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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Can the web transform democracy?
From campaigning to fundraising and on-line voting, the internet is becoming an ever more powerful tool in the political process.Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
With the US elections in full swing and the UK elections looming on the horizon, the web is being seen as a force that could transform the democratic process.
Will the web give voters a greater input into democracy, or will it widen the gap between the political class and the wider public? Does cyber-politics raise questions of its own, about transparency, ethics or fairness?
Tony Hall, Head of BBC News chaired a live online debate on e-politics and internet democracy. His guests were Phil Noble, a leading US specialist on politics and the internet, and Alan Rusbridger, editor of the UK Guardian newspaper.
Selected highlights from the debate
Stephen Kenney, US: Sure it will mildly change the way society goes about democratic expression, but let's not get too carried away here. It's just another techno-gadget in its initial all-the-rave era. In the end, the Internet's effect will be minimal at best.
Phil Noble: I disagree with that. I think the internet will have an effect on the scale of the industrial revolution. I suggest to Stephen that he writes that statement down and lose it in a drawer. Then ask me about it again in 5 years time. If he still agrees with his statement I'll buy him a beer.
Alan Rusbridger: I agree, but as far as politics goes there is a danger of a certain fatigue setting in. If you have, as we already have in the US for example, lobbies bombarding politicians with hundreds of thousands of emails, we don't know how they are going to respond. That's my note of caution.
Marcus, UK: Governments are desperate to monitor all our email, thus rendering privacy obsolete. The government also have a public forum on the web that they blatantly ignore. Do you really think that you can trust politicians like these to use the web in a way that actually benefits democracy in a meaningful way? It's all just more spin and hot air?
Alan Rusbridger: Privacy is a huge issue that is not being looked at at all right now. When people log on, they don't know about the information that can be captured from them from private companies while they are surfing. What the government does also makes people feel very uneasy. It's very disturbing to see in the UK legislation that has just been passed, which allows the government to intercept any email they want. So people are worried both about what private businesses and governments are doing on the net. As for the issue of "spin", to give governments credit, the amount of official info that they put out on the net is enormous. That has to be good.
Phil Noble: There is huge dark side to the net. Privacy and pornography are two big issues that we have to deal with. I think we will end up with a combination of technology fix with a government fix in the form of legislation. We haven't figured out the rules, the etiquette for this medium yet. But we will get the issues right, because it is fundamental.
Brian H, UK: Seems to me many of the political portals are presently just for show - e-mails unanswered or answered months after sending. How seriously are governments and politicians using the Internet or is it merely to appear on the cutting edge?
Phil Noble: Citizens have got to understand how they should influence on politicians on the net. And it's not by sending them 500 emails every day telling them what to do. But politicians have also got to get wiser about how to deal with net citizens. Politicians still answer emails by letter which arrive 3 weeks later. Clearly that's no good either. So both sides need to get wiser.
Tom, US: I think the more important issue is the potential ability of the web to break the stranglehold of the media barons on public opinion" In what ways could e-democracy change the influence of political institutions such as parties and the media?
Phil Noble: I believe the internet is going to change a lot of the institutions of politics, making some irrelevant and creating new ones. For example Amazon did not exist in the real world, but it has created an online world of bookshops and buying books online. The same happened for example with financial brokerage firms. And the same thing is happening in politics. The thing is, we just don't know right now what those new brands in politics are going to be.
Alan Rusbridger: I think in most countries the two-party system is such a powerful framework, and it will be difficult to break. Maybe that would be a dangerous thing anyway. One of my anxieties about the internet is the proliferation of single-issue campaigns. Often these campaigners magnify issues beyond their real importance to society as a whole. On the other hand, the two-party system does not represent the complexity of modern countries. So the answer must lie somewhere in between.
Phil, Zimbabwe: In Zimbabwe, without the benefits of the web and email the opposition MDC would not have been able to get its message to the people as quickly and effectively as it did.
Alan Rusbridger: Zimbabwe doesn't have a great tradition of free press and the Internet can make a huge difference. As time goes on, alternative forms of communication will become more important. It will be interesting in the long-term to see what effect this will have on non-democracies.
Phil Noble: The Internet is starting to have a significant effect in many countries. For example, during the war in Kosovo, it was heavily used to make contact with the outside world. There are also interesting developments taking place in China and this is bound to greatly affect that society in the next 50 years. Basically, the days when political leaders are able to do things without the world knowing will be long gone.
