Contents: Keynotes, Panels, Sessions
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March 10, 2005
Moderator: Joichi Ito & Marko Ahtisaari
Panellists: John Gage, Rebecca MacKinnon, Noriko Takiguchi, Dan Gillmor, Martín Varsavsky
The panel Democracy, Terrorism and the Open Internet discussed if it was advisable to restrict or impede public access to the internet because of the possibility of abuse by terrorists. The panellists agreed that interfering with the democratic freedoms offered by the internet would probably damage democracy more than it would harm the terrorists, and that the internet’s positive effects – in connecting people, for example – far outweighed the possibility of abuse. The internet, in the words of one panellist, is a technology embedded with democratic values. The panel was coordinated with the Safe Democracy Foundation.
- Wiki: The Infrastructure of Democracy
- Spanish version: La infraestructura de la democracia y el refuerzo de una Internet abierta para un mundo más seguro
- Chat Session, morning, March 8th
- Chat Session, evening, March 8th
- Joichi Ito
- Martín Varsvasky
- John Gage
- Rebecca MacKinnon, Terrorism, Democracy & the Internet
- Marko Ahtisaari
- Dan Gillmor, Madrid: Terrorism, the Internet and Democracy
- John Perry Barlow, Terrorism and Democracy in Madrid
Complete audio of the conference
- Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet
- Audio Archive (English) [1h. 24m., 24 MB, MP3]
Transcription / Transcripción
Note: […] Means not audible or missing content from the original tapes because of the recording
Nota: […] Significa no audible o que falta contenido en la cinta original debido a la grabación
Moderator (Joi Ito)
[...] webcast to the press so that anything that’s said here will be heard and viewed by the press. It’s an hour and a half session. This is a group of experts ranging from academics to policy makers and technology people who are involved in everything from security to architecture, software and running the Internet and there was quite a variety of people involved yesterday in putting together a draft of a document as a recommendation to the people here at the conference and the heads of state with respect to terrorism, Internet and open democracy.
We’d like to present our short document to you today and get some feedback from you. We will start out with the panellist presenting each of the sections. Many of the members who participated in the discussions yesterday are here as responders in the audience so they will probably chime in as we get into the discussion session. The presenters today… the first section will be presented by John Gage, the chief researcher of Sun Microsystems. The second section will be Rebecca MacKinnon a former correspondent with CNN and currently a fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard. The third section will be Dan Gillmor who is the founder of Grassroots Media. The fourth section will be Noriko Takiguchi, a journalist from Japan and the last section will be Martin Varsavsky who is the president of the Safe Democracy Foundation in Spain. So John, if you could kick it off for us that’d be great.
Well, welcome. Some of you I see were in the earlier session downstairs that concerned technology and terrorism. We are technology, the Internet a sub-section of technology. For those of you that attended the earlier session on technology and terrorism, you heard a few comments, casual comments, about the Internet. A man who was the head of the United States Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early stages of the Internet, casually said, “yes for the good things about Internet, I’ll take credit, and for the bad things, you can blame me”. Well, that was a quick reference to a very complicated subject. The complicated subject is the powerful tool that this communication medium, the Internet, has provided people around the world with… open, participatory, without exclusion, the democratic values embedded in technology.
Now, if you focus specifically on what a terrorist group might use a communication medium for, to talk with each other, to signal each other, to recruit, to disseminate information, to learn, those are precisely the critically important values for all human beings. Is it true that you can learn dangerous things? Well of course you can learn dangerous things. So part of what we want to present to you is a discussion of how the Internet, a communication medium, a mechanism for people to communicate with other people, embeds in its technology, the democratic values of openness, participation, freedom of access. And we want to assert that those values are completely consistent with the use of the Internet in combating terrorism.
