Is Digital Democracy Just a Low-Price Leader?

I find Mr. McGinnis’s statements that democracy is enabled by the reduced cost structures of digital communications to be, at best, a sidebar discussion, and factually not established – particularly in nondemocratic nations. The reduction in cost for carriage of packets of bits has virtually nothing to do with the argument concerning digital democracy. The principal issue is access and control, not the economy of scale of digital media. From both the information poster’s and the receiving user’s perspective, those in control of the infrastructure of the Net will have a more profound effect on digital democracy than costs. Analogies to the printing press as a dissemination tool fall apart because the printing press did not have controlling authorities; it was inherently decentralized and when necessary operated with stealth and anonymity.

Nontechnical users and policy professionals tend to look at the Net as if it were wild open space, but that perception is not based on an understanding of the true nature of IP networks. The situation is analogous to when you are a passenger on a cross-country flight. As you gaze out the window upon the horizons and vistas there is the feeling that the skies are a wide-open territory – that the pilot has free rein to pick his path – a lone eagle carrying his passengers through the open skies. If you are a pilot, the reality is far less romantic. Every move of that airplane is along well-established routing; the aircraft is constantly monitored by radio and radar as it makes its way from coast to coast. Never once is that craft beyond the control of the hubs and network of flight controllers. All along the way flight data is recorded. Yet, as passengers, we might have the feeling that we are crossing the wild blue yonder with Chuck Yeager at the stick.

On the Net, every bit and every packet of information is identifiable, mapped, routed, tracked, and controlled. In every case, the enabling entity is a commercial firm or a government agency that provides access. In every case that service provider entity retains control of that information stream. They may monitor and filter both the poster of information and the user-receiver. It is not an open and free space. The freedom of network associations is largely an illusion, a lovely tip to an ugly iceberg. Controlling entities have the ability to know exactly who you are, and exactly where you are, and by associating data, they can know exactly what you might be thinking.

On the Net, you may feel anonymous, however only the most sophisticated users can attain anonymity, and only until some cybersleuth counters their counter-measures. It is for a good reason that the arch-hacker non-group calls itself “anonymous.” A lack of anonymity chills dissent, even in democracies.

Although countermeasures such as TOR (The Onion Router) can establish some degree of anonymity for groups struggling for liberation in authoritarian states, given the investment available by interested government agencies (democratic and authoritarian) to defeat such workarounds, there is an irresistible commercial attractiveness to Silicon Valley investors to create tools that unmask dissident users.

Contrary to Mr. McGinnis’s statement, the Chinese government has been quite successful at filtering the Net, and equally successful at using the Net as a disinformation tool. Truth and the Internet are not joined at the hip. If the Net is a less costly way to disseminate information, it is at same time a less costly mechanism for spreading disinformation.

The larger point is that we can trust neither commercial nor government entities with our freedoms because the Net is inherently subject to controlling authorities. The more dependent and deluded we become by the fiction that it is propelling democracy the more vulnerable to authoritarianism we will become.

Rebecca McKinnon has done an excellent job at illuminating cases around the world where the vulnerabilities of digital democracy are demonstrable. Unlike Ms. McKinnon, I don’t believe that laws will be particularly effective at curbing the abuses.

Already in the world’s greatest democracy, the U.S. government and service providers such as AT&T and Verizon have violated FISA and paid no penalty. As for AT&T’s tapping into the Internet backbone on Folsom Street in San Francisco, we have no way of knowing whether that activity has ever ceased.

Although the network has democratizing capabilities, it is a false hope, and marketing hype, to believe it will be the engine of human liberation.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Toward a Greater Understanding of Internet Activism by Berin Szoka

    Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Who is Social Media Really Working For? by Jason Benlevi

    Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Internet Activism? Let’s Look at the Specifics by Rebecca MacKinnon

    Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • Better Policy Through Better Information by John O. McGinnis

    John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.

The Conversation