Dominic Foster, UK: Does the panel envisage the Internet being used in a fashion akin to the recently coined, by Brian Waldon, term "ultra-democracy", in which the individual is empowered in all political decisions? Are there fears that this "ultra-democracy," as he puts it, "would give rise to knee-jerk political decisions based on populist motions as promoted by media forces?
Alan Rusbridger: The notion that voters can literally get through to politicians through the Internet is difficult to believe. I'm also unsure about the effect of single-issue politics such as the death penalty.
Phil Noble: If you look at experiments in wired communities such as those found in Florida, Stockholm and Paris, once people are plugged in, they're willing and indeed anxious to go to places, not just the Government, to solve their problems. People don't care where the solution comes from, so long as their problems are solved.
Mohansingh, India: If the web continues to remain the exclusive preserve of the rich, as it is in most parts of the world, the Internet will only help the wealthy to reinforce their grip over power in the community rather than in bringing in more democracy.
Alan Rusbridger: This is a huge issue and it would be catastrophic if rich, Western nations didn't make it an important priority, especially in the field of education.
Phil Noble: I have a real feeling of optimism about future developments as the price of technology falls and its power increases. We already talk about throwing away paper. In the future this will extend to new technology. I would say that along with education and the distribution of food, this is a very important issue.
Bob Stevenson, Scotland
Can the Web transform democracy? The simple answer is no. Don't get me wrong - I'm not a technophobe. The Internet is an extremely useful tool for communication, research and leisure. However, that is all it is - a tool. Anyone who thinks the Web will revive the moribund state of democracy in the UK, the US, or anywhere else in the West is deluding themselves.
Younger, elder, disabled and disadvantaged have no internet access to minutes of meetings, planning applications or other local admin to see if councillors even work for others.
Knowledge transfer can transform democracy, and the net transfers knowledge. But will democracy transform the net before the net transforms democracy? Did Socrates or Aristotle transform democracy inside ancient Greece, or were their ideas useful only for later export?
More than half the world's population has never made a telephone call, let alone used computer or the Internet. Many of these are the same people who struggle daily for food, shelter and clean water. There are much more important global issues to overcome before consigning the electoral process, anywhere in the world, to the Internet and World Wide Web.
The role played by the internet in the transformation of society is completely underestimated by most. Sure the political arena will change but so too will the way we perceive ourselves within a society without boundaries. The internet will do a better job of 'levelling the playing field' than any other revolution in history but it will remain a tool of western civilisation for a long time yet. Those with internet access will be in a position to make decisions based on multitudes of biased media viewpoints while those without will remain trapped due to information deficiency.
Don't kid yourselves. The vast majority of people aren't interested in politics at all, apart from jumping on the occasional populist bandwagon, but only in keeping as much of their income as possible.
The internet is already being used to reduce democracy in England by intimidating drivers delivering petrol. They've been threatened with having their photos put on the net. Any form of voting or expressing views on the internet will have to be assured of secrecy. It is for this reason that I don't give my name and address.
With the introduction of the RIP Act here in the UK, there's no such thing as democracy with the internet. "Big Brother", as we used to say before this nonsense on C4, "is most definitely watching us all".
The internet has helped people to voice their concerns after 25 years of "stealth" fuel tax. One day we will all just click, vote, and be aware of everything with no need for commentators.
David Hazel, UK
The big trouble with democracy by plebiscite, was noted long ago. I don't remember the origin, but this quotation sticks in my mind: "Democracy lasts until the majority realise that they can vote themselves the contents of the public purse."
At least with representative democracy, you can vote if you don't like them.
Unless 100% of the population has the opportunity to vote, then the internet cannot be used for this purpose.
As a medium for communicating with politicians, if they do not change policies in response to opinion expressed in letters, faxes, phone calls and local surgeries, why should we expect them to act in response to an e-mail.
BI (before internet) the voter only had limited information on which to base their choice, and were very often hoodwinked by slick and slightly dishonest politicians. Now we are better informed about the world, our own countries, and world events. In short we are no longer stupid punters being led by the nose. I hope that this will make democracy better and more honest, as politicians find they cannot mislead the public.
Jane Birkby, England
The internet is becoming ever more powerful in politics
by providing more information on daily issues and events. More powerful because the average voter is less likely to be fooled by political rhetoric once in possession of the facts.
