E-democracy and the Web – Freedom, governance, civil society and elections   no comments

Posted at 11:11 am in Politics

Having discussed democracy as a form of government, it is only natural to continue with the concept of freedom (or liberty). Freedom is most often defined by using is opposite, that is freedom is the absence of constraint. Although freedom is considered intrinsically good, there are sometimes legitimate reasons to limit freedom in order to protect other values, so even in a democracy, there is no such thing as complete freedom. Even though democracy seems closely related to freedom, there are examples of democracies limiting freedom, albeit with sufficient reasons.

A type of constraints of freedom which are relevant to e-democracy, are economic impediments. Due to the economic inequality of society, not all its members are free to participate in political affairs, and more importantly, may not even have access to the internet.

Another matter that needs to be discussed is freedom of speech. Even though the web offers anonymity, there are cases of “imperfect democracies” where activities and websites with political content were deemed subversive by the regime and access to them was terminated. There is also the case of developed democratic states that have passed legislation that terminates internet access to users that have broken the law online. This could be argued that it limits their freedoms in an overwhelmingly excessive way and thus constitutes unfair punishment.

One interesting aspect of the Web is that it can enhance the -already high- efficiency of state bureaucracy. According to Weber, its characteristics are amongst others precision, speed, unambiguity, reduction of material  and personal cost. All this advantages can be augmented by the Web and that is why states have invested a lot in this direction, trying to establish an online bureaucracy and e-government portals. This is in part done in order to improve the quality of governance, according to the elements of “good governance” which are the following:

  • Participation in making and implementing decisions
  • Clear legal frameworks with respect to human rights
  • Transparency in decision making
  • Responsiveness towards social needs
  • Consensus-oriented
  • Equal opportunities for all
  • Effectiveness and efficiency
  • Accountability of decision makers

Some of the above elements can be clearly enhanced by the Web, while others are still bound to the offline realm.

Civil society is the framework that those without political authority live within. It stand apart from political authority (and even commercial institutions), however no clear boundary can be drawn between them. It is composed of voluntary civic and social organisations, for example non-governmental organisations. The Web has been used extensively by such organisations, which understood its benefits faster than governments.  Better horizontal communication as well as the ability to organise in online communities have enabled them to become larger and better coordinated. Faster mobilisation of supporters helped organise protests and activist ‘instant mobs’. There is also the use of blogs to post alternative versions of events, as mentioned above when discussing freedom of speech. Of course, as always, there are also negative effects. Political blackmailing, propaganda and libel were also used by some organisations, sometimes by posting anonymously on blogs and there are extremist groups recruiting in this way.

Finally, a concept that fits with my previous post about democracy. Voting is a mechanism for making collective decisions where the majority preference dictates the final decision. In the case of representative democracies, the representatives are also elected by vote. So far there have been various attempt to use electronic voting, with mixed results. It seems though that, being cost-effective and fast, it will eventually replace traditional voting. This however has little to do with the Web, as it just uses the internet. However, the Web has played a role so far in elections: it has facilitated the communication of political manifestos to voters, gave additional chances for debates and even helped candidates approach their voters directly with the use of social networking sites. As mentioned in the previous post, it remains to be seen if the Web can play a larger part in decision making. It has to be added that there are two schools of thought as to how electronic decision making should be used. Some propose using it as an efficient way for representatives to ask directly for the citizens’ opinion by referendum. Another more direct, albeit more small scale proposal is to have local communities try a direct version of democracy, perhaps as a pilot for larger scale adoption. Again, there is criticism that stems from the long identified problems of direct democracy, which current technology cannot so far alleviate.

Written by el3e09 on May 8th, 2010

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