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A good deal of discourse relating to the 'democratic potential' of the Internet has tended to simplify the question of technology. Whilst it is true that the structure of the Internet may well facilitate certain 'democratic' forms of use, this is not a necessary fact. This paper argues that the Internet is not passive, but is shaped by the ways in which it is used. Such an account emphasizes the fact that certain forms of use may well conflict, leading to a struggle to define the technology, people's relation to it, and thus the ways in which it is used. The discussion concludes with the suggestion that, unless users strive to develop the Internet as a democratic tool, or one that enhanced non-commercial civil society, the potential often referred to will be lost.
Lee Salter
A contribution to understanding the ‘effects’
of the Internet on deliberative democracy
A good deal of discourse relating to the ‘democratic potential’ of the Internet has
tended to simplify the question of technology. Whilst it is true that the structure
of the Internet may well facilitate certain ‘democratic’ forms of use, this is not a
necessary fact. This paper argues that the Internet is not passive, but is shaped by
the ways in which it is used. Such an account emphasizes the fact that certain
forms of use may well conflict, leading to a struggle to define the technology,
people’s relation to it, and thus the ways in which it is used. The discussion
concludes with the suggestion that, unless users strive to develop the Internet as a
democratic tool, or one that enhanced non-commercial civil society, the potential
often referred to will be lost.
Keywords Internet; WWW; democracy; discourse; public sphere;
technology; colonization; governance
Framing the discussion – democracy, structure and agency
As with all new technologies, various claims have been made about the Internet,
ranging from the mindlessly optimistic to the hopelessly pessimistic. Some of
the more sensible literature is less extreme in its vision and less abstract in its
analysis. The present discussion relates to a particular claim made of the
Internet: that of the effects of the Internet on the deliberative component of
democracy. Although there is uncertainty about the timing of the first analyses
of the Internet and democracy, there was certainly a healthy debate by the mid
1990s. To be sure, there are a number of texts that have argued that the
Internet is good for democracy and a number that have argued the contrary
position. In the first case, claims have been made such as ‘the Internet can
actually strengthen deliberative democracy’ (Gimmler 2001, p. 31), ‘how the
Internet invents new forms of democratic activity’ (Locke 1999), or will
‘revolutionize the process of political communication’, arguing that ‘the bulk
Information, Communication & Society Vol. 7, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 185–206
ISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/1369118042000232648
of analysts agree that political and societal change are the effect, and the Internet
is and will be the cause(Hill & Hughes 1998; p. 181), with some even arguing
thatitisanon-monetised communications realm, an open global commons
(Moore 1999, p. 40). To be sure, there are notable examples of essays in which
there has been an emphasis on the importance of the broader socio-economic
circumstances in which technologies such as the Internet are used (e.g. Cala-
brese & Borchert 1996; Hacker 1996; Resnick 1998; Streck 1998; and espe-
cially the political economists Patelis 2000; McChesney 2002), but there is
arguably a more widespread tendency to focus on what the Internet does.
Often, the latter perspectives either fail to make a contribution as to what can
be done (e.g. Graham 1999; Dreyfus 2002), or romanticize the developmental
processes behind the Internet, failing to make a clear distinction between the
different interests that drove its development. Whilst a number of accounts
are very insightful, there is little discussion about actually affecting the Internet
in accord with what may be referred to as democratic interests. One way of
undertaking such a task is to differentiate the structures of the technology and
the ways in which the different layers of structure are used, inuenced and, in
turn, developed.
Subscribing to a philosophy of technology that is perhaps most closely
expounded by Andrew Feenberg (1999), I would like to introduce the concept
of forms of useto help explain how the process of technological development
takes place. The concept of forms of use relates to the idea that technologies
are developed with a particular use in mind. The usecorresponds to a need
that the technology aims to full, and the need is in turn formulated by
particular interests. Often technologies are developed that can be used in ways
that were not intended. Indeed, the Internet is a prime example of this. The
needs of the US military led to its development, but it was then considered to
be useful by a variety of other groups. The use of the Internet by academic
researchers for their work and for their social interaction further formed the
Internet according to their needs. To this end I argue that, although there are
basic structural properties of the Internet, these being necessary for us to say
that it is something that we can distinguish from other things, it is not entirely
clear that the Internet is a single and denite thing beyond these very basic
structural properties. Beyond the basic structural properties, the Internet is
the use to which it is put, and thus effectsare not one way. Thus, the Internet
is not static, and nor are its effects, so an account of the process of technical
development, which is lacking in many empirical and normative accounts of
the effects of the Internet, better enables us to engage such questions as its
effects on democracy.
