|Multi-Stakeholder Public Policy Governance and its Application to the Internet Governance Forum|
The final heading under which the content of the liberal conception of democracy is discussed is inclusion, as although a transparent and accountable deliberative democracy frees the liberal democrat from the quixotic imperative of fairly and accurately aggregating dissonant preferences, it remains true that the wider the participation of the demos in deliberation, the more likely that all its perspectives will be adequately represented.
There is no reason in theory why all members of the demos who wish to do so should not participate in an appropriate form of democratic deliberation (as the public sphere theory of Habermas comprehends). The logistical difficulties of direct democracy on the other hand remain, but these have not dissuaded its advocates from seeking to address and overcome them.
In particular, advocacy of direct democracy has gained momentum as the facilitating potential of ICT has become apparent. Before the Internet even existed, futurist Alvin Toffler foresaw a hybrid of representative and direct democracy in which
the elected representative would cast only 50 percent of the votes, while the current random sample—who are not in the capital but in their own homes or offices—would electronically cast the remaining 50 per cent. Such a system would not merely provide a more representative process than “representative” government ever did, but would strike a devastating blow at the special interest groups and lobbies who infest the corridors of most parliaments.
More recently, direct democratic theory has been revitalised by a number of variations on the idea of direct democracy by delegable proxy, such as representative direct democracy and liquid democracy, each of which would allow citizens the option of representing themselves directly in fora of deliberation, or temporarily delegating their right to be so represented to one or more proxies in respect of particular issues. Whilst such voting systems would once have been impracticable, Internet-based communications have for the first time made them viable.
Large-scale experiments in online direct democracy have also gradually begun to emerge in the real world. ICANN’s At-Large elections of 2000, which are to be discussed below, provide a pertinent example, though this particular experiment was soon terminated on the grounds that it was thought open to abuse and capture, and to be an imprudent use of ICANN’s limited funds.
Even so, the potential for the use of ICT to increase popular participation in democratic governance deserves particular consideration in the transnational context of the Internet. As the Internet itself transcends geographical limitations, it would be ironic if such boundaries were to constrain the ability of those who wished to participate in its governance from doing so.
Having said that, none of the specific implementations of so-called “digital democracy” mentioned above are intrinsically consistent with deliberative democratic principles, any more so than the process for nomination of evictees from the Big Brother house. However, the issues of greater participation and deeper deliberation are largely distinct, and there is no reason why compatible approaches to the pursuit of both objectives could not be combined.
In this subsection, a distinction will be drawn between two conceptions of digital democracy: what will be termed e-democracy on the one hand, and Internet democracy on the other. The former has been defined as “a collection of attempts to practise democracy without the limits of time, space and other physical conditions, using ICT or CMC [computer-mediated communication] instead, as an addition, not a replacement for traditional ‘analogue’ political practices.”
Internet democracy on the other hand is a broader and more ambitious conception of the revolutionising potential of ICTs for democracy, that foretells the “use of information and communication technologies to realise the utopian goal of self-governance.”
Under the first conception, the Internet is simply considered as a communications medium with greater range and better efficiency than traditional media for facilitating communication with the demos. In the context of the nation state, this makes e-democracy simply a subset of e-government, which as noted at Section 184.108.40.206 involves the use of ICT in the relation of governments and their citizens online (but in a broader context, including for example the delivery of government services over the Internet).
Support for e-democratic reform at the state level has emerged from within all stakeholder groups, including governments such as that of Australia (at a Federal and State level), intergovernmental organisations such as the Council of Europe, which issued a 2004 recommendation supporting the use of ICTs in democratic processes, private sector bodies servicing this new industry such as the CyberVote consortium, and civil society organisations such as the United States-based Information Renaissance.
