4.3.5. Criticisms

By this point, it has become fairly clear that a democratic organisation structure for a governance network possesses advantages that the anarchistic and hierarchical structures do not, and that it overcomes many of their shortcomings, at least in the case where deliberative democratic principles are followed, and ideally where online participation is also facilitated.

However some significant criticisms of such an organisation structure could also be made. These may be divided into conceptual criticisms of deliberative democracy generally, some problems specific to online deliberation, and some broader political issues with implementing an online or offline deliberative democratic structure within a transnational governance network such as the IGF. Conceptual criticisms

One perceived issue with deliberative democracy, which is really a more particular criticism of procedural democracy in general, is as to the supposed neutrality of the process. Although deliberative democracy claims to require nothing more of its participants than that they commit to resolve their differences as equals through a process of public reasoning, it has been contended that the “norms of deliberation are culturally specific and often operate as forms of power that silence or devalue the speech of some people.”[1]

Thus whereas Habermas only accepts rational argument as a means of communication in deliberative fora, Dryzek plausibly suggests that alternative modes of communication such as rhetoric, testimony or storytelling, and greeting, should also be admitted provided that they are exercised noncoercively and are “capable of connecting the particular to the general”[2]—that is, essentially, that rational reasoning underlies them, even if they are not expressed in an argumentative form. In an online deliberative context, the mode of storytelling could well be extended to include the use of blogging as an input into the deliberative process.[3]

The question of whether the additional modes of communication noted by Dryzek, or others, should be allowed within deliberative fora, is not one that goes to the root of the deliberative democratic programme, but rather one that the moderator or facilitator of a deliberative process can be called upon to manage with due regard to the composition of the group in question. Having said that, neither Dryzek, nor any liberal, would or could go further to admit inherently irrational or coercive forms of discourse into deliberative fora, as any strong form of postmodern skepticism about the neutrality of rational discourse is fundamentally at odds with the liberal paradigm upon which democratic theory rests.[4]

A second criticism is that deliberative democracy does not work well in large groups. This is both a practical observation and a conceptual one. Dealing with the practical issue first, it is true that in any large group, discussion tends to be dominated by a few active participants, with the majority remaining silent (the latter group being known in the context of virtual communities as “lurkers”).[5] This phenomenon can be addressed by a combination of measures, including:

The conceptual problem with large groups is that by definition they limit the effective ability of any one member’s participation to make a difference to the outcome, which in turn makes it more difficult to ensure that the organisation is acting accountably; a difficulty that is magnified in the case of international organisations.[6]

However, this is more of a problem in a representative democracy, where the participation of a large number makes it easier to produce an accurate (but not necessarily meaningful) picture of their preferences in aggregate, without necessarily doing anything to produce better (more reasoned) democratic outcomes. The deliberative approach is designed to mitigate this problem, by allowing a small number of participants who may have cogent views to express, to exert a greater than proportionate influence over the outcome to which the organisation as a whole eventually agrees.

This in turn gives rise to the further conceptual criticism that whilst deliberative democratic processes may facilitate grass roots participation in governance, it is simplistic to assume that rule from the grass roots is always good.[7] As Netanel argues, the diffusion of sovereignty over Internet-related public policy issue areas from states to a broader base of stakeholders opens the door to “invidious status discrimination, narrowcasting and mainstreaming content selection, systematic invasions of privacy and gross inequalities in the distribution of basic requisites for netizenship and citizenship.”[8]

The deliberative democrat agrees entirely with this, but takes it as a valid criticism only of orthodox direct democracy, not of deliberative democracy which builds in procedures requiring the preferences of the grass roots to be passed through the filter of public reason before being accepted, thereby ensuring that minority viewpoints and the opinions of relevant experts are heard and taken into account. To continue to object to the broadening of authority to the grass roots following this process of filtering and refinement might indicate that such elitism carries an underlying hierarchical programme.

The final, and roughly converse, criticism of the deliberative democratic ideal is that it is very much only an ideal in its insistence that that underlying power relations must play no part in the deliberative process.[9] Much like the assumptions of the economist that underlie models based upon the free market, to the extent that those assumptions fail to hold in practice, the soundness of the model itself is compromised. In a deliberative democratic context, and specifically giving the example of a governance network such as the IGF, this means that to the extent that representatives of governments (for example) are able to use the threat of the exercise of their authority to govern by rules to sabotage the freedom and equality of the process, they will retain a hegemonic influence over the network that belies its apparently democratic form.