Further to this, such an account will enable me to ll in a gap left by the
use of Ju
¨rgen Habermass theories of the public sphere and communicative
action, which have informed so many of the arguments for the Internets
democratic potential. Habermass (1989) thesis on the bourgeois public sphere
is relatively well known now. However, the support for this theory, garnered
in his subsequent work, is less often cited. Habermass theory of social evolution
suggests that societies, and the communication that directs them, become
increasingly rationalized as they become more complex. This process of
rationalization is seen by Habermas to be Janus-faced, insofar as there are
positive and negative effects of rationalization, corresponding to communicative
and instrumental rationality respectively. On the positive side, speech acts are
freed from conventional ties allowing rational-critical discourse to test their
validity. The public sphere is seen as a forum in which such rational-critical
discourse can take place. However, it is not enough for people merely to talk.
Rather, the productivity of talk increases to the extent that the communication
of the interlocutors corresponds to certain rules. Habermas sees the original
use of language as corresponding to communicative reason, whereas strategic
uses of language are parasitic upon the communicative mechanisms of under-
standing. For the latter to operate in the public sphere, the following conditions
should be seriously pursued:1there must be a willingness and ability to under-
stand others, a knowledge of ones own interests, equal opportunities for all
to express those interests, equal opportunity to argue against suggestions that
may harm ones interests, and protection against closure, due to the fact that
no consensus can insure itself against the possibility of new arguments(Rehg
1997, pp. 3839, 222). A number of those who have argued for the democratic
potential of the Internet have suggested that the architecture of the Internet
can facilitate a deliberative democracy in accord with these features. However,
whilst I agree with much of this assertion, such accounts of the technology
itself lack an explication of the dynamics of development that is, they fail to
address the issue of what the Internet is and what it can be. This oversight
makes it difcult to evoke the critical angle that Habermas takes in his work,
in relation to system and lifeworld. Thus, at the outset, a question such as
What are the effects of the new form of mass media known as the internet?
(Gimmler 2001, p. 21) fails to engage specically the parallel question of the
dynamic at the heart of the prior and continuing development of this technol-
ogy, and the relation between effect and affect.
Just as it is argued that the Internet must be dened in order to promote
conceptual clarity, so too must there be a clear, albeit brief, denition of the
democracythat the Internet is said to effect, and which I argue should affect
what the Internet is.
Of course, democracy is a socially contingent form of rule. Thus, we
might say, empirically, that the UK practises a form of representative demo-
cracy. Indeed, it is the disengagement that comes from the Burkean trusteeship
model of representative democracy that seems to be the target of much of the
writing on the effects of the Internet on democracy. It is unlikely, and perhaps
undesirable, that the model of representative democracy will be replaced
without signicant alterations in the socio-economic structure of society. Thus,
any attempt to argue that the form of democracy will change as a result of the
effects of one technology is somewhat naive in its understanding of social
change. Instead, I argue that the fundamental structures of democracy will
probably remain in place, although the level at which they operate may be
altered. This is not to say, however, that there are not serious deciencies in
the model. On the contrary, with the continued concentration of ownership
of traditionalmass media and the unceasing homogenization of content, the
communicative capacity of actors in the less formal layers of political society
are relatively reduced. It is at this level of civil society that the deliberative
communicative structures upon which a democratic system depends must be
strengthened. Thus representative democracy must have a deliberative
component in civil society as well as in parliament to allow citizens to form
genuine public opinion, and for that to inuence the political core. Such a
model is akin to Habermass (1996) proposals in Between Facts and Norms
(chapter 8).
The Internet: what is it? Interests and effects
The Internet is commonly conceived of as a network of computer networks.
Internetingwas used to describe the process of connecting and using com-
puter networks. Thus Internetcomes to be used to refer to the product of
interneting. But what differentiates the Internet from computer networks as
such? The concept of basic structural properties allows us to describe the
essenceof a technology. In this way, the Internet in use can be best explained
as consisting in constitutive, application and physical structures. This differentia-
tion is necessary not only for ontological reasons, but also so that we can
identify the governance regimes and how they affect the development of the
Internet. The constitutive structure of the Internet is made up of specic
Internet transfer protocols that connect computers together, and the transfer
and packet-switching technologies that enable data to travel between com-
puters. These were designed to allow maximum interoperability and to ensure
that the structure was decentralized and, rather than being non-hierarchical
per se, did not depend on hierarchy. The domain naming and numbering
system should also be considered as part of this layer. The constitutive structure
of the Internet is the framework upon which the application structure is built.