The breadth of this support illustrates that rather than challenging existing democratic institutions, e-democracy simply streamlines their operation in much the same way that e-commerce streamlines the operation of online markets such as eBay, bringing them closer to the economic model of the free market than their offline equivalents. Thus e-democracy “can be defined as a political system in which the use of ICT ensures democratic values” by supporting (but generally not transforming) existing democratic processes, such as:
campaigning and lobbying;
consultation and deliberation;
mechanisms of democratic transparency and accountability.
Taking these processes in turn, the advantages of e-democratic campaigning and lobbying over traditional methods are characteristic of those of the other e-democratic processes, and consist firstly of improvements in the efficiency of communications—the ability of the Internet to provide a highly available, near-instantaneous and inexpensive channel of communication—and secondly of the new modes of interaction between citizens and government that the Internet facilitates.
For example, political party Web sites, and more recently also party political blogs and online campaign videos are now commonplace in e-democratic campaigning. In many cases these take advantage of the interactive capacity of Internet communications by allowing citizens to post comments on campaign documents. An even better example of this capacity is provided by wiki sites in which political candidates and their would-be constituents actually collaborate on content.
As for lobbying, in addition to numerous blogging and commentary sites and wikis, political organisations such as MoveOn.org Political Action in the United States, and GetUp in Australia, have leveraged interactive Internet technologies to coordinate lobbying of politicians on issues of collective concern.
Internet communications have also facilitated the mobilisation of large groups of activists in the offline world, such as the 45 000 protesters who disrupted the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. These protests were accompanied by the launch of a mock WTO Web site hosted at what appeared to be (but was not) an official WTO domain name. Taken further, so-called “hacktivism” is the use (or the subversion) of Internet architecture as a weapon of protest or civil disobedience, by means such as the launch of DDoS attacks against or the cracking and defacement of political or corporate Web sites.
Consultation and deliberation as e-democratic processes also benefit from the same efficiencies enabled by the use of Internet communications in other contexts, such as greater accessibility to those who are geographically remote or otherwise unable to participate (for example by reason of low mobility). Online engagement is also more attractive to certain demographic groups such as youth, who although able to participate, would otherwise be less inclined to do so.
An additional advantage more specific to deliberation is that more information can be provided, to be digested over a longer time period, than the small sound-bites normally disseminated through the mass media. Neither is the media any longer the only source for political information for the public, as citizens themselves take on the mantle of journalists to inform and provoke their peers. Thus on the Internet the consumption and production of political information and other public speech tend to merge. It is this which distinguishes Internet fora such as threaded discussion groups from the broadcast and print media, and allows (certain) online communities more closely to approximate the idealised democratic public sphere that Habermas found in 19th century coffee houses. As one commentator puts it,
[n]ew media, and particularly computer-mediated communication, it is hoped, will undo the damage done to politics by the old media. Far from the television dystropias, new media technology hails a rebirth of democratic life. It is envisaged that new public spheres will open up and that technologies will permit social actors to find or forge common political interests. People will actively access information from an infinite, free virtual library rather than receiving half-digested “programing,” and interactive media will institutionalise a right to reply.
Some examples of e-democratic consultation have already been given in the discussion of participatory democracy at Section 220.127.116.11, and more will be said of a variety of online mechanisms for deliberation at Section 18.104.22.168. Their limitations will be considered at Section 22.214.171.124.
Voting, in both elections and referenda, is another democratic process that can be conducted in e-democratic form in order to realise similar benefits of efficiency and accessibility. Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign for the Presidency of the United States incorporated a prominent proposal to put electronic direct democracy into place through interactive televised discussions that he called “electronic town halls.” Two years later, then United States Vice President Al Gore grandiosely heralded “a new Athenian age of democracy forged in the fora that the Government’s information infrastructure will create.”
However, early enthusiasm for the possibilities of Internet voting has since been widely tempered with caution over the risks of abuse. The Internet has also raised new challenges for offline electoral processes, for example by enabling votes cast offline to be traded in online markets.