This criticism is the most cogent of those examined here, and to the extent that it can be managed at all, this can only be through the development of internal norms within the governance network which value cooperation over coercion, and whereby the equal importance of each stakeholder group to the success of the process is acknowledged by all. This problem will be revisited, and an alternative approach to resolving it discussed, at Section Digital deficits

In addition to the criticisms of deliberative democracy discussed above, there are a number of further limitations of online deliberation in particular that warrant separate treatment.

The first is that online communities tend to be insular and prone to balkanisation,[10] which in turn results in the development of polarised preferences and perspectives. An explanation for this is that it is more difficult for people to be “accidentally” exposed to political information on the Internet (or at least on the World Wide Web), than in the case of traditional media, as audiences can choose what information they wish to receive and when they wish to receive it.[11] Whilst this might be seen as an advantage over traditional media by the users in question, it allows them to crowd into virtual ghettos and reinforce each others’ preconceptions, trending towards ever more extreme views.[12]

A number of other dysfunctional behaviours common within virtual communities also work against deliberative democratic principles. These include the prevalence of “flaming” (sending intentionally insulting or abusive messages),[13] and an odd dichotomy between the tendencies of virtual communities either to adopt rash decisions with insufficient research,[14] or conversely to bog themselves down in a much drawn-out decision-making process.[15]

Each of these dysfunctional tendencies gives the lie to the assumption that citizens will spontaneously and effectively engage in reasoned deliberation if they are only provided the opportunity and the technical means to do so. Rather, they reinforce the importance of effective moderation and facilitation of online deliberation if it is to adhere to deliberative democratic principles.

It is less easy for a facilitator or moderator to overcome the next limitation of online deliberation, however; the fact that participants lack the context of verbal, facial and body language cues that accompany face-to-face deliberation, and thereby often fall into misunderstanding.[16] Whilst, as already noted, the lack of such cues is in some cases an advantage in that they might otherwise perpetuate differences in offline status and power,[17] they can also exacerbate differences in written language skills,[18] which can be significant in a multicultural and multilingual forum.[19]

These limitations can be partially addressed by educating participants in online discussions to make their mood, tone of voice or actions known, where relevant, by textual means. These include the use of emoticons such as the ubiquitous smiley :-), the use of capital letters to indicate shouting, and by describing one’s actions as one performs them.[20]

Deliberation in a virtual reality environment such as Second Life also allows the possibility of directing one’s avatar (virtual persona) to adopt the facial expressions, body language or actions that the user would present in face-to-face deliberation—or at least, those that she would consciously present, and therefore desire to be transmitted. As previously noted however, the accessibility of virtual reality environments for deliberation is presently limited by the demands they place on a user’s computer hardware and Internet connection.

This leads to the final and most significant criticism of online deliberation to be dealt with here, which is a criticism of digital democracy generally: that whilst the Internet may provide an efficient and relatively cost-effective means of communication for deliberation (particularly in a transnational context, where the alternative is international air travel), there is still a digital divide between those with adequate access to the Internet and those without. As a result, the composition of any online deliberative democratic polity will not be widely representative, but rather will tend to be biased towards privileged users and against economically disadvantaged minorities.[21]

The digital divide is primarily an economic divide. Thus internationally, there is a considerable disparity between the incidence of Internet use in developed countries and in less developed countries, although the gap has been closing over time. At the extremes, in 2006, over 88% of the Netherlands’ population were Internet users, whereas this only applied to approximately 0.01% of residents of Burkina Faso, Dijibouti, Côte d’Ivoire or Sudan. (In Australia the figure was over 50%.)[22]

Domestically—exemplified by United States research—amongst those excluded by the digital divide are low income earners, those with lower levels of education, the elderly, and disabled people, all of whom tend to have lower levels of general computer literacy.[23] In Australia, infrastructure deficiencies have also created something of a digital divide between those resident in metropolitan areas and those in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia.[24]

Although there is no quick fix for the problems of the digital divide, they have begun to be addressed by all stakeholder groups, particularly in the wake of WSIS,[25] which established a number of new follow-up mechanisms to monitor and maintain stakeholders’ ongoing commitments to address this issue.

As with other issues of social equity such as those covered by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the primary responsibility for addressing them falls upon governments. One of the most basic strategies that they can employ to narrow the digital divide within their own borders is to provide Internet access to schools, and to public places such as public libraries and telecentres, as research has shown that these facilities are most commonly used by those disadvantaged by income or education,[26] and by the citizens of many developing countries with limited telecommunications infrastructure.[27]

As noted above however, access to Internet infrastructure is only one component of the digital divide. To go further and facilitate their citizens’ use of the Internet, governments can lead the way by pursuing e-democratic strategies such as publishing government information and consulting with their citizens online, as well as by promoting (or mandating within government) adherence to standards of accessibility for local Web sites.