The application structure, which refers to the applications employed to use the
Internet, such as the WWW and Usenet, facilitates use. Whilst the application
structure is somewhat dependent on the constitutive structure, the openness
of the latter means that there is a broad range of applications that can be used.
Indeed, uses of the application structure may also affect, that is make demands
of, the constitutive structure. The physical structure the cabling and telephone
exchanges upon which the Internet relies is also of great importance, but as
the Internet is largely parasitic upon it, rather than it being a part of the
Internet, I will not address it here.2Thus, by framing the discussion of forms
of use in relation to basic structural properties, we can offer a clearer explana-
tion of the dynamics of the structure and use of the Internet.
The technological determinist explanation of the effects of technologies
nds its most extreme form in science ction novels, and even in some more
serious political texts. Such accounts often seem to argue that technology has
a necessary effect, that a particular effect is encapsulated within the technology
from the outset. However, technological determinism has been challenged and,
to an extent, overcome. But, as is often the case, there is a tendency for the
explanation to swing too far the other way. The economic and socio-political
determinist positions are equally problematic. A form of economic determinism
led Adorno & Horkheimer (1997, p. 121) to suggest that the technological
rationale of domination is the result not of a law of movement in technology
as such but of its function in todays economy. Indeed, Habermas (1971, pp.
104105) claimed that dominant social interests still determine the direction,
functions, and pace of technical progress . . . these interests dene the social
system so much as a whole that they coincide with the interest in maintaining
the system. So too for Brian Winston (1998, pp. 325327), with regards to
the Internet, it is clear that the supervening necessity for networking the main
frames came from the same military concerns as had caused those main frames
to be built in the rst instance. Whilst these are important contributions, the
pessimism that they evoke may serve to debilitate and disable positive action.
The reasons for this tendency include that socio-economic determinism fails
to distinguish between technologies and the uses to which some can be put by
different sections of society. In short, they fail to take account of the level of
agency required for what Feenberg (1999) refers to as democratic rationaliza-
tions. Notwithstanding these cautions, it is unreasonable to deny that there are
dominant economic interests in society which, along with(in) government,
contribute to determining the direction of technological research and output,
especially when one notes that the huge levels of funding required for the
development of the Internet. However, it is equally unreasonable to say that
this is the only inuence, or to overestimate the impact of it.
Indeed, Rheingolds (2000) often unfairly treated account of networked
communities is one of many illustrations of how other interests inuenced the
development of networks and how dominant interests can be challenged and
subverted. Accordingly, rather than merely considering the effect of a technol-
ogy on people, we are now led to contemplate the effect of people on a
technology. To be sure, if it is not used, the Internet does nothing. Thus, the
use of the Internet as an open, egalitarian deliberative forum depends on the
applications that people develop for use, which in turn depend on a certain
constitutive structure, without which a variety of forms of use will not be
Of course, the possibility of affecting a technology through use is, there-
fore, somewhat limited by the type of technology. The question of how this use
is restricted forces us to return to the question of basic structural properties, for
these form the limitations on use. Basic structural properties obviously differ
from thing to thing, with one of the differences being whether their basic
structural properties are open or closed. Closure refers, in the language of the
social construction of technology approach (Pinch & Bijker 1984), to the
stabilization of a technology around a particular use or set of uses. Kline &
Pinch (1996) have added that technology often becomes closed around a
dominant form, but that interpretative exibility may challenge that closure.
It is my contention that decisions during the initial process of technological
development inuence the degree of closure of the technology. Indeed, some
technologies are designed to be closed and some to be open. By all accounts,
the basic structural properties of the Internet were initially designed to be
open. Since the rst stirrings of ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency
Network) in the late 1960s, it has always been the case that the Internet
engineers and governing bodies, such as the Internet Architecture Board (IAB),
have resisted proprietary protocols and applications.3The original form of use
intended by the ARPANet engineers and others working in the eld was to
facilitate on one hand effective military command and control and, on the
other, to facilitate effective communication, cooperation and resource sharing
amongst researchers. This does not mean that I am making the claim that there
is always a direct connection between the intended use and the actual use of a
technology: it is clear from Rheingolds (2000) and Feenbergs (1999) accounts
of the development of the Minitel system in France that the original intention
does not always carry through.4Indeed, some of the original engineers on the
ARPANet project have attested that they had no idea that it would become
used by the public. Nevertheless, this open protocol network and the open-
source software that runs it allow forms of use that might be considered
democratic. Information sharing, horizontal communication, many-to-many
discussions and fully interactive information generation are all common uses
of the Internet that have beneted from and contributed to the development
of open protocols. On the other hand, when commercial companies began to
operate network services, most were closed proprietary networks, which
resulted in much more controlled environments than that provided by the
Internet. As commercial networks tried to expand, it became clear that most
users wanted to access other networks thus gaining market advantage and
to the Internet itself. Commercial network providers had two choices: either
impose their standards on other networks, or abandon them. After attempting
the former, most chose the latter route. In light of this, it is wise to suggest
that the open structure of the Internet remains the case as long as people make
it so, and it cannot simply be assumed that interests naturally converge on this
Affecting the Internet forms of use
If forms of use affect the Internet, and the former are manifold, it is not clear
what effectthe Internet has, which is why use is a more appropriate focus of
analysis than effect. So the question to be asked is: What forms of use are there,
what demands do they make of the structure, and do these conict?