Actual voting over the Internet was first seen overseas in the Estonian national elections of 2007. On a smaller scale, Internet voting was used for the Arizona presidential primary elections in 2000, though plans to expand earlier trials to allow overseas personnel to vote over the Internet in the 2004 general presidential elections were abandoned due to security concerns. Canadian municipal elections have also been held over the Internet.
The same has not yet taken place in any Australian jurisdiction. The closest approach has been in the Australian Capital Territory where the Parliamentary elections held since 2001 have allowed for votes to be cast from specially-equipped public computer terminals utilising open source software, although these are not linked to the Internet. Victoria since emulated this model in 2006 in a trial for vision impaired users, though with a proprietary software product.
The final democratic process in which there has been significant e-democratic reform has been in furthering transparency and accountability. Transparency has been increased mainly through the capacity for policy, legislation and parliamentary debates to be inexpensively and accessibly published online. Accountability has been improved firstly by streamlining the process by which citizens can communicate with their representatives, and secondly by allowing them to report government misfeasance to the world.
On the first count, Web-based services such as e.thePeople for the United States, WriteToThem.com in the United Kingdom, and Australia’s National Forum, are designed to simplify the process of contacting politicians not only by email, but also by postal mail and fax. The UK government has gone further in establishing an official Web site for the presentation of petitions to the Prime Minister online.
On the second count, anonymous and pseudonomous Internet services can assist citizens wishing to “blow the whistle” on their governments. Governments not wishing to be made so accountable have however sought to overcome the Internet’s inherent architectural anonymity by bringing the mechanism of rules to bear against Internet hosts within their borders. For example, China has compelled Yahoo to give up the account details of dissident bloggers who were later arrested and imprisoned, prompting an Amnesty International campaign and the presentation of a petition to the first meeting of the IGF.
Digital democracy in the second sense, referred to here as Internet democracy, aims not merely to support the existing institutions of representative democracy, but to displace them in favour of a form of direct democracy that challenges the roles of parliaments, political parties, the media and all other intermediate institutions head on, much in the same way as the open source movement has upturned the conventional proprietary models of software and content development. As van Dijk puts it,
[t]he basic problem to be solved, according to this model, is the centralism, bureaucracy and obsoleteness of institutional politics which fail to live up to the expectations (the primacy of politics) and are not able to solve the most important problems of modern society.
What makes the Internet the solution to this basic problem, for Internet democrats, is in part the same as the source of its appeal to e-democrats; its capacity to efficiently support interactive communication. However, Internet democrats focus more on the unique attributes of the virtual communities enabled by the Internet, which are typified by uncoerced, horizontal communications.
The classic early text on virtual communities is Howard Rheingold’s, defining them as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships.” A more recent account isolates four key structural features of community that may be present in online or virtual communities just as they are present in the real world: limited membership, shared norms, affective ties, and a sense of mutual obligation.
Virtual communities have the potential to be very well suited to the deliberative democratic model, in that they tend to cut across divisions of class, race and gender to a greater extent than real life communities, allowing participants to organise themselves along lines of underlying shared interests. Since an early study found electronic communications to mediate differences in status and expertise, further research has suggested that hierarchies are devalued within virtual communities in part because of the failure of the medium to transmit social context cues of dominance associated with status, race and gender. Research has also shown that online fora thereby allow participants in small group discussions to talk with increased frankness, and to experience greater participation and more equality than in face-to-face discussions. Or in the words of the classic New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
There is, however, some variance in the political implications that are extrapolated from these features of virtual communities. Taken to an extreme, the so-called Californian ideology, seen as the convergence of “the ‘hippie’ dream for a direct, self-empowered citizen government, and the ‘yuppie’ dream for material wealth,” and typified by numerous hyperbolic articles from Wired magazine during the 1990s, theorised that “existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals.” Such a conception of Internet democracy is hardly recognisable as democratic at all, and indeed other commentators simply identify it as anarchism.