Why are we interested in asserting this? Because those of you involved in the legal, the regulatory, the governmental examination of the use of communication media may feel, and we heard a little bit of that sentiment this morning in the earlier panel, may feel that it is dangerous, too dangerous, to allow human beings to communicate with each other and that therefore we should alter the regulatory regime of the Internet. We want to assert that, in fact, that’s exactly the wrong idea and that by use of this mechanism, which is bringing billions of people within reach, we can do a more effective job of furthering the goals of democracy, of reducing the interest of those that might otherwise think of being involved in terrorist activities. We can create a new world for people that is an alternative world to the world of despair, of inequality, of depravation, of lack of human link, of lack of human respect, that today fuels the recruiting mechanisms of terrorism. So that’s our fundamental…
Now, I just want to make a parenthetic comment. All of us, and a number of people sitting here, yesterday spent 6 or 8 hours discussing these issues and arguing. Now you may hear some argument today but we’re on a panel and we are polite people. So you may not hear the battles. So how would you hear the battles? You aren’t in the room. All of the battles have been recorded across the Internet, made available for anyone in the world to read across the Internet, available for you to read across the Internet and during this we’ll show you precisely how you, if you care to, can go back and find the arguments that led to this presentation that we will give you in the next few minutes, of the role of all of us in the use of the Internet and this communication medium in combating terrorism.
So I think that single example of how intelligent people with deep knowledge arguing in an open forum allows better ideas to emerge is the evidence that there is such power in the Internet that allows the democratic values of exchange to turn into examined and received knowledge. All of us know that if you want to learn something thoroughly, teach it. If you really want to know what you think about something, argue, you’ll find out quickly whether or not you can support your views. That’s what we did, so you can read line by line, word by word what was said all day yesterday, and I must, say up until about 10 minutes ago, downstairs where you see this interesting scene with everyone with computers, all on the Internet.
The tools, and these may be unfamiliar words but you will, I think, as your homework assignment, need to learn what they mean. One is weblog, blog, and people casually say that… yesterday, remember the when the man from Carlton stood up and said, “I moderated 18 different people with opinions on terrorism and I never met them because they were on a blog”, and I looked at everybody in the audience and they were some people thinking “um… blog? What in the world… is that a café? Where were these people? In a bar?”. Well what it means is that Dan Gillmor or Ethan Zuckerman, where is Ethan? There he is. Ethan has the fastest fingers on the Internet and is writing, at this moment, a summary of what’s going on here that could be seen by a billion people, from here, an audience that is incapable of being seen by the Spanish press.
Where’s the press? Across on the other side of the building, apart from this camera. So we are, in a funny way, in a dedicated group devoted to democracy, openness, education, exchange of ideas, excluded from the pathways someone living in Madrid, except that Ethan’s writing something right now capturing what’s being said, that could be read by anyone in Madrid. Now he types in English, others in this room could easily be typing in Arabic or Spanish and make this accessible to the world. So there is a power here which we have never had before. Of course someone could utilise this, a terrorist group, but by far, we assert the values embedded in the technology, the openness of the Internet, are our best tools in overwhelming those groups that feel they are the ‘other’ and are recruiting those that feel they are the ‘other’ are instead transforming people into being ‘us’.
That argument about who does ‘we’ apply to, though ‘we’ is our point. The Internet brings people into a global ‘we’. With that I should stop.
Thanks very much. John Gage always gives a fabulous introduction and it’s a very difficult act to follow. One of the primary points that we thought was important to emphasise was that the centralised systems, the power of many, was the best way to combat decentralised foes, and terrorism is a decentralised enemy. It’s not a country, it’s not bounded by a geographical area. There is a leader but he shifts around, there are many leaders in many places and it’s really a battle of hearts and minds over people and ideas living all around the world and the extent to which the terrorist ideas will get support and gain traction, or the extent to which publics will not be cowed and deterred by terrorism.
So how do you fight terrorism? A highly centralised information network is not the best way to counteract a highly decentralised and distributed foe. We believe that terrorism, yes it is a problem of armies, it is a problem faced by police forces, but it is also a problem faced by ordinary citizens everywhere, and the best way to combat terrorism is to involve the general public in that fight and the best way to do that is though the open Internet.
On the media side, the battle of hearts and minds… up until recently, the only way that people could understand one another across cultures was through the professional media or through governments and those were the intermediaries through which a person in the United States, or a person in Spain would understand a Palestinian or an Iraqi and what they think. Now you can go onto a weblog of an ordinary Iraqi person writing on the Internet who talks about what their aspirations are. So, yes, you do have terrorists with websites advocating terror, but you also, in Iraq now, have a growing movement of people online in Iraq, writing in English and Arabic, about their aspirations for peace and a normal life.
