19 February 2010

Article: Democratic and Anti-Democratic Regulators of the Internet

Michael L. Best and Keegan W. Wade, "Democratic and Anti-Democratic Regulators of the Internet: A Framework" ("The Information Society", 23 [5], October 2007: pp. 405-11):


Abstract: "We employ Lessig's framework of regulation to conceptualize the relationship between the Internet and democracy. Lessig defines four classes of regulators, forces that control and define systems such as the Internet. They are markets, architectures, norms, and laws. We propose that a 'democratic regulator' is a force that serves to enhance civil or political liberties. And we argue by example that there are democratic (and, indeed, anti-democratic) regulators that control aspects of cyberspace. Expressing the democratic effects of the Internet in this manner may prove useful for future comparisons across existing Internet and democracy theories, especially in the realm of quantitative analyses."

Excerpts: "Over the past 15 or so years there has been substantial speculation as to the relationship between the Internet and democracy, with most scholars falling into one of two main camps: the pro-democracy, 'cyberoptimist' camp, and the anti-democracy, 'cyberpessimist' camp [....] [E]xponents of the anti-democracy camp [...] demonstrate that authoritarian governments can harness the Internet for their own purposes. [...] An anti-democratic regulator is the opposite of a democratic regulator – it undermines civil liberties or political rights. If a government were to limit the speed at which their backbone servers operated by imposing bandwidth quotas, this could [...] result in citizens being less able to engage in civil society activities online, causing democracy to suffer. Similarly, if a private Internet service provider (ISP) privileged certain commercial communications while restricting the communication of civil society, this too would be anti-democratic within our framework. Witness the ongoing debate over Net Neutrality [...].

"For each of Lessig's categories of regulation, prominent democratic or anti-democratic regulators of the Internet can be identified. [...] Encryption can have a powerful positive effect on the democratization process by allowing, for instance, dissident groups to organize secretly. But, as Lessig points out, cryptography is 'Janus-faced ... it [...] will undermine dictatorships and it will drive them to new excesses' [....] Filtration software can have negative implications for civil society since it can make it difficult for citizens to access media concerning political ideas, and can prevent people from associating with certain groups. [...] Filtration software, when embedded in the architecture of networks run by authoritarian states, serves as an undemocratic element of code. [...]

"It is possible that some governments use price controls to keep certain users/citizens away from the Internet. [...] [A]ccess price can prevent citizens from exercising the civil liberties and political rights that they might otherwise gain if they could afford access [...]. Thus, low Internet access prices encourage a broader set of users and are thus democratic market regulators. Conversely, high Internet access prices would discourage use and be an undemocratic market regulator. [...] [V]arious governments around the world – in Malaysia, Turkey, China, and other places – have criminalized politically dissident online speech, and this hurts civil liberties in those nations [...]. Even if these kinds of laws cannot be enforced in full, governments can still make occasional examples of dissenters, intimidating others."

Michael L. Best is Assistant Professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Keegan W. Wade is a Technical Consultant at Blackbaud Inc.

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