Another school of thought attributes almost transcendent potential to the interactions that the Internet enables. Joichi Ito states:
It is possible that there is a method for citizens to self-organize to deliberate on and address complex issues as necessary and enhance our democracy without any one citizen being required to know and understand the whole. This is the essence of an emergence, and it is the way that ant colonies are able to “think” and our DNA is able to build the complex bodies that we have. If information technology could provide a mechanism for citizens in a democracy to participate in a way that allowed self-organization and emergent understanding, it is possible that a form of emergent democracy could address many of the complexity and scalability issues facing representative governments today.
Even Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, posits:
If we lay the groundwork right and try novel ways of interacting on the new Web, we may find a whole new set of financial, ethical, cultural and governing structures to which we can choose to belong, rather than having to pick the ones we happen to physically live in. Bit by bit those structures that work best would become most important in the world, and democratic systems might take on different shapes.
If such predictions were to prove accurate, their consequences would begin to resonate not only in global institutions, but amongst individuals in families, workplaces and social life. As Knight contends,
the technological revolution has the potential of creating in the minds of people around the world a sense of global citizenship which could result eventually in the transfer of individuals’ loyalties from “sovereignty-bound” to “sovereignty-free” multilateral bodies.
However, this potential has not yet been realised sufficiently to be verified by empirical studies, and at the moment can best be characterised as a somewhat speculative ideal. Likewise, returning to the macroscopic level, this idea of Internet democracy offering an alternative to institutional politics (wherein those existing institutions are relegated to the role of the executive government), may be regarded for now simply as cyberlibertarian idealism.
In the current institutional political climate, the impact of the deliberations of Internet-based virtual communities on governance is indirect at best. Whilst the blogosphere and Facebook may make news headlines, this is often as far as their influence extends: to the media, rather than to the sphere of institutional politics in which real power ultimately remains.
Perhaps a more moderate and yet still substantive assessment of the implications of Internet democracy is that it does not pose as significant a threat to existing institutions of power such as the state, as it does to intermediaries. Grossman writes:
The big losers in the present-day reshuffling and resurgence of public influence are the traditional institutions that have served as the main intermediaries between government and its citizens—the political parties, labor unions, civic associations, even the commentators and correspondents in the mainstream press.
On this account, Internet democracy is less about displacing existing institutions, and more about providing new venues for public deliberation that take advantage of the high degree of congruence between the inherent features of virtual communities (such as egalitarianism and cosmopolitanism), and the requirements of the Habermasian discourse principle for the conduct of rational political discourses. This creates the potential for the development of a true public sphere such as has not existed since the demise of the English coffee houses of Habermas, and has in fact never existed on such a transnational scale before now.
Whilst the Internet democratic programme is an ambitious one, there are existing virtual communities, such as that of the IETF, that arguably already exemplify what is required of such political fora. Thus, virtual communities do have an important role in the formation of opinions within civil society. In turn, civil society has a vital role within transnational governance networks; however, it is not a role that supplants that of the other stakeholder groups.
Common to both conceptions of digital democracy is the potential for the use of online tools for democratic deliberation. This potential has recently begun to attract academic attention, although governments have not been widely seized of the same vision, any more so than they have for the potential of deliberative democracy in general (save to some extent at a local level).
This is unfortunate in that online deliberation has the potential to achieve many of the same benefits as offline deliberative democracy, whilst also leveraging the efficiencies of digital democracy that could allow deliberation to be facilitated at a far lower cost than many of those offline techniques such as the 21st Century Town Meeting.
In fact to date, two of the institutional frameworks for deliberative democracy that were examined at Section 126.96.36.199 have already been successfully transplanted to an equivalent form online. The inventor of Deliberative Polling, James Fishkin, presided over the first online Deliberative Polls in September and October 2005 using audio conferencing software, and has proposed this technique as a possible method for the governance of ICANN.