What’s important about that is that… unfortunately the way that more mainstream media works is that headlines are always dominated by extremist agendas and extremist actions, and the ordinary conversations of the silent majority, the people that want peace, who are going about their daily lives, who find extremism on all sides to be an irritant, these voices are not heard as much through the mainstream media but you can facilitate more of these conversations online. That is one thing that we believe is a very powerful force, that the silent majority can make its weight felt if citizens are able to connect and express themselves freely.
The other thing is that in response to a disaster, we saw on March 11th, the citizens mobilising very quickly, voluntarily, through SMS messaging to help with the rescue and recovery, demonstrations against terrorism arising spontaneously, citizens exchanging information about what was really going on, much more quickly than they were getting information from the authorities and so on… that the forces of truth and moderation, and outrage against extremist action, do come together in times of crisis through an open Internet that would not be able to do so if you had a much more controlled environment. That’s another reason why we believe it’s very important to keep the Internet open.
Also it enables citizens to come up with initiatives, non-governmental organisations to come up with initiatives to fight terrorism that a police department might not have thought of, but can be very useful allies in fighting against groups that police might not have known about and so on. So we believe that decentralisation and bringing the public into the conversation, treating the public like your allies in fighting terrorism is the best way, ultimately, because it’s not government to government, it’s not agency against agency, it’s people, ultimately the fight against terrorism is being done on behalf of these people we’re trying to protect and the best way, the strongest way to get people on your side, is to involve them in the discussion and to get the weight of the silent majority behind you. With that I’ll pass it on to Noriko…
The third point we talked about is the openness, the openness of the Internet, the openness of the democratic society and how it can really overcome the abuse of openness, the abuse by terrorists, or abuse by, let’s say, monolithic government who try to govern the country probably just by keeping secrets and limiting the information to the society. How openness of the Internet and the tools that enable people to act with can overcome that secret, enclosed way of governing the society.
The first point is that an open transparent environment is more secure and more stable than closed or secret opaque ones. Maybe this is not the best example, but I understand this conference is limited in outing the information… the journalists are not allowed in this building but like Ethan, with his new tool, he is giving information about what’s happening in real time, and we have seen in recent years that closed conferences or some secret information has been made available to a lot of people by Internet, by blogging or other tools that actually came back to the physical world, the physical enclosed world and corrected by all the participants of the Internet. So really that shows that more openness can correct and rearrange the enclosed system.
We talk about, we hear a lot about cyber attacks and many people believe that terrorists can attack Internet, our Internet infrastructure and all the systems that rely on the Internet will be destructed or even destroyed, wholly, and we will become non-functional. But that will not happen. Technology is more resilient and the Internet infrastructure may be interrupted locally and temporarily but the other part of the network system actually covers this loss and the Internet system, as a whole, will act, not as usual, but as a sort of supporting system to this lost part of it.
We have to talk about the connectedness of people. The Internet allows people to be talking to each other, randomly, spontaneously, all the time, anytime that you choose and that will enable to overcome the divisions that terrorists are trying to create in the physical world or the divisions of information that some government, some non-democratic society might try to create. The fear that we have about terrorists or non-democratic forces trying to create will be if we are equipped with the real effectiveness of the Internet and the tools that we will have in the future with new technologies will be much more powerful than this secret enclosed methodology. With that I will pass it to Dan…
Just one comment, the Spanish interpreters have arrived so you can get translation in Spanish.
Thank you. We’d like to continue this and, at the risk of sounding like a bunch of people from the technology community, telling you to leave our Internet alone, that’s not the purpose of this section, it’s not our Internet as technology-orientated people, it’s the Internet of everyone and we want to make a central suggestion here that there are many calls for new regulation on the Internet and what we are concerned with is that, very well-meaning regulation, or calls for regulation, in established democracies could well threaten the development of the emerging democracies and we want to emphasise that.
