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„Digital Democracy – Opportunity or Lame Duck?“

Posted by Stephan Eisel - 4. Januar 2016

The internet is not democratic per se. Like other media, it offers its own opportunities, but also involves specific risks. In a free society the fascination of technology has to be combined with competence on democracy.

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Stephan Eisel

„Digital Democracy – Opportunity or Lame Duck?“

For democracy commitment, participation and involvement of citizens are indispensable. Here the Internet undoubtedly offers new opportunities: It provides easier access to information and new forums for the freedom of expression.

However, the internet is not democratic per se. Like other media, it offers its own opportunities, but also involves specific risks. In a free society the fascination of technology has to be combined with competence on democracy.

1) Given the limited range of the Internet democratic action must not allow any exclusivity of the digital world. Democracy must guarantee all citizens the universal, direct and equal access to the political arena. That is not the case through internet so far. In Europe about 20 percent of the population has no access. The number changed only marginally in recent years. Only half of those with an internet access are regular and experienced users.

It must not be overlooked that the Internet in its core is not a low-threshold, but a demanding offer: The use requires not only a minimum of technical affinity and willingness to activity, but also the necessary time. It privileges those, who have a constant network access at work. The Internet does not provide equal opportunities between a construction worker or bus driver on one hand and a broker or office clerk on the other.

The structural digital divide runs between those for whom using the Internet during work and leisure time does not make a difference, and those who have to weigh the importance of the use of the Internet for themselves in their spare time budget. On the Internet, the „time rich“ are dominating. 2) Compulsion for speed as well as infinite and at the same time fragmented communication spaces create the networks specific Liberal democracy problems. Liberal democracy relies on commitment to the common good and peaceful conflict settlement, which is based on decisions preceded by the open exchange of arguments. This requires both a universally accessible, but at the same time manageable communication space as well as the necessary time for the debate. But the internet privatizes the public area just as it globalizes it. Both is dangerous: It animates as much for a tunnel-type vision in a circle of like-minded as the public area loses its integrating effect through its boundlessness. It does not provide this unified communications space, which is so important for the democratic debate. Unlimited, it breaks down into fragmented echo-societies. While everyone can express themselves on the Net, this does not mean that everybody will be heard. The location of the debate is as difficult to establish for the initiators of a discourse as it is difficult for users to find. At the same time, fast clicks are the valid currency in the internet. But speed is not a badge of enhancement of democracy. Liberal democracy is gaining stability through opinion-forming time and decision-maturity time. On the contrary, the pressure for speed promotes superficiality, flippancy and an atmosphere of quickly changing moods, emotions and scandals. On the web there is rarely time for substantive reflection, integrating communication and decisional serenity. The fixation on speed in the net is in many cases accompanied by credulity. The lightweight access to information and the enormous amount of information often blocks the critical look at the actual information content. Spread is a naive net-credulity as if the availability of data on the Internet would ensure its seriousness. Something is not transparent and trustworthy just because it is on the web. Data wealth does not per se lead to knowledge. 3) Internet voting easily can be an undemocratic manipulation tool for small power elites At first glance the Internet appears to be a breakthrough in an plebiscitary era: voting everywhere about everything seems to be technically feasible. However at the same time the weakness of a „democracy by plebiscite“ becomes exponentially obvious in cyberspace:

In addition to the decoupling of decision and responsibility it is a wrong assumption to imply the politically interested and constantly active citizen as the normal case. Liberal democracy is counting on the political commitment of citizens to their society, but allows them explicitly also the right to be apolitical. The internet has not been invented, tested and developed for political purposes and is also used only by a small minority to do so. Cyberspace is more market-place and playground than a forum for politics.

This is also reflected in the consistently extremely low participation in “digital liberal democracy”. Despite a very easy access through simply registering with an e-mail-address online-participation is everywhere less than two or three per cent of those entitled and remains a tool for very few.

In addition internet-voting until now cannot ensure simultaneously both a covert vote and the verifiability of the process. If the vote is anonymous it cannot be safeguarded against fraud e.g. through hacking. If it is safeguarded e.g. with a system of PINs (Personal Identification Number) as in Online-Banking it cannot be secret because at least system–administrators can link the vote to the voter. So far for online-voting a principle problem is not solved solved: The person or institution which receives your ballot should not be able to know how you are. There are serious doubts whether this in principle is possible in the

And there is another problem to safeguarded online-voting against manipulation: As opposed to a real ballot box digital voting cannot easily be tested by the participants as to whether they are adequately correct functioning. Public control of the election process as a fundamental necessity of democratic elections gets as more difficult as more sophisticated programming is involved.

Casting of votes in the Internet can not only extremely easily be tampered with, but it exaggerates also small active power elites how have enough resources to manipulate the system. Until these problems are solved, one should refrain from voting tools in digital participation and strengthen it instead as a forum for the exchange of arguments.

Politics and Internet is mostly discussed by politically interested and active people. They tend to make themselves a benchmark and to overestimate the role of politics in cyberspace. They should not be misled by their own perspective: The original “Thesis of Mobilization” assuming that the Internet is creating new interest in politics is all over and done with and replaced by the “Thesis of Intensification” which describes the Internet as an additional political playground for those who are interested or active in politics anyhow.

You have to know these limitations of the Internet, when one wants to use its opportunities responsibly: Digital participation as a platform for discourse provides interesting additional possibilities for a liberal democracy: The expansion of freedom of expression and information is its foundation and core. But they who seek not only the debate but also the ruling in the net degenerate it into a Potemkin village, where privileged small internet elites are acting at the expense of the great majority of citizens. Thus, the democratic competence would be sacrificed to the fascination with technology Exiting the Constitutional Convention 1787 Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: „A republic, if you can keep it.“ In relation to the internet and its opportunities for more citizen participation one could now add:“ Democracy – if you can use it. „


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