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Is the Net Democratic?
Yes -- and No

By Andrew L. Shapiro

World Media Forum

If there is one remarkable claim that is made most about the Internet, it is that this global communications device is "inherently" democratizing. This is particularly a favorite mantra of those who believe regulation of the Net is unnecessary. The technology, they say, will do good on its own.

At best, this is wishful thinking. More likely, it is a myth that may deprive us of the Net's real democratic potential. The truth is, cyberspace -- like any social space -- is a collection of competing values and contradictory attributes.

I don't mean to deny that interactive technology is enabling a remarkable change in how we live. In fact, I believe we have failed to grasp how vast that change may be. We are in the middle of not just a communications revolution or an information revolution, but a "control" revolution. Using the Net and other new media, individuals can take back power from large institutions including government, corporations, and the media.

Trends like personalization, decentralization, and disintermediation (the circumventing of middlemen) will allow us each to have more control over life's details: what news and entertainment we're exposed to, how we learn and work, whom we socialize with, even how goods are distributed and political outcomes are reached. Hierarchies are coming undone. Power is devolving down to "end users."

There is much to applaud here. Communications will be easier with family, friends, and even strangers around the world. Diverse information of our choice will be available when and how we want it. Commercial transactions will be cheaper as brokers and distributors are bypassed. New forms of political involvement and organization will be possible -- as grassroots activists from Belgrade to Chiapas to Tibet are already showing us with their global Web sites and e-mail lists.

The Net will allow us to transcend the limitations of geography and circumstance to create new social bonds. Our lives will be enriched by the ability to learn and explore with a level of depth and direction never before possible. In short, so long as there is affordable access for all -- a major hurdle itself -- the control revolution may well succeed in enlightening individuals and strengthening democracy, as tech-utopian observers have predicted.

But what these boosters fail to mention is that this same shift brings with it very real dangers, for the individual and society. Consider these possible scenarios:

Enthralled with the idea of taking power from corrupt politicians, price-inflating middlemen, and sensationalistic media giants, we will swing the control pendulum too far. We will lose sight of the benefits of representative democracy in a large republic, of the need for intermediaries who bring us quality products and services, of the value of gatekeepers who stand behind the integrity of their information.

Enamored with the convenience of life online, we will forget the uniqueness of face-to-face contact -- with friends, neighbors, teachers, coworkers, fellow citizens -- and the subtle pleasures of serendipitous encounters. We will unintentionally narrow our horizons and deprive ourselves of opportunities.

Seduced by the perception of unbridled liberty in our new wired lives, we will fail to see ways in which large institutions -- mostly corporations -- still influence and even restrict our choices. We will click through our online universes naively believing that our destiny is our own, when in fact the offerings available to us are driven mostly by profit motives. Worst of all, we won't notice when cherished rights like freedom of expression and privacy are subtly diminished.

Motivated by legitimate desires to simplify our world and convene with like-minded souls, we will unwittingly accelerate social fragmentation and the decline of the nation-state. Online, we will use sophisticated filtering technology to screen out undesired interactions -- including those that are key to a vibrant political culture. Offline, the gap between information haves and have-nots will grow. And with fewer shared experiences and information sources, citizens will feel less of a connection with, and an obligation toward, one another.

The irony is that all these potential hazards are made possible by the same features of the Net -- interactivity, universality, flexibility -- that make enlightenment and democratic renewal possible. In other words, the new technologically-enabled individual control may be the most promising trait of our new media world and the most deceptive, the most democratic aspect of the wired life and the most antidemocratic.

The lesson to draw from this paradox? The Net is not at all "inherently" democratizing. Rather, the social and political impact of this technology depends entirely on how we use it.

So how should we use it?

First, approach cyberspace with an open but skeptical mind. The press generally portrays technology in epic, exaggerated terms. Stories are full of either hype (Whiz-bang gadgets!) or hysteria (Cyberporn! Hi-tech terrorists!). Recognize that the Net portends neither salvation nor doom for the human race, though it will -- like any major technological development -- alter our lives in profound ways.

Second, don't let the power of user-centered technology fool you into believing that total individual control of your world is an attainable -- or a desirable -- goal. Liberty without obligation is not liberty at all, or at least not *democratic* liberty. Government has a role to play on the electronic frontier, to resolve disputes, promote competition and growth, and particularly to ensure that the benefits of the control revolution are spread as widely as possible.

Third, be vigilant about protecting your rights to free speech, privacy, and consumer protection online. Use the Net to strengthen civil society and the public sphere -- creating space for unfettered discourse, fortifying mutuality, and preserving minority cultures.

Fourth, resist the urge to use technology to disengage from society or to escape its problems. Virtual communities and online exploration can be highly rewarding, particularly for those who may be reticent about social interaction in the real world (like gay teenagers, the disabled, or those living in repressive environments). But the Net should be used to improve geographic communities, not to jettison them.

Finally, in this age of shifting control, individuals must balance their new power with new responsibilities to society at large. The existence of free speech in cyberspace, for example, will depend not just on the defeat of laws like the U.S. Communications Decency Act (NDE: in June, US Supreme Court declared President Clinton's Communications Decency Act for the most part unconstitutional. The act banned all "indecent" and "patently offensive" contents on the Internet) or reversal of prosecutions such as the Radikal case in Germany, but on corporate and individual behavior. Will our online services expel those who express dissenting views? Will we ourselves filter out the speech of those whose opinions we dislike?

Free speech, and democracy generally, may flourish in the era of the Internet, but only if each of us makes the requisite sacrifices. That means working to preserve a public sphere dedicated to citizen interaction, not falling prey to the illusions of cyberspace or the seduction of total individual control, and remaining committed to uses of technology that enable diversity and interdependence rather than exclusivity and factionalism. If we succeed, we can then answer the question "Is the Internet democratic?" by saying "Yes, but only because we made it that way."