Several points, first the nature of the Internet. The technological underpinnings tell us that terrorists cannot destroy the Internet itself. They can damage it temporary, but they can’t destroy it, as we’ve heard. However, overzealous regulation in response to terrorism actually could bring down the Internet, a tool that I hope we have established as congruent with democratic principles and not in any opposition. Governments should consider mandating changes to the core functions of the Internet only with extraordinary, extraordinary caution and, let me go on in some detail, not too much, we’ll have one example… some initiatives that governments might take would sound reasonable on the surface but, in fact, might violate some of the basic principles that have made the Internet a success in every respect and we should be cautious in every respect.
I’ll give you an example, this is one of many we could offer but this is one we argued about at some length yesterday. It’s the question that is coming up frequently around the world, certainly in our nations and others. There have been calls widely for the end somehow to anonymity, people are, with some justice, concerned about the ability of people to speak without people knowing who they are, a lack of accountability is the fear here and also a lack of being able to trace folks and information to its source. We are going to say and, we do believe that the technological truth of this is hard to dispute but, again there is also a political question. We believe that an attempt to end anonymity would be highly unlikely to stop a determined terrorist or criminal of any kind but it would certainly have a deeply chilling effect on political activity in places where speaking one’s mind is dangerous and where certain kinds of unpopular speech could jeopardise someone’s livelihood or perhaps life.
If that happened it would be, by definition, damaging to freedom and transparency in many places.
Furthermore, we’ll argue at some length, if anyone wants to get into this, that limiting anonymity would have this cascading series of consequences that really would hurt freedom of expression in nations that are now striving to become democracies. We consider that a very serious problem and one that people in political powers should think about in the existing democratic part of the world. I will stop there and… Martin…
Thanks Dan. I concur with most of what’s been said here, I just wanted to point out also that the bloggers are still in the room, while the press came in, left, and how Internet is able to get through everything that’s happening here while Seguridad del Estado, the Secret Services of Spain, control the press but they haven’t been able to control the bloggers who are right here. So I think we live in a democracy for sure, but yet there are security concerns and maybe very valid ones. There were a 1,300 journalists who wanted to come to this conference and so I guess Seguridad del Estado said we just can’t verify that 1,300 people are who they say they are.
But the conclusion is that the bloggers are here and the press came in, left, a group of them, and even in democracies we can see an example of how the Internet manages to get through the censorship and, sometimes, not purely intended censorship. I can give you other examples, here in Spain you have two leading newspapers, El País and El Mundo. In New York City you have Daily News, New York Times, what about all the other views that are not the views of the Times or are not the views of the Daily News. What about all the people who do not think like El Mundo and do not think like El País, where do they get their views? They get them… they can publish on the Internet and they can read them on the Internet.
When we say that the Internet is a basic tool for democracy in the 21st century, we mean it. It’s a way to go, not only through censorship, but also to go through other concerns, security concerns, monetary concerns, what about all the media companies that have tremendous investments in certain areas and then articles come to them and they don’t want to publish them because it hurts their interests? Their interest in other companies, the media conglomerates and so on, the Internet cuts through that. So it’s not only about the Internet in the Islamic world, the Internet in China or places we may think to be less democratic, even where we live in Europe there’s many incidences that only on the Internet can you get information that is relevant and valid to what you’re doing.
Now some people have said to me during interviews and so on, “what about all the evil that there is on the Internet, what about the 4,000 sites that are known to promote hatred and death? Why are they on the net? Why don’t we just take them out? It’s easy, we could censor them, we could take them out”. My answer is, what about the millions of sites that don’t promote hatred and death? Why shouldn’t we allow a debate? There is an end to all this which is illegal activities. Obviously, what’s illegal in an open democracy, what’s illegal offline cannot be legal online. It’s not that the Internet is a world that has its own laws, people on the Internet live by the same laws as people off the Internet and people by now… in Spain we used to use this word internauta, when it first started you were an internauta, a net surfer. Now do we say intertelevidente, somebody who watches TV? Is anybody here in this room a TV watcher? We don’t think of people like that anymore. And soon we won’t think of people who are on the net like netsurfers. Everybody’s a netsurfer. So what have we have we concluded in our groups? We have concluded that the answer is not less Internet, it’s not restriction on the Internet, but it is more Internet, and it’s more Internet especially in the places that don’t have it.