Towards the end of her essay, Gimmler (2001, p. 33) warns us that on-
line shopping . . . will be especially intrusive if it leads to the introduction of
fees. Whilst it is important to be aware of the threats to the properties that
make Internet so appealing, it is also important to be clear about the full nature
of these threats. If the use of the Internet and the WWW impacts upon their
structures, then different forms of use will have different, sometimes conict-
ing, effects. Before asking what the effects of online shopping and e-commerce
are, it is perhaps necessary to focus upon forms of use that are more appealing
to both Gimmler and myself.
I have argued that the structural properties of the Internet enable a variety
of forms of use. One of these forms of use is based around Usenet, which
has inuenced the development of web-based message boards. Usenets
uncontrolled, open, egalitarian structure arose from the use of email systems
for Unix enthusiasts and developers to cooperate and support each other.
Usenet does not require regulation for such uses and has remained this way
even as it branched out to become a public discussion system. A more recent
implementation of Usenet is the web-based thread-discussion. This is similar,
but the messages are stored centrally, which has several implications, some of
which I shall discuss shortly. On one hand, participants can challenge authority
more readily than they can in newspapers or television there are no
gatekeepers; the depth and range of debate is far greater than can be in
newspapers or television owing to the lack of central control and the greater
communication capacity of the Internet; and the anonymity that participants
can assume can leave the weight of the argument with the words rather than
the authority of the participant and enables those who might not otherwise
speak out due to internal or external compulsion to do so. On the
other hand, Habermas (1987, pp. 184185) notes that technologies of
communication make possible the foundation of public sphereswhen on one
hand they are connected up to the cultural traditionand on the other they
remain dependent on the actions of responsible actors. The lack of control
and the openness of Usenet means that the cultural traditions of users may be
so diverse that background assumptions are not shared; the greater capacity
may not result in greater depth and range at all. In the second case, as Dreyfus
(2002) has pointed out, anonymity can also reduce the responsibility of actors.
Usenet usage can mean that language can be emptied of any productive
content: responsibility is required to prevent performative contradictions, and,
indeed, lying.
This very brief sketch of some of the benets and aws of Usenet communi-
cation is intended to show that few effects are necessary effects; most are effects
of forms of use.5For instance, irresponsibility is not a necessary effect of the
Internet. At the same time that anonymity in certain realms may lead us to
question the sincerity of an utterance, Internet Protocol addresses (the number
that identies ones connection), email registration and other forms of identi-
cation mean that one can actually be held accountable for ones utterances,
and referred back, thus giving a reference point from which to judge accusations
of performative contraction. So to suggest that the Internet has a positive or
detrimental impact on communication and discourse ignores the fact that the
Internet does nothing without people doing something with it. Given the
openness of the Internets constitutive structure, it is fair to say that applications
can be set up that will enable whatever form of discourse is required,6even a
form of discourse ethics akin to that Habermas developed in Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action (1990) and in Between Facts and Norms (1996). Indeed,
message boards are perhaps more easily adaptable to requirements, as they can
be ownedand thus managed. However, this means that they can be more
easily controlled to the detriment or advantage of the discussion. Again, we
have to check the form of use. It is only when we realize that we create fora
that the claim that the Internet can actually strengthen deliberative democracy
(Gimmler 2001, p. 31) makes sense.
In terms of other potential forms of use, Gimmler (2001, p. 33) doesnt
go far enough in asserting merely that the internet does enable news to be
broadcast quickly and economically. Perhaps the most important form of use
of the Internet concerns interactivity, and especially that facilitated by hypertext
applications such as the WWW. That is, we should not focus just on the fact
that a nished news or information product can be distributed easily, but also
on how the WWW enables a different form of generation of information.
