TechKnowledge No. 18

Is the Internet Bad for Democracy?

By Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.
August 31, 2001

Everybody’s got a plan to tame the freewheeling Internet these days. Republicans and Democrats alike are looking for ways to regulate everything from privacy to porn, while simultaneously seeking ways to subsidize access. The Progressive Policy Institute talks up a “failure of cyber-libertarianism” that leads, naturally enough, to its “Strategic National E-Commerce Policy” framework.

Speaking of “frameworks,” Ralph Nader would establish a World Consumer Protection Organization, to counter the Internet’s libertarian streak, which he finds intolerable. Others want to preserve what they call “public spaces” on the increasingly fractured Internet. University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein worries that the individual’s habits of personalizing or filtering his Web experiences thwarts the “unanticipated encounters” and “common experiences” that should unite us as a democracy. Where the private sector doesn’t come through, he wants the government to “pick up the slack,” forcing sites to disclose their biases as well as provide links to sites with opposing views. And he wants popular (presumably shallow) sites to act as a “public sidewalk,” providing links “designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions.” We don’t learn who gets to decide if a site is guilty of “failure to attend to public issues,” but we can guess. In this somewhat elitist worldview, free speech doesn’t mean saying what you want, but providing a platform for other views.

Acting on similar beliefs, former Public Broadcasting System and Federal Communications Commission leaders set up the Digital Promise project to “halt the encroachment of purely market values” on the Internet. The gesture will cost $18 billion, paid for out of wireless spectrum auctions.

Despite these worries, a torrent of “shared experiences” bombards us regardless of the degree to which we personalize or filter. As one critic put it, given Sunstein’s view, “these sort[s] of chance encounters should be happening to me less and less on the Internet. Instead, they seem to be happening more and more.” Sources of exposure have ranged from the early bulletin boards of the 1980s to the peer-to-peer networks of today. And in between they encompass Web pages, search engines, chat rooms, email, auctions, Internet phones, instant messaging, and more.

Despite customization, people migrate to popular cyber-realms and reject isolationism. Indeed, many think America Online-the dominant Internet Service Provider and a “public space” supreme with over 30 million members-is the Internet. Yet it’s actually a self-contained cyberspace with a back door to the Net. (It has, in fact, provided a public sidewalk without the threat from the public spaces movement.)

Outside AOL, portals duplicate one another, expanding our common frame of reference. Diverse news sites, even the Drudge Report, rely on newsgathering organizations like AP and Reuters that assure common experiences despite filtering. While it’s true that more than 600 Web sites get over a million monthly visitors, the top 14 account for 60 percent on online time. Fragmentation isn’t really happening. But make-believe social fragmentation isn’t really the problem with the “public space” thesis of harm to democracy. Ignorance, or kooky or fringe Internet preferences are harmless if majority rule is limited, as it must be in a free society. If government attends to its proper function of protecting individual rights (as opposed to the unconstitutional wealth-transferor-extraordinaire that preoccupies government today), our fundamental rights are protected from the whims of a temporary majority. And if there are lines that politics cannot cross, malicious fringe-site denizens cannot harm anyone through the democratic process. Besides, many people are “rationally ignorant” of politics anyway because the rest of life is more important to them.

The Internet’s attraction is the fact that it is a public space, in the proper sense of the term. Equating “public space” with government instigated or funded apart from the market is hypocritical because the resources to sustain what has been called a non-profit “PBS for the Net” must come from the private sector in the first place.

Besides, to the extent “public space” means non-profit, advocates are getting greedy. Non-profit interests already dominate the .org and .edu domains. (Incidentally, every accredited university’s site can be accessed from one page, another example of non-fragmentation.) There is even a movement afoot to assure that the .us domain is largely ceded to non-commercial interests. Governmental information is widely available given that an entire top-level domain, .gov, is devoted to the goings-on of the federal government (much of which is accessible from the portal firstgov.gov).

The public shouldn’t be compelled to subsidize content deemed appropriate for cyber-citizenship. Aside from news with common sources, vast online libraries are being supplemented by projects like ebrary’s partnerships with publishers and content providers to deliver copyrighted material. Online reference site Learning Network is one. Its Infoplease site hosts an immensity of social and cultural data. But such efforts are undoubtedly polluted in public-space parlance because they are profit-seeking ventures.

Nothing in government’s legitimate scope qualifies it as a fountain of superior, purer information or a source of social cohesion. In fact, it’s more prone to corruption. The government can’t even get the food pyramid right. Governments are well known for censorship and propaganda, or control, like the mandating of library filters and ratings for movies, music and videogames.

Most fundamentally, the “public spaces” premise fails because it rests on the notion that capitalism and freedom are inimical to civil society and the diffusion of ideas, when they are, in fact, the prerequisites. We cherish a free press, dissent, and debate because governments can threaten these values. We need markets to maximize output, including that of true and useful “public” information. The inclination of some academics and public servants to despise the commercial Internet grows tiresome, not just because they often occupy a stance parasitic with respect to the commerce they denounce, but because their notion of public spaces would enshrine a political rather than civil view of social interactions.

In practice, a “public spaces” regime must simply deteriorate into regulatory mandates, and to the funding of “approved” sites. That latter function belongs to venture capitalists, who have learned the hard way that not every Internet venture makes sense. But government programs would be failure-proof. It’s not just competition for eyeballs, but politics that would matter. While the unalloyed Internet constitutes a real free press, a potpourri of information people seek (or that the unpopular post on their own dime), public spaces will consist of “worthy” things people are forced to pay for, or forced to link to.

Clearly the public spaces wing of cyber-socialism is looking for a home on the Internet. As it happens, www.socialism.org is already taken, but socialismcentral.com is available for $35 per year. That’s a savings of $17,999,999,965 from the $18 billion the “PBS for the Net” advocates would spend.

Besides, PBS already has a website.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. (wcrews [at] cato [dot] org) is the Director of Technology Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html