Is the Internet Bad for Democracy?

Share

Everybody's got a plan to tame the freewheeling Internet thesedays. Republicans and Democrats alike are looking for ways toregulate everything from privacy to porn, while simultaneouslyseeking ways to subsidize access. The Progressive Policy Institutetalks up a "failure ofcyber-libertarianism" that leads, naturally enough, to its"Strategic National E-Commerce Policy" framework.

Speaking of "frameworks," Ralph Nader would establish a World ConsumerProtection Organization, to counter the Internet's libertarianstreak, which he finds intolerable. Others want to preserve whatthey call "public spaces" on the increasingly fractured Internet.University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein worries that theindividual's habits of personalizing or filtering his Webexperiences thwarts the"unanticipated encounters" and "common experiences" that shouldunite us as a democracy. Where the private sector doesn't comethrough, he wants the government to "pick up the slack," forcingsites to disclose their biases as well as provide links to siteswith opposing views. And he wants popular (presumably shallow)sites to act as a "public sidewalk," providing links "designed toensure more exposure to substantive questions." We don't learn whogets to decide if a site is guilty of "failure to attend to publicissues," but we can guess. In this somewhat elitist worldview, freespeech doesn't mean saying what you want, but providing a platformfor other views.

Acting on similar beliefs, former Public Broadcasting System andFederal 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 wirelessspectrum auctions.

Despite these worries, a torrent of "shared experiences"bombards us regardless of the degree to which we personalize orfilter. As one criticput it, given Sunstein's view, "these sort[s] of chanceencounters should be happening to me less and less on the Internet.Instead, they seem to be happening more and more." Sources ofexposure have ranged from the early bulletin boards of the 1980s tothe peer-to-peer networks of today. And in between they encompassWeb pages, search engines, chat rooms, email, auctions, Internetphones, instant messaging, and more.

Despite customization, people migrate to popular cyber-realmsand reject isolationism. Indeed, many think America Online-thedominant Internet Service Provider and a "public space" supremewith over30 million members-is the Internet. Yet it's actually aself-contained cyberspace with a back door to the Net. (It has, infact, provided a public sidewalk without the threat from the publicspaces movement.)

Outside AOL, portals duplicate one another, expanding our commonframe of reference. Diverse news sites, even the Drudge Report,rely on newsgathering organizations like AP and Reuters that assurecommon experiences despite filtering. While it's true that morethan 600 Web sites get over a million monthly visitors, the top 14 accountfor 60 percent on online time. Fragmentation isn't reallyhappening. But make-believe social fragmentation isn't really theproblem with the "public space" thesis of harm to democracy.Ignorance, or kooky or fringe Internet preferences are harmless ifmajority rule is limited, as it must be in a free society. Ifgovernment attends to its proper function of protecting individualrights (as opposed to the unconstitutionalwealth-transferor-extraordinaire that preoccupies governmenttoday), our fundamental rights are protected from the whims of atemporary majority. And if there are lines that politics cannotcross, malicious fringe-site denizens cannot harm anyone throughthe democratic process. Besides, many people are "rationallyignorant" of politics anyway because the rest of life is moreimportant 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" withgovernment instigated or funded apart from the market ishypocritical because the resources to sustain what has been calleda non-profit "PBS for the Net" must come from the private sector inthe first place.

Besides, to the extent "public space" means non-profit,advocates are getting greedy. Non-profit interests already dominatethe .org and .edu domains. (Incidentally, every accrediteduniversity's site can be accessed from one page, anotherexample of non-fragmentation.) There is even a movement afoot toassure that the .us domain is largely ceded to non-commercialinterests. Governmental information is widely available given thatan entire top-level domain, .gov, is devoted to the goings-on ofthe federal government (much of which is accessible from the portalfirstgov.gov).

The public shouldn't be compelled to subsidize content deemedappropriate for cyber-citizenship. Aside from news with commonsources, vast online librariesare being supplemented by projects like ebrary's partnerships with publishersand content providers to deliver copyrighted material. Onlinereference site Learning Network is one. Its Infoplease site hosts an immensityof social and cultural data. But such efforts are undoubtedlypolluted in public-space parlance because they are profit-seekingventures.

Nothing in government's legitimate scope qualifies it as afountain of superior, purer information or a source of socialcohesion. In fact, it's more prone to corruption. The governmentcan't even get thefood pyramid right. Governments are well known for censorshipand propaganda, or control, like the mandating of libraryfilters and ratings for movies, music and videogames.

Most fundamentally, the "public spaces" premise fails because itrests on the notion that capitalism and freedomare inimical to civil society and the diffusion of ideas, when theyare, in fact, the prerequisites. We cherish a free press, dissent,and debate because governments can threaten these values. We needmarkets to maximize output, including that of true anduseful "public" information. The inclination of some academics andpublic servants to despise the commercial Internet grows tiresome,not just because they often occupy a stance parasitic with respectto the commerce they denounce, but because their notion of publicspaces would enshrine a political rather than civil view of socialinteractions.

In practice, a "public spaces" regime must simply deteriorateinto regulatory mandates, and to the funding of "approved" sites.That latter function belongs to venture capitalists, who havelearned the hard way that not every Internet venture makes sense.But government programs would be failure-proof. It's not justcompetition for eyeballs, but politics that would matter. While theunalloyed Internet constitutes a real free press, a potpourri ofinformation people seek (or that the unpopular post on their owndime), public spaces will consist of "worthy" things people areforced to pay for, or forced to link to.

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

Besides, PBS already has awebsite.