Advocates of deliberative democracy should ask what interests lie behind
information, and advocate the radical generation of information and the identi-
ties that are based upon it. Indeed, one of the main components of deliberative
democracy is rejection of pre-givens. It is suggested that deliberative democracy
goes beyond merely responding to pre-given questions, instead advocating the
generation of questions. At a more radical level, information should undergo
the same process. This is in contrast to the mass media model that focuses on
distribution of information, which has been privately generated, to an audience
that may not be completely passive in receipt, but is constrained in how active
it can be in generation and response by the spectrum and capacity limits of the
medium and the dominant form of use as a delivery mechanism for predened
information. By contrast, the WWW was intended by Tim Berners-Lee, and
hypertext by other theorists before him, to facilitate a new form of information
generation. He states that:
I wanted the Web to be what I call an interactive space where everybody
can edit. And I started saying interactive, and then I read in the media
that the Web was great because it was interactive, meaning you could
click. This was not what I meant by interactivity, so I started calling it
intercreativity.... What I mean is being creative with others. A few
fundamental rules make this possible. As you can read, so you should be
able (given the authority) to write.
(Berners-Lee 1999)
So the WWW was not intended to be a passive medium. Users here are to be
dened not as passive recipients, but as active participants, breaking down the
distinction between author and reader/broadcaster and viewer. The WWW
was intended to facilitate the generation and sharing of knowledge:
It had to be not only easy to browse, but also easy to express oneself. In
a world of people and information, the people and information should be
in some kind of equilibrium. Anything in the Web can be quickly learned
by a person and any knowledge you see as being missing from the Web
can be quickly added. The Web should be a medium for the communication
between people: communication through shared knowledge.
(Berners-Lee 1998)
The idea of constant dialogue was supposed to be built into the WWW. The
generation of information was supposed to take place as a social act, distinct
from other media forms such as the press and television:
The basic ideas [sic] of the Web is that [sic] an information space through
which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way: com-
municate by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The idea was not just that
it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would
be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out. This is not supposed
to be a gloried television channel.
(Berners-Lee 1999)
In accord with this vision, the UK Independent Media Centre (IMC)
illustrates a use of the WWW in facilitating the autonomous information and
identity generation upon which the democratic public sphere depends. This
organization arose as a response to discontent with the current mass media
constellation and attempts to bypass the (mainstream) corporate media(Indy-
media UK 2003a). It refers to itself as an independent grassroots do-it-yourself
media project, a network of independent and alternative media activists and
organisations, offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of
important social and political issues(Indymedia UK 2003b). Further to this,
the IMC claims to appreciate the problem of objectivity more fully than can
be done in mass media. Rather than dress up its information and news items
as having a mystical attachment to truth or objectivity, the IMC is quite clear
in its approach to such issues. It announces that while the mainstream media
conceal their manifold biases and alignments, we clearly state our position.
Indymedia UK does not attempt to take an objective and impartial standpoint:
Indymedia UK clearly states its subjectivity(Indymedia UK 2003c). Although
the IMC recognizes the importance of pirate radio and television in subverting
the dominant uses of those media, it also recognizes that the WWW can
surpass these media in expanding the breadth of ows of information, and
increasing the level of interactivity. It is these qualitative enhancements that
allow the IMC to pursue a form of information generation, publication and
discussion that near fully utilizes the potential of WWW communication. The
IMC refers to its method as a system of open publishing, whereby anyone
can upload a written, audio and video report or a picture directly to the site
through an openly accessible web interface. The IMC calls this direct media,
which erodes the dividing line between reporters and reported, between
active producers and passive audience(Indymedia UK 2003c), so that open
platforms to which everyone can contributeare created, which takes control
out of the hands of the traditional small media elite with their particular
interests. As a consequence of this, many issues and discussions that were
previously suppressed become visible and available(Indymedia UK 2003a). In
following this model people are enabled to speak for themselves. Indeed, the
editorial policy of the organization is such that anyone can make contributions,
and all contributions will be publicly displayed with the proviso that while we
struggle to maintain it as a completely open forum we do monitor and on
occasions remove posts. In effect, there is no policy of prior restraint, but items
may be removed on the grounds of discrimination, advertising, inaccuracy, or
repetition (Indymedia UK 2003b) . Further to this, all news items are open to
direct response from all readers. In fact, even those contributions that are
refused on account of the editorial policy are displayed in the administration
area for all participants to view.7Although casual participants cannot alter the
editorial status of the contributions, the fact that excluded stories are made
available is extraordinary. The effectiveness of such an open and democratic
media organization is further enhanced by the fact that at bigger events they
extend this participatory model by establishing ‘‘ Public Access Terminals’’ on
the streets, facilitating direct access to the technical equipment that enables
participants to upload to the website(Indymedia UK 2003c).