If the west spent around one hundred billion dollars bombing Iraq, what about spending four billion dollars hooking up all the schools of the Islamic world to the Internet? Which is more or less what it would cost. A hundred billion to bomb, four billion to connect. Is connectedness more or less effective than bombing? I would personally argue that connectedness is more effective in the spread of democracy. Sometimes, as in the case of the Taliban of Afghanistan, on a personal level, I am not condemning military action as a tool for democracy, it’s obviously there and sometimes it’s needed, but the best preventive tool for warfare that I can think of is connecting the youth of the world to the Internet.
Right now there is, of course, a tremendous digital divide of those who have access to the net and those who don’t. Those who have it tend to live in wealthy countries and wealthy countries tend to be democracies. There has to be some plan to connect the people who may become terrorists to the Internet. A journalist said that, “Yes, but they said that the training camps in Afghanistan have been replaced by training camps over the Internet”. A valid point, there is a lot of training over the Internet, but I am sure that soon-to-be-terrorists when faced on the Internet with such choice has less of a chance of becoming a terrorist than a person who is schooled in a Madras school and can only hear one voice.
On the Internet you may hear voices of hatred but you mostly hear voices of peace and that’s why we’re in favour of defending openness on the Internet. We’re also in favour of protecting anonymity because, as it was said before, anonymity may not be so relevant in democracies but it’s certainly relevant in countries where if you speak up they kill you, ok? I can see a valid reason for anonymity in that case and that’s what we are espousing. The general recommendation of this group is basically to leave the Internet as it is. The Internet, actually, was originally designed as a military application to prevent a nuclear attack that could wipe out the communications infrastructure of the United States.
The distributive element of the Internet will make it such that the cells will survive, the connectedness will be re-established very quickly. To leave it as it is and to promote the expansion of the Internet as a tool for spreading democracy. Thank you.
Thank you very much. I’m Marko Ahtisaari moderating with Joichi Ito. What we would like to do now is open the floor, first to comments from the respondents who were in the working group yesterday, if any of you would like to make yourself known, if you’d like to make a comment, a short comment and contribution at this time. Then we’d like to open up the floor for a general question and answer session with the panel.
My name is Mark Rodenburg and I’m with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC and I just wanted to say how very much I enjoyed working with the panellists and the other members of this working group on this project. It was quite an extraordinary challenge we were given… we came together quickly to talk about how best to make use of the Internet and what recommendations we could make to democratic governments going forward with a deep awareness and concern about future acts of terrorism. There has been so much concern that the Internet perhaps was part of the problem and the more we talked about democratic values and the importance of openness and transparency and participation and communication, I think we began to see that, in fact, that the Internet may be part of the solution.
To the extent that we can take advantage of this extraordinary communications platform that bridges people from around the world, brings people together and allows people who are perhaps without any information to fully understand the modern world in which we live, this may well be the connection into the 21st century. I just want to extend my thanks to the panel members, I think this is a very important statement about the…
[Member of the working group:]
[...] obviously the sense in which this has evolved, you can imagine lots of different ways that terrorists and others are capable of using the distributive capabilities of the system, we ended up arguing in most cases that this ends up being a feature that the resilience of the system, the ability for people to participate and communicate is what’s amazing about it and, in fact, so hopeful about it.
As we finished drafting a document, joyfully, about an hour ago, we put a first copy out onto the Internet on a Wiki, which is a site which allows anyone to participate and edit a document. The interest in this document was so much that it took down a large server at Harvard approximately fifteen minutes after we posted it so part of what I’ve been doing here is attempting to log in and get that server back up. In the meantime, Joichi has put this up on one of his servers, two or three people have also done what’s called mirroring and they are now putting it up on their own servers so there’s opportunities for people on any number of sites to participate in the process. This is sort of an object lesson in what’s so unique and what’s so exciting, and what can also be so scary this media. Once an idea is out, it replicates infinitely and it replicates very very quickly and we see this both as a huge challenge and a huge advantage.