I think the Web is a great way to transform democracy (assuming that it still exists).
Just look at www.open.gov.uk
After all, in America, increased 'democracy' (that is, voting by those who have the time or skills to get involved) produced such policies as banning teaching of evolution theory, removing hard won civil rights for minority groups etc. The Net can be used very effectively for spreading misinformation.
Nick Gunning, UK
Do we really want a society where
decisions are made by people who
have poor or no understanding at all
of serious political issues? Internet voting
on anything other than selecting those who will
govern us can have disastrous effects.
Care must be taken that the disconnected do not become disenfranchised.
If not the Web, then something had better transform current 'democracy'. Democratic systems do not make the bureaucrats
and politicians accountable to anyone, they are dictatorships in everything except name only.
Chris Davis, UK
The PM should quickly get used to the idea of a transformed democracy, the likely outcome of a networked Britain and use current events as a little 'rehearsal', before it's too late.
The web can come closer to democracy than anything since the original market square in Athens. Given a structure, for example - one representative for each ten people joins a higher echelon - it becomes possible for anyone to be heard without being bullied or censored away.
It may seem pedantic but democracy (Rule by the People) is an impossibility in a modern nation. The web provides greater freedom for individuals in countries which actively limit important freedoms like freedom of speech and religion. However, it will not make a true democratic state more possible.
The security and privacy of Internet voting is a critical issue. Only open-source software, which can be examined in public by all parties, will be able to provide any assurance against tampering (and even then, only with constant vigilance).
In my opinion, the political process through the web will deprive the have-nots in the world in general, and those struggling to keep their bodies and souls together in the Third World, in particular, from either campaigning or exercising their franchise. Let us not deny democratic rights to the majority, who form the grassroots of the political process.
A five-yearly election system affords great stability and continuity for the governance of our country. Allowing the masses to force decisions on a government on a weekly or even daily basis would lead to chaos and ineffectual legislation and administration.
Jim Loughman, USA
Stephen Kenney, USA
If security could be much improved, I agree that Internet voting would be a wonderful idea. It would also be a great debating medium, especially if politicians really put their hearts into it.
In Zimbabwe, without the benefits of the web and email the opposition MDC would not have been able to get its message to the people as quickly and effectively as it did.
Does the panel envisage the internet being used in a fashion akin to the recently coined, by Brian Waldon, term "ultra-democracy", in which the individual is empowered in all political decisions? And do they fear that such a step would give rise to knee-jerk political decisions based on populist motions as promoted by media forces?
Could someone possibly explain what is so wonderful about democracy?
Why is it that the opinion of a lower-educated majority, over that of a 'higher educated minority, is so enshrined in today's world?
We do not live in a democracy. We effectively have the option to vote for one of two parties, which ever one wins, they do what they want to support their own interests, regardless of manifesto promises. Therefore, under the current two party system the vote we have is utterly meaningless, regardless of whether it is on paper or over the internet.
Everything in everybody's power should be done to retain and even improve this possibility to overtake narrow-minded systems or dictatorships. Here we must remember that even in so-called democracies there exist different hindrances in getting one's opinion or idea heard. Internet is the place without restrictions but of course, even there we need public forums that are willing to allow people to display their opinions to wider audiences. (Like BBC)
Mikko Toivonen, Finland
The web has already transformed democracy!
The Professional Contractors Group should be applauded for their innovative use of the internet to organise their highly effective campaign against IR35.
It will be a great idea... soon. In the not-too-distant future, voting via the web will not just be via PC. It will be via phone, Playstation and TV. The internet will increasingly belong to the masses and not the rich. If democracy is to thrive, we must use any means possible to bring it closer to those who feel excluded from society.
The web and online voting will give us a true democracy. At the moment we are powerless to decide on most issues, we effectively have a block voting system with politicians deciding issues for us. With the ability to vote at home I see a day when once a week an issue will be debated and then the public will decide. This will be a positive change.
So if all the world is on the net, then decisions should be made depending on the scale of their influence. If the issue is taxes to greenhouse gases, then everybody should vote, if a village needs to repair the roads, the villagers and those using the roads should be involved in decision-making.
Decisions should be made with the majority supporting them, be it 70 or 80%, but not 51%. So the internet could be (probably is) the tool for the formation of evolutionary inevitable 'body of humanity' as some people have called it.