In cases where there is a significant domestic digital divide, it may also be necessary for government programmes to recruit members of marginalised, disadvantaged or otherwise “hard to reach” groups within the community for participation in e-democratic processes. This can be done by specifically inviting members of these groups to participate in online deliberation or consultation, as occurred for example in Australia’s Deliberative Poll on reconciliation, rather than relying on random selection or self-selection respectively. It may be necessary to go offline to target members of these groups where they live, work or socialise.[28]

The private sector also has a role to play, particularly in building the telecommunications infrastructure necessary to bring affordable Internet access to the disadvantaged. Although the particular measures required to bring this about will vary from one community to another, a relatively inexpensive package to provide local connectivity to a disadvantaged and isolated community may comprise the provision of low cost or recycled computers,[29] open source software, and low-cost satellite connections coupled with Wireless Local Loop (WLL) technology.[30]

Civil society is also involved in the provision of inexpensive computer hardware through organisations such as the One Laptop Per Child project which aims to produce a $100 laptop for distribution in developing countries,[31] and of course in developing and supporting open source software, sometimes in conjunction with the private sector (as for example in the case of the OpenOffice.org project established by Sun Microsystems).

The digital divide is thus acknowledged by all stakeholders as a significant and ongoing challenge. Even so, returning to the present context, it hardly provides a fatal objection to the process of online deliberation within a multi-stakeholder governance network such as the IGF, for two main reasons.

First, as already noted, the digital divide largely mirrors an underlying economic divide. Therefore although online deliberation does exclude certain stakeholder representatives from participation in a governance network, so too does face-to-face deliberation. As long as the former would exclude fewer participants than the latter, online deliberation will be the preferable option. Furthermore, there is certainly nothing to prevent the network from making use of both forms of deliberation.

Second, as also already noted, deliberative democracy does not depend as representative democracy does upon the achievement of numerically proportional representation. Whereas in a representative democracy the preferences of a minority can be overruled by the majority without the need for justification, in a deliberative democracy this can only occur through the exercise of public reason. Therefore provided that the moderator or facilitator of an online deliberative process can ensure that there is at least one stakeholder representative to put the perspectives of a minority group, it is matters little that other members of that minority group were excluded from participation by the digital divide. Political issues

The final criticism to be examined here has been raised and answered previously: that the absence of a stable transnational, multi-stakeholder demos for the regime of Internet governance by definition precludes the formation of a democratic governance network for that regime.[32] This criticism is encapsulated in the bald statement of Nitin Desai, Chairman of the IGF’s Advisory Group, at a conference preceding the first meeting of the IGF, “The forum has no membership, it’s an open door, a town hall, all views are welcome. But it’s not a decision-making body. We have no members so we have no power to make decision.”[33]

This criticism calls for closer examination again now, because its superficial plausibility, particularly within the intergovernmental circles of the existing IGF, may in the end be that organisation’s undoing.

At the commencement of this section, the democratic principle was defined as the fundamental liberal tenet that a system of legitimate democratic rule must operate with the consent of the governed (that is, of all those potentially affected by such rule). When deliberative democratic theory was introduced it was posited that this principle is only fully realised where each of the governed is given the opportunity to speak on any question of governance in a forum of public deliberation.

This is all very well in theory. But a governance network actually organised along these lines, at least in the Internet governance regime, would be required to traverse a wide range of issue areas, and the stakeholders potentially affected by decisions made by the network could well vary from one such issue area to another. For example, those potentially affected by decisions made on the regulation of spam might be quite different from those affected by decisions relating to IPR.

This means that there can be no stable demos in the Internet governance regime. In other words, the IGF not only does not, but cannot have a defined membership. This is also sound in theory; it allows the organisation to be flexible and adaptive, growing or contracting to accommodate anyone who can, and to exclude anyone who cannot, frame their interest in a particular issue in the discourse of public reason.

However in practice, the notion that a democratic polity can exist in the absence of a defined transnational and multi-stakeholder demos is a profoundly counter-intuitive one for politicians, diplomats and even academics alike.[34] Governments in particular are loath to share “their” policy authority in a governance network of uncertain size and composition, and indeed one in which governmental representatives may be outnumbered by those from civil society. As unobjectionable as this may be in theory, it is highly objectionable to diplomats and politicians.