I’m John Perry Barlow, I’m also with the Berkman Center and I’m sorry to hear that our server is down though I’m actually kind of pleased to hear that our server is down. I also started the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has been working for fifteen years to keep the Internet open and I’m concerned a little bit that we have come here and said collectively exactly what we would be expected to say. Unfortunately, it is what we believe profoundly and I think it is true. I worry that since we are being so predictable that no one will pay attention to these words but I think now is a very good time to consider their validity. The answer to hate speech is not control, the answer to hate speech is love speech.
And David Weinberger next.
I’m David Weinberger. I’m also with the Harvard Berkman Center. It has been a wonderful experience working with this group over the past 24 hours. I know that frequently the Internet looks, especially from the outside, it gets talked about, as a publishing medium which it certainly is. There’s no question that anybody, as Martin has said, anybody now can publish, not just the two major newspapers in your city. But it’s also much more than that. For many of us it’s primarily not a publishing medium but a way of connecting with other people. Even the sorts of things that we write tend to be frequently conversational, we want to hear from other people, we do hear from other people, we link to them, they link back to us, we address our ideas, we pick up an idea from a server that apparently now is dead, we make it our own, we put it in our own words, we add our thoughts and our notions to it, and somebody else responds and we respond to her.
It’s an instrument, it’s a medium of connection which seems to be to profoundly relevant to the question of terrorism since terrorism’s soul lives in disconnection, it lives in the disconnection of people from one another and cultures from one another. The Internet is a profound medium for person to person, culture to culture connection and it’s one of the things that gives me hope.
Next, Andrew McLaughlin.
My name’s Andrew McLaughlin. I’m with a small Internet start-up called Google, you may have heard of it.
I just want to highlight what I think is the central theme that I drew out of the presentations from the panellists and from the document that we’ve been working on. It’s a reflection of what I think is a schizophrenia among policy makers. Policy makers typically view the Internet as either a glorious, magical, happy land that is going to solve the problems of the universe and therefore we have to wire the schools and get computers in front of everyone. Or alternatively they view the Internet as a swamp, cesspool of pornography, terrorism, paedophilia... And of course the reality of the Internet is very much in the middle, the medium, it’s how people communicate with each other, it’s how they publish and so the theme. I think, that we’re trying to advance to the policy makers is simply that, in the fight against terrorism, the Internet is not only a battleground. It’s also a tool.
The fundamental democratic values that are embedded in the architecture of the Internet are the same fundamental democratic values that will enable us to defeat terrorism. They are openness, they are participation, they are distribution of authority, accountability, these are the essential features of the Internet and, if we view this medium properly, we can see that it is in fact the best ally that we have in fighting the scourge of terrorism. We broke down the relationship between the Internet and terrorism into four key issues. One is attacks by the terrorists on the Internet itself to bring down the network, another is attacks on people that are connected to the Internet, such as power stations and dams and so forth that have networks connected to the Internet. A third issue is that the use of the Internet by terrorists to coordinate amongst themselves and the fourth intersection is use of the Internet to recruit, to evangelise, to propagandise their hatred. In each one of these four categories the solution is the values that are embodied by the Internet, openness, participation decentralisation, not fear, control and centralisation and authority. Thank you.
Nancy Bornier [?]
I’m Nancy Bornier [?] the founder of the [...] which is still in the blue print stage. One of the themes that we emphasised yesterday is that the Bush administration seems to be proceeding to try to regularise the Internet and that probably one of the first tasks of global civil society is to organise itself politically to prevent that kind of intervention and regulation. We simply wanted to draw attention to need that has now emerged on the horizon to prevent those kinds of interventions that would in fact decrease and prevent the kind of openness and the role of the Internet in promoting democracy.
I think at this point we’ll open up the floor. I’d just like to say one point in transition, and following up on Ethan Zuckerman’s point… This we consider the beginning of the conversation so the document that we have prepared is posted now live for editing and replicated in many places. Our plan currently is to return to the draft as it emerges from this collaborative writing and conversation process in three months and make it public to the community, probably through the Safe Democracy website and other means that are appropriate at that time. So really this is a call to participate in that conversation and engage with those claims and clarify them.