Toomas Trapido, Estonia
Seems to me many of the political portals are presently just for show - e-mails unanswered or answered months after sending.
I'm concerned that, considering the control the government wants to put on the Internet and the ease with which things can be traced back to source on it, the notion of a secret ballot will have gone out of the window.
Anthony O'Sullivan, UK
Why do we need to vote from computers? If you don't care who wins enough to drive/walk to your polling house- don't vote. The only use I see for online polling is for those who are otherwise incapable of making it to the polling station.
I think the more important issue is the potential ability of the web to break the stranglehold of the media barons on public opinion. That is, of course, unless they find a way of controlling it (and they've only got to control the access of the non-technical majority to succeed at that).
I think the era of national government control is over as issues like the environment which are of global concern and needs the world to vote on to bring any speedy change. I am sick of voting for a totally ineffective (UK) politicians.
I look forward to the day when I can go up to the web and vote for the issues and not to give a useless job to a politician who just wants a 5 year job with perks. I can imagine (in 20 years) a system where national borders are broken down, there are no political parties, global issues are sent to a 'Global Internet Parliament'?! for the world to vote upon. I don't know who invented democracy but we must reinvent it when thinking about the web and the global issues we face.
Whilst registering and indeed voting on line must only be encouraged in the simplest sense there must also be an understanding of what sort of genie we are letting out of the bottle. Politics both in Europe and the States is already too influenced by short-term public opinion often manipulated by media outlets for their own agenda.
Perhaps the availability of instant mass consultation will bring home to people the merits of representative democracy as a means of avoiding government by activist minorities.
There is also no solution to the spate of computer frauds in recent times. Also what about those ever brilliant computer hackers. What happens if they cyber-attack the website? It is too early to go the internet-route. Let's say 2050.
Ade Talabi, UK
I hope that online democracy will be able to replace the need for elected local authorities, enabling people to vote directly on local issues as they see fit. This would dispose to some degree with the political infighting which so often comes between local authorities and the services they have the potential to provide.
People are missing the point; Internet access is not just through a PC. Everyone could vote through a number of connected devices situated in public places like supermarkets and the high street. If these were provided for free by government it would be democracy for all.
Do you think that it could it be used just for Referenda, or do you think that it has the power and versatility to return us to a more classical, participant based democracy where we may be able to do away with political parties, and become mainly self-governing?
Derek Jones, Bristol, UK
The spread of the Internet helps more and more people realise that they
can live their lives outside the constraints of
national governments. We get our media world-wide, shop world-wide, trade and
But with using the internet it's not just wealth that creates the divide but the lack of knowledge of how to use new technology, and this can include people of all ages, creeds and background. The key factor is that will political parties forgot these people and therefore put them at a significant disadvantage in terms of their democratic rights or will some sort of balance be achieved whereby the internet is used as parallel form of communication channel rather than an alternative one therefore providing access to all and not the few.
Harinder Mann, England
The internet is the best method we have yet devised for communication between distant persons. Therefore it is the best way of spreading ideas and the best forum for discussion.
In time it will become more important in the political process.
Web based security would have to improve 1,000-fold before we could risk anything as important as our democratic process to the internet.
How can we trust that the government respect our privacy, especially with the new regulations brought in to snoop on us?????????????
Riad Mannan, UK
While the potential for greater involvement 'by the people' is certainly engendered by the internet, it seems extremely unlikely that the self-serving plutocrats currently in charge of our 'democracies' would allow any such broadening of the powerbase.
I am fascinated by the possibility that at some future point internet devices will be ubiquitous enough to make daily (or more frequent) online voting on global and local issues feasible.
This throws up an interesting dilemma - true democracy vs media influence on the voting public?
The web can help to move democracy forward because of the degree of interaction that can take place. Previously actions, such as referenda, have been hugely expensive - the web gives a quick and easy way to let people take control of their communities through many mini-polls and referenda. The role of politicians will change from decision makers to opinion formers.
The biggest challenges though are to ensure that there is equal access across the community, and that decisions made by communities are acted on.
If the web continues to remain the exclusive preserve of the rich, as it is in most parts of the world, the internet will only help the wealthy to reinforce their grip over power in the community rather than in bringing in more democracy.
I think that having voting via the web is a good idea, but only as one method amongst many. If it is pushed too much as 'the way of the future', then the majority of the population who do not own a PC will feel even more left out of the political process than they do now.
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