Indeed, the WWW is used by the IMC in the same manner to propose,
discuss and agree the IMCs use of it. For example, reforms to the open
publishing newswirewere proposed, discussed and agreed openly on its web-
site. Indeed, this has reinforced the broad community of interest in establishing
and running open publishing newswires, which has formed the basis for the
discussions within the global IMC (see Indymedia UK 2002). Within the IMC,
we can see the development of a form of communication that could be said to
make use of the specic characteristics of the WWW, in which the same open
and dialogical form of communication that facilitates fair news reporting is also
used to discuss the internal affairs of the organization. In both cases, the control
and ltering structures, and the capacity-specic problems that have plagued
existing mass media have been massively diminished. This results partially
from the philosophical and political beliefs of participants, but without the
constitutive structural properties of the Internet and the WWW, this would
not have been attained to such a degree, and they certainly wouldnt have been
able to develop open-publishing software to such a degree with a different
medium. Indeed, the IMC is one of only a few examples of where Berners-
Lees concept of intercreativity, using the potential of hypertext, has come into
fruition. It is only one of a handful of cases where a form of use has exploited
the potential of the WWW.
The concept of forms of use offers not only enable the identication of
structure formed around certain interests, but on a theoretical level highlight
adeciency in Habermass distinction between instrumental and communicative
domains. The form of technical-instrumental rationality that Habermas saw
driving technological development may well have been an inuence on the
initial motivation for the development of the Internet as a robust communi-
cations mechanism to facilitate military command and control, but it cannot
explain these alternative developments. Indeed, John Deweys argument that
science and technology need to be democratized in order to be legitimated
should sit well with Habermass later democratic theory that is, Habermass
notion that political rule must be legitimized by the public can surely be
extended to the scientic and technical realm. Whereas Habermas separates
the types of reasoning involved in scientic and technical value domains from
those that take place in moral domains, Dewey noted the embeddedness of
science and technology in social processes of problem formulation and problem
solving. Although there is a stage in which technicians and scientists must work
according to a specic logic of enquiry, it is also the case that the needs of
society must inform the direction of development. This can enable us to judge
developments and relate them to interests. Thus, any notion that the Internet
has positive effects on democracy must also factor in the effects that democratic
systems of inuence have on the Internet. I have argued that the development
of Usenet and the WWW has produced applications that ll a communicative
decit at the informal level of political society; but for these forms of use to
remain viable, they must be factored into continued development of the applica-
tions and to the basic structural properties of the Internet itself. That is, the
interests that underlie such forms of use must be able to impress themselves
on the Internets governing bodies. With this more radical process of affecting
and effecting, we can begin to think of the Internet as a democratic technology.
Colonization and the struggle between forms of use
I hope to have satisfactorily illustrated two cases that show how the Internet
can be used. These are not mysterious inevitabilities caused by magical powers.
Rather, they are contingent forms of use. They are contingent because, on one
hand, they rely on the attitudes of participants and, on the other, they depend
on the particular attributes of the current basic structure. It is, however, not
clear that these attributes will endure. Perhaps the cause of most concern is
the impact of commercialization. As I have noted, the various forms of use
make conicting demands on the structure via the standards bodies. Where
the potential democratic and civic forms of use are reduced by the requirements
of administration or e-commerce, we can say that a colonization process has
taken place.8This process can be understood from a variety of perspectives,
of which I shall survey three: the commercialization of software, of information,
and of structure.
The commercialization of computer software, some of which forms the
application structure of the Internet, can help us understand the degree to
which commercialization prompts colonization. One of the effects of the
commercialization of the Internet and computing in general is the illegalization
of a type of culturelaid claim to by some computer and Internet enthusiasts.