Similarly, an online citizens’ jury was implemented by the South Kesteven District Council, retaining a typical size of twelve members for the jury, but allowing for it to call any number of witnesses during its deliberations. There is no reason why the larger variations of the citizens’ jury, such as the consensus conference, could not also be implemented online.
However by the same token, it would be short-sighted to limit the forms of online deliberation to implementations of offline forms; and indeed, they have not been so limited in practice. The forms of online deliberation that are not based on the mainstream frameworks for offline deliberation may be most usefully divided into the following categories:
The main place of synchronous (or instantaneous) group discussion is where deliberation takes place concurrently in face-to-face meetings as well as online. It can also be used where it is necessary or desirable for a group to deliberate and reach a decision quickly, and where broad participation is not compromised by the need for all to be present online at the same time.
Software to facilitate synchronous group discussion online has a long history, dating back to 1988 in the form of the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol, which is still widely used today. IRC is a text-only protocol, in that although it allows participants to exchange messages and files between themselves, they cannot ordinarily hear or observe each other as they speak.
Although audio and video conferencing software also exists, both proprietary such as Skype and open source such as Ekiga, technology has not yet advanced to the point where these are practical for the simultaneous use of large groups of users, and they also place significantly greater demands than text-only chat upon the computing power and speed of Internet access available to the user. The same is true of virtual reality software such as Second Life, although the Second Life world has been used by the ICANN community to host virtual conferences in conjunction with official ICANN meetings, commencing with the 2006 meeting in São Paulo, Brazil.
Asynchronous group discussion also has a long history; Usenet is one of the earliest implementations, but others include email mailing list management software (one of the earliest of which is Majordomo), and more recently Web-based discussion fora such as SMF (Simple Machines Forum) which is notable for its use by the IGF Secretariat. Morrisett explains why asynchronous discussion fora such as these have certain advantages over synchronous alternatives in their suitability for online deliberation:
In [such] a computer conference, people have access to questions, facts, and opinions and can take their time about when they are ready to give their own opinion. Input can be made at any time, and the ongoing output of the system can be studied until someone believes he or she has something to say.
Similar observations have been made of blogs, which provide the same facilities in a more decentralised form.
There are also certain asynchronous discussion products, both proprietary such as eConsult, and open source such as DotConsult, that have been specifically developed for use in democratic deliberation, for example because they provide enhanced capabilities for managing citizen panels.
Moving on to the second main class of tools for online deliberation, collaborative authoring can also be subdivided into two categories. First are tools that facilitate the production of the balanced briefing material that is required to inform deliberation. One of the few tools specifically designed for this purpose is GRASS, for Group Report Authoring Support System.
In the second (though overlapping) sub-category of collaborative authoring tools are those used as a more efficient mechanism than discussion alone for drafting an agreed text such as a standard or code. The modern archetype of such collaborative authoring software is the wiki. Along similar lines, a new generation of editors allows multiple users to edit documents synchronously, actually seeing each other’s changes as they are typed. SynchroEdit is one of these, which to a large extent also incidentally fulfils the role of synchronous discussion software. Another innovative tool is stet, recently used in the drafting of version 3 of the GNU GPL, which allowed the public to attach comments to any parts of the text, with more-commented sections being highlighted in darker colours.
The third class of tools are those for decision-making, which includes conventional voting software such as the open source GNU.FREE, and also more relevantly for present purposes software that is designed to foster and support deliberation in the decision-making process, such as the proprietary hosted product eDecide, which implements an online Deliberative Poll. Each question in an eDecide poll is linked to further information putting alternative perspectives. A similar effect can be achieved through the use of the polling capabilities that are built in to certain asynchronous discussion tools such as SMF, provided that the facilitator only opens a poll once satisfied that the issues bearing on it have been sufficiently discussed to bring out all relevant facts and perspectives.