Unless they can be convinced otherwise, the likely outcome for the governance network is that if governments participate in it at all, they will seek to circumscribe its role to being strictly advisory in nature, and will firmly underscore their reservation of authority to disregard its output.

This is quite a familiar tale, in which although a network between governments and citizens may be described as a “partnership,” with the implication of equality between the parties, governments perceive their own role in such networks as being superior to those of the other stakeholders.[35] This reflects the US government’s relationship with ICANN[36] and the Australian government’s with auDA,[37] and as will be shown in Chapter 6, has also been the IGF’s experience.

Yet there remains a glimmer of hope. Although a deliberative democratic form for the organisation of a governance network is by far the most suitable yet considered, it could be that its downfall lies in its claim to be a form of democratic rule. As already noted, it is a feature of deliberative democracy that it “aims to arrive at a rationally motivated consensus.”[38] Perhaps, then, recasting the organisation in a formally consensual rather than democratic form, and modifying its procedures as required to accord with this new nomenclature (whilst still holding to the democratic principle), might resolve some of the objections of governments. This prospect is to be considered next.



Young, Iris M, Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy (1996), 123


Dryzek, John S, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (2002),


Coleman, Stephen & Gøtze, John, Bowling Together: Online Public Engagement in Policy Deliberation (2001), 34


See further Section


Nonnecke, Blair & Preece, Jenny, Lurker Demographics: Counting the Silent (2000)


Dahl, Robert, Can International Organizations be Democratic?: A Skeptic’s View (1999)


Held, David, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (1995), 286


Netanel, Neil W, Cyberspace Self-Governance: A Skeptical View from Liberal Democratic Theory (2000), 498


Cohen, Joshua, Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy (1989), 22–23


Van Alstyne, M & Brynjolfsson, E, Electronic Communities: Global Villages or Cyberbalkanization? (1996)


Klotz, Robert J, The Politics of Internet Communication (2004), 64


Sunstein, Cass R, The Law of Group Polarization (2003), 89; Sunstein, Cass R, Republic.com (2001)


Sproull, L & Kiesler, S, Computers, Networks and Work (1993), 108–110


Gurak, Laura J, The Promise and the Peril of Social Action in Cyberspace (1999), 259


Sproull, L & Kiesler, S, Computers, Networks and Work (1993)


Rheingold, H, A Slice of My Life in My Virtual Community (1996), 427


Jordan, Tim, Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet (1999), 80


Fishkin, J S, Virtual Democratic Possibilities: Prospects for Internet Democracy (2000), 14–15


See also Section


For example in IRC this may be done by typing “/me shakes his head,” which renders the code “/me” as the user’s pseudonymous screen name.


Fishkin, J S, Deliberative Polling As a Model for ICANN Membership (1999), 23–24


ITU, ICT Statistics Database (2005)


Klotz, Robert J, The Politics of Internet Communication (2004), 21, 24


Curtin, Jennifer, A Digital Divide in Rural and Regional Australia? (2001)


WSIS, Geneva Declaration of Principles (2003), para 10


Klotz, Robert J, The Politics of Internet Communication (2004), 23


ITU, World Information Society Report 2007 (2007), 35


Brackertz, Nicola, Zwart, Ivan, Meredyth, Denise, & Ralston, Liss, Community Consultation and the Hard to Reach: Concepts and Practice in Victorian Local Government (2005), 14–15


James, Jeffrey, Bridging the Global Digital Divide (2003), 49–53


James, Jeffrey, Bridging the Global Digital Divide (2003), 47


See http://www.laptop.org/.


See Section


Waters, Darren, Warning Over “Broken Up" Internet (2006)


For example, Johnson and Crawford write (in Johnson, David R & Crawford, Susan P, The Idea of ICANN (2001)) that “[t]he principle of one-person-one vote provides a basis for delegating a people’s sovereignty to a government. It does not provide legitimacy for a system that seeks voluntary compliance with policies that have the support or acquiescence of all groups particularly impacted by those policies.”

Strictly speaking this is correct, however it suggests that “one person, one vote” and democracy are synonymous, whereas in fact deliberative democracy does provide legitimacy for just such a system.


Skelcher, Chris, Mathur, Navdeep, & Smith, Mike, The Public Governance of Collaborative Spaces: Discourse, Design and Democracy (2005), 578; Cardoso, Fernando H, Cardoso Report on Civil Society (2004) , 37


McCullagh, Declan, Bush Administration Objects to .xxx Domains (2005)


Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth), Part 22, Division 3


Cohen, Joshua, Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy (1989), 22–23.