As already noted, Usenet was rst used as a support and assistance forum for
Unix users. Technical problems could be resolved easily and inexpensively by
users asking each other for help, and by pooling expertise and knowledge via
Usenet. Indeed, the term hackingwas initially used to refer to people who
examined the software coding for programmes to resolve bugs and other
problems. However, as Richard Stallman (1998) points out, the status of what
were then called hackerschanged with the non-disclosure agreements forced
on users by commercialized software: they were criminalized. These non-
disclosure agreements, essentially meaning that the user was not allowed to
alter or share software, meant that the cooperating community was forbidden,
as hardware manufacturers forced for-prot software on users. The implication
of these events were the imposition of market power on decisions and choices,
while at the same time removing the ability to shape software in accord with
As the Internet has become commercialized, the primary providers of
information have changed from users to companies. One of the implications
of this process is that the relationship of users to the information stored on the
Internet has changed. On one hand, the privatization of, or increase of private,
information has meant that such visions as the social generation of information
have been clouded. As with software, the commodication of information
means that copying or altering content, or even adding links, can amount to
trespass.10 Further to this, if money is to be made out of privatized information,
then money is to be made out of providing the resources with which to nd
that information. Thus the tools that helped make the WWW such an important
source of alternative information, such as search engines and online directories,
have changed over the years. To note how much, one only need go to the
Internet archive at and search for to compare
the 1996 version with todays.11 The commodication of information and its
provision (such as charging for high rankings on search engines) reduced the
degree to which the Internet and the WWW can be seen to level communi-
cation and information provision.12 Furthermore, the channelling of people
with portals and online directories introduces a predened spectrum ofcial
or authoritativesources of information whose authority is based upon little
else than the ability to pay. Thus the characteristics that are so appealing to
those who champion the Internets positive effects on democracy are weakened.
Indeed, as Robert McChesney (2002) has pointed out, for reasons of political
economy Internet content is increasingly coming to resemble that of tradi-
tionalmedia output.
Finally, the structure of the Internet can become altered not only by the
above processes, but also by facilitating what many advocates are predicting to
be the primary function of the WWW: e-commerce. Just as discourse and
intercreativity require certain technical attributes, so too does e-commerce.
Whereas discourse depends upon open access and interactivity, the latter relies
upon channelled access, mediated so-called interactivity and closed, secure
sires: the cyber-citizenbecomes the cyber-client. It is, however, important
to note that the effects of e-commerce are not all one sided, as, for it to be
successful, it has to include as many people as possible in its market. Therefore,
it might be argued that e-commerce will become one of the major reasons for
increasing Internet usage. However, on the other hand, it is likely that e-
commerce, and the commercialization of the Internet in general, will reduce
the quality of the experience. Thus, we have a possible trade-off: a quantitative
increase, and a qualitative decrease. The sense of the preceding cases that I
have attempted to convey is that of a relation of users to the Internet, its
content and each other. Commercialized relations shape expectations of use,
with users being channelled by Internet service providers (ISPs) towards
recommendedcontent, which often turns out to be established sources of
infotainment and commercial sites.13 Indeed, there is little reason to suspect
that the general capitalistic traits of centralization and concentration will not
apply. These processes, in turn, make demands on the structure.
If it is claimed that one form of use may restrict another, it is important
to show how. After all, with such a broad spectrum as the Internet, cannot all
forms of use stand side by side? The answer to this lies partly in the political
economy of the physical structure of the Internet it is fast becoming the case
that content providers also own parts of the physical structure. As this has
been discussed competently elsewhere (Herman & McChesney 1997; Patelis
2000; McChesney 2002), I will focus on another inuence on uses and structure
of the Internet: standards bodies.
Perhaps the two most important bodies for the case in hand are the Internet
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the World Wide
Web Consortium (W3C). The former decides who gets allocated what domain
names (e.g., whilst the latter decides upon the standards
of the operating language of the WWW. Whilst both organizations claim to
resolve technical problems neutrally, it is clear that their remits rest on back-
ground presumptions.
