In the efforts to make the voice of the youth heard across the country, Swaniti reached out to students from across many institutes in the country to hear their views on issues which are subject to much discussion in the wider circles. This entry from Nallasivan, a second year student at IIM Ahmedabad is the first in the series of blogs which Swaniti will publish on a regular basis.

 

Internet Democracy: Enabling Democracy through ICT

The word “Internet democracy” seemed to have a certain ring of truth to it. For internet is the kind of place we would like our democracies to look like: a place where everybody is equal and everybody is heard. Internet and related Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have certainly lived up to the promise in specific, if only limited ways. There are emerging trends in both the developed and the developing countries that have seen internet playing a role in enabling participatory democracy.

ICT’s first direct impact on democracy was making information easily accessible to a large section of people. With the advent of internet, the common man was not only able to access information at a lower cost but also be a provider of information. With ICT, information spreads more swiftly than armies. We all know how social media played a role in arousing public to action in Arab Spring. Young people in Egypt not only used internet for passing information but also organizing the protests. Civil societies all over the world have started using ICT as a vital tool to mobilize support for them.

ICT has also emerged as a tool for direct engagement of people with the government. The convenience and cost effectiveness of ICT has helped governments to engage people more directly than ever before. Government of Finland has taken a major step towards participatory democracy with the introduction of its Open Ministry platform. Open Ministry is an online-cum-offline platform where citizens can introduce new bills or propose new laws. Other citizens can show support for the introduced bill by being an e-signatory of the bill. The bill will be introduced in the parliament if at least 50000 people support the bill. It is not an exaggeration to say that Open Ministry takes participatory democracy to a new level. Furthermore, the convenience of ICT has shown its usefulness in many other applications. Developed countries are warming up to the idea of internet-voting for major elections. If internet voting proves to be as secure as it is claimed, it can be extended to other uses as well. For instance, plebiscites for issues of national importance will become easier and cheaper to conduct.

ICT also helps in improving governance by providing a more real time feedback from people. For instance, municipal and town authorities over the world are adopting social media driven citizen complaint tracking tools. A citizen can add a new complaint or if the complaint is already present, he can “escalate” the complaint. The social media set up allows the users to interact with other users, escalate issues and “make noise” to bring the authorities attention to pressing issues. Such openness brings complaint tracking under the watchful public eye.

Having regarded the ways in which Internet Democracy has evolved, can we assume that the trend can grow without much detraction? Or is the internet just an unintelligent tool that can be used to the detriment of democracy as well? The information on the internet is audited only by the collective intelligence of its users. Political parties are not far behind the civil society in using the internet as a campaign tool. False information like any other information spreads faster in internet. As social media and internet analysts mature and get a hold on the internet, they can easily suppress information according to their needs. For instance, social media analysts have reportedly devised ways to push negative information down the ranks in search engines effectively suppressing it. Keeping the internet free of influence thus largely depends on how far ahead search engines are in their race with such analysts.  Another potential problem with internet is that at the end of the day internet media firms also have to make money to keep it running. As the amount of data on internet gets bigger and bigger, media firms have to increase their revenue to support them. We are already seeing features to promote specific information for money in social networks like facebook. It is difficult to see how information on internet can be kept insulated from the influence of monetary factors. Various governments including big democracies like India and USA have been trying to control the flow of information in internet. Though the government has specific areas of concern like national security which could benefit from such activity, an arbitrary level of control can result in undermining of democracy itself.

The last piece of puzzle in Internet Democracy is cyber security. All levels of activity that happen on internet are based on trust. But as we know cyber security is a major concern, especially on mobile devices. Quantum computers when developed will make it easy to crack the toughest of cryptographic algorithms like RSA. As new technologies emerge, cyber security must stay ahead of the hackers to keep information on internet reliable.

All things said, Internet Democracy has opened possibilities for participatory democracy that traditional media cannot have offered. But it is not without its fallibilities. Like any other media, it will be subject to influences from all quarters. The proverbial “eternal vigilance” will be essential to keep Internet Democracy as effective as it is envisaged.

 

*The views represented in this blog are those of the author. It does not represent the thoughts, intentions or plans of the Swaniti Initiative.