Other examples of some tools for online deliberation which cross over between two categories are given in the figure above. Although it is by no means intended to be comprehensive, some of the products there described are worthy of separate mention. Unchat is a a proprietary synchronous discussion product which incorporates a voting facility, along with other features designed for democratic deliberation such as document repository linked to the discussions, and the ability for discussions to be moderated, unmoderated, or self-moderated.
The Dialog Dashboard is another proprietary product specifically designed for online deliberation which combines synchronous and asynchronous modes of discussion. MediaWiki, the software used by Wikipedia, is shown in the diagram as a hybrid of collaborative authoring and asynchronous discussion, simply because every page of substantive content is accompanied by a discussion page on which all editors are encouraged to discuss their ideas for the page and to resolve disagreements.
Intersecting the collaborative authoring and decision-making categories, VeniVidiVoti is a somewhat complex though powerful open source software library designed for the drafting of agreed texts. Its most interesting feature is that the decision-making system that it incorporates is based upon the principles of direct democracy by delegable proxy that were briefly alluded to at Section 4.3.4.
The final segment of the diagram is the centre, in which all four categories of tool for online democracy intersect. There is yet no such tool that is specifically designed to meet all of the technical requirements of an online deliberative democracy. However the example given, Drupal, is a general-purpose Web content management system which can be extended by means of a variety of modules to meet these requirements at a basic level. As will be explained in the next chapter, Drupal was used to develop a community Web site for the first meeting of IGF.
Thus although development is continuing apace on a number of fronts, there is already a rich variety of software suitable for the facilitation of online deliberation. Even so, software is not enough. Unmoderated and unstructured discussion is very far from deliberation, as Coleman and Gøtze note, stating that “[i]n free-for-all discussions anyone can say anything, but no-one can have much expectation of being heard or of influencing policy outcomes.” Their research emphasises the role of expert moderation or facilitation of online deliberation, which accords with the requirements of most of the deliberative democratic techniques designed for offline settings.
The particular skills required of such moderators or facilitators, whether online or offline, include the facilitation of relevant discussion, conflict resolution, project management, and summarising and providing feedback to the group. It may also be necessary to split the group into sub-groups of managable size, in order to allow them to function as communities rather than simply as audiences for the views of their most outspoken members. In all, the moderation and facilitation of online discussion is a very similar role to that of the BDFL of an open source software project, and provides an example of the place of a hybrid of hierarchical and democratic ordering, where the hierarchical role is limited to the support of the institutions of the online deliberative process.
See Section 5.4.3.
Queensland established the Community Engagement and Development Unit of the Department of Communities in 2001 to spearhead e-democracy initiatives. It has so far arranged online public consultations, Internet streaming of Parliamentary debates, and electronic lodgment of petitions to Parliament: see http://www.getinvolved.qld.gov.au/. See also Scrutiny of Acts & Regulations Committee, Inquiry into Electronic Democracy: Final Report (2005), 3, 20.
A dedicated YouTube channel supplemented by content from other Google properties was supported by all parties in the 2007 Australian federal elections: see http://www.google.com.au/election2007/.
See http://www.youdecide2007.org/, a forum for citizen journalism established for the 2007 Australian federal election.
Schneider, S M, Creating a Democratic Public Sphere Through Political Discussion: A Case Study of Abortion Conversation on the Internet (1996); Froomkin, A M, Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace (2003)
The Australian Federal Parliament’s Hansard for example is published at http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/, and an enhanced interface to the UK Hansard developed by a civil society organisation, mySociety, is found at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/.
Fishkin, J S, Deliberative Polling As a Model for ICANN Membership (1999). eDecide is the name of another software product implementing the functionality of the Deliberative Poll, but which does not require the user’s computer to be equipped with audio facilities: see http://www.communitypeople.net/.
As at February 2008, its Web site at http://www.unchat.com/ is inaccessible. An archived version may be found at http://web.archive.org/web/20070806084821/http://www.unchat.com/.
It also exists in a forked version called CivicSpace that has been refined for the use of communities: see http://www.civicspacelabs.org/.