private-sector bureaucracies are “employing technologies and the Internet to enhance communication, improve access to important information, and increase their efficiency, resulting in strengthened democratic processes and more effective governance.” (National Democratic Institute 2013)
Another democratic feature of the internet is its promotion of equality. Since the introduction of Web 2.0 and the respective participatory character of the internet, it provides its users a voice. It empowers the individual as everybody has the chance to reach millions of people. For example, “the internet makes it more affordable to start a business. This ‘economic democracy’ has provided many people with the option of beginning their own business, without having to incur the costs associated with leasing a shopfront.” (Haider 2009: 6)
The internet provides average people with the possibility to share information on a large scale in so many different formats, blogs, podcasts or videos; it provides a voice to people living at the margins of society, people whose voices you would not normally hear in real life. It often offers its audience alternative perspectives, a different, raw, unedited view on events. The internet can give a voice to those living in countries struggling with democracy. (Kroes 2012)
Whereas the mainstream media have been the only source of news for the public for a long time, the introduction of the internet has changed that. Opinion-based websites such as Twitter make room for diversification within the world of media. “Rather than media being the province of the elite, centralised organisations and institutions, alternative media offer the possibilities for individuals and groups to create their own media from the social margins” (Atton 2009: 272)
Once something goes viral online, it has the chance at making a real difference outside the virtual world as well. The mobilisation of the masses via the internet has taken on many shapes. No matter if you take Occupy Wall Street or the use of social media in the Arab Spring as an example, in many cases the internet now functions as the voice of the public. It is because of the Internet’s wide distribution of news that certain issues get a broader audience. The internet helps raising awareness about certain topics that would not have been so popular without it, mainly because fewer people would know about them. “Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it.” (Sirky 2011: 3) The internet helps to create a stronger transparency and accountability between the governments and their citizens.
One example I would like to give are the events following the joint signature of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, referred to as ACTA in the following, by many countries including the United States and most members of the European Union in October 2011. Many European citizens felt that the treaty violated democratic values and threatened their freedom in the online world as leaked documents showed that the treaty's major goal was “to force signatory countries into implementing anti file-sharing policies under the form of strong criminal sanctions.” (Stop ACTA 2012) The anti-ACTA movement went viral on the internet, “online platforms gave protesters a means to organise, and a harness for the power of a surging desire for democracy” (Kroes 2012), and on 12 February 2012 ten thousands of people joined protests and demonstrations all over Europe. In the end, the huge wave of protest led to ACTA being rejected by the European Parliament on July 4th, 2012 (Stop ACTA 2012). Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda commented on the events as follows:
“We have recently seen how many thousands of people are willing to protest against rules which they see as constraining the openness and innovation of the Internet. This is a strong new political voice. [...] We are now likely to be in a world without [...] ACTA. Now we need to find solutions to make the Internet a place of freedom, openness, and innovation fit for all citizens, not just for the techno avant-garde.“ (Kroes 2012)
- Quote paper
- Alana Speer (Author), 2013, The Internet: Technology of Freedom or Control?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/281271