My name’s Benjamin Barber. 25 years ago in strong democracy I think I was one of the early people who talked about the possibilities of the new technologies at that time when the … system was the closest we had and its possibilities. But I must say, as I’ve watched the last 25 years unfold I’ve grown increasingly sceptical and it bothers me a little that this group seems to be so engaged in what I would called ‘boosterism’ about the Internet and so un-self-critical. I just came from a meeting with religious leaders where they were being asked to examine, self-critically, the role that religion plays in modern fundamentalism, in terrorism and so on. Here there is some talk about the external use by terrorism and terrorists and hate groups of the Internet, but there’s no discussion at all about the internal problems that the technology itself and its architecture presents to democracy.
If you’d just give me a moment I’d like to quickly mention five areas that speak to virtues of the Internet that are also vices, and something that I think one needs to address if one is going to talk about the democratic possibilities of the net.
The first has to do with the fact that the Internet, unlike top down broadcast media and print media, is horizontal which means that it is unmediated and unfiltered which, on the one hand is a good thing, but it also means, in fact, that the Internet is highly privatised, it means that it talks to segmented audiences, it’s not talking to people across differences, most people use the Internet to talk to people just like themselves, just as you do. There’s very little real dialogue and debate, and when there is, it tends to be of an infantile and puerile nature, of the kind you see when teenagers who use the net a lot are ‘I aming’ at one another. That feature is built into the horizontal point to point characteristic. The virtue of newspapers is that they are edited, the virtue of universities is that there are people who are authoritative in a meaningful way that doesn’t exist on the Internet.
That’s a virtue I agree because it means that everybody can participate, but it also means that the Internet is a place where it’s very hard to tell the difference between gossip and truth, between lies and truth, between knowledge and wisdom, between mere aggregation and facts and realistic judgement about the world we live in.
The second point about the Internet is that, on the one hand it hasn’t been regulated by government and I know there’s a natural disposition to make sure that it doesn’t happen. But that seems to mean to many people who are boosters of the Internet that it is not in any way a monopolistic enterprise. I want to suggest to you that the same media corporations, hardware and software corporations that control our communication generally, also control the Internet and the absence of government regulation has allowed the Internet to become primarily, not a medium for democratic debate and liberation, but for commerce, for pornography –someone mentioned the use by paedophiles– but the fact is that one third of the hits on Internet are in search of pornography. I’m not a puritan, that’s ok, but it’s a rather sad use of the new technology. This medium looks pretty much like the society that produced it, commercialised, full of pop-up ads used to buy and sell things far more than it’s used for any deliberation or democratic debate.
That’s because, in fact, the large corporations understand, just as you do, the importance of this medium for the future and are looking for ways to buy in and to control. We’ve all seen how Microsoft, in various ways through bundling and now through the development of its own search system to rival Google, is trying to, though software platforms, also control and monopolise the Internet. That’s a reality and it’s something we have to face.
The alternative to no government doesn’t mean that we free citizens own the Internet, it probably means that the same six or eight corporations that own everything else, will also own the Internet, and while we’ll have one-on-one access, that will nonetheless be the case.
Finally, the last point. I worked with Howard Dean on his campaign. We were indeed joyful about the use of the Internet to involve a new generation of people around virtual identification. You talked about the development of relationships. But virtual relationships on the Internet are very different than real political relationships in the world. We learned that in Iowa when all the virtual relationships that had been developed did not materialise as support at the [...] There’s a real difference between what happens on the Internet, in a relationship, and what happens in political mobilisation and political activity.
I say all these things not to discourage us from using the Internet, which I continue to think is a fundamental democratic medium, but to say that, unless we, who are in favour of it, are willing to raise hard dialectical questions about the ways in which it itself presents obstacles to democracy, we will remain a tiny band of enthusiasts while the real powers that be, the commercial corporations, take it over and use it for their own private commercial purposes.
Thank you for the comment. What I’d ask for the upcoming comments, if you could keep the questions quite short and also direct it to a panellist. Rebecca MacKinnon would like to reply first.
(Continued in: Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet, part 2).