ICANNs role and objectives are unsure at the moment, but that is not
unusual for this body. ICANN was preceded by the Internet Assigned Numbers
Agency (IANA), which had allocated names and numbers on a rst-come-rst-
served basis. After being tested in a number of legal challenges, the assignment
of names and numbers moved from an organization mandated by the US
Department of Defense (IANA), to one mandated by the Department of
Commerce (ICANN). In this latter guise, the organization was reformed in
accord with a more democraticmodel. Openness and representation were
called for in the new ICANN, but at the time of writing, the democratic
experiment seems to have failed, opening it up for further reform. From
Marcel Marchills (2001, p. 44) Recommendations for Internet Governance on behalf
of the Bertelsmann Foundation, we can see at least two differing interpretations
of ICANN. On one hand, from the perspective of the US government, ICANN
regulation is in private hands, nancing is internationalized, the status of
ICANN as a non-prot organization is trivial, and the need to legitimize it is
very limited due to the fact that the mandate is purely technical. On the other
hand, from the point of view of numerous stakeholders outside the USA and
critics from both within and without, ICANN is an American organization
whose authority is dependent on the USA, whose legal status is guaranteed by
Californian law, and which lacks legitimacy. Further to this, proponents of
such a view believe ICANNs mission to be political and social rather than
purely technical. It is clear that the US government viewis problematic
from the outset. The Domain Name Disputes Resolution Policy (DNDRP;
see formalizes a commercial relation to the
Internet: it has secured the primacy of business interest in considering domain
name and number allocation, illustrating how the Internet is shaped by real
worldeconomic and social relations. Thus, we have a situation whereby there
are requirements for a policy on domain name distribution to be made, and
that this has been done in favour of the business lobby. As Froomkin & Lemley
(2001) have pointed out, the decisions to impose a single (uniform) disputes
resolution policy, as well as to make ICANN a monopoly, did not rest upon
purely technical issues. They argue that there is strong evidence that the
UDRP was enacted at the behest of intellectual property owners who likely
had the political power to prevent the adoption of new gTLDs [Global Top
Level Domains, e.g. .com and .org] unless the registrars agreed to restrict
cybersquattersand that the clear effect of the UDRP [uniform disputes
resolution policy] is to eliminate competition that otherwise would have existed
between registrars about how to resolve disputes(Froomkin & Lemley 2001,
p. 51). In addition to the centralization of control over domain naming, of the
allocation of gTLDs, and control over dispute arbitration, there are inequalities
in the process of arbitration, especially in relation to cost, and, as mentioned,
there is a clear denition of value contained within ICANN in favour of
commercial property. The collapse of ICANNs democratic experiment means
that its Department of Commerce roots are exposed as the main source of
policy. If forms of use are to affect the structure, then bodies like ICANN
must be democratized, and the problems arising from this dealt with in a
serious manner. It is not necessarily the case that the commercial basis of
ICANN is antithetical to democratic uses of the Internet. However, its orienta-
tion to established interests means that the main domain names become bought
up by commercial interests, with others who aim to register domain names in
order to criticize companies or organizations being denied. In this sense, the
ultimate value of a domain name is its role as a positive representation of
a trademark holder, which assigns greater Internet visibility to commercial
The W3C claims to exist to develop interoperable technologies and realize
the full potential of the Web. However, there are immediate concerns with
this. The vast majority of members of the W3C are businesses, which means
that their interests are most visible to decision makers in the W3C.14 Whilst I
have no doubt that a number of people at the W3C really do intend to develop
the Web to meet its full potential, if the major supporters of the organization
are commercial businesses, the (protable) uses that they favour are the ones
that are likely to be developed. This has the potential to stymie the development
of other non-commercial uses. The need for security for commercial trans-
actions not only impacts on web standards, but also browser development.
Indeed, how this may affect the interactivity or intercreativity that Berners-
Lee was so interested in remains to be seen, but it is surely the case that many
of the innovations, such as WAP, focus if not only upon passive receipt of
information, then on the limited, channelled interaction of the click. Further
to this, the development of http standards that enable e-commerce results in
even more limited interaction, and the further subversion of hypertext that
Michele Jackson (1997) argues the WWW initiated. Jackson presents a negative
account of the actual communicative capacity of the WWW, as used, compared
with the potential held by hypertext. She notes that the decision to separate the
software for storing information from that used to display the information
(which is absolutely necessary for e-commerce) meant that the user is separated
from the data. Following from this, contrary to the common claim, the roles
of authors and readers are not merged. One of the causes of this is in the
design of web browsers. The browser has become merely a tool for passively
displaying information, so that the medium ceases to be in any meaningful way
dialogical. For Jackson, it has become merely a new form of staged public
display, an extension of the presentational mode of communication, as in .. .
a television, newsletter or an advertisement. Furthermore, web site designers
are decreasingly likely to pursue or support the original hypertext vision.
Whilst I would disagree that this is somehow inevitable, it is an implication of
e-commerce, whereby it is highly desirable that the customer can only access
certain information in a certain (controlled) way. With standardized browsers
increasingly being the tool for e-commerce, it is increasingly likely that they
will develop with this as the main intention, and that users will be encouraged
to take up a particular relation to the technology and content as passive
consumers.15 The W3C will have to make recommendations based upon this
form of use, perhaps to the detriment of others. As the following shows, such
a suggestion is far from absurd.
The W3C has recently been involved in something of a portentous conict
with the user community. The status of standards recommendations made by
W3C had traditionally been, as a matter of fact, free. However, this was not
formally recognized as policy. In 2001, a number of the member organizations
put forward proposals that would formally allow the recommendation of
patented standards, the use of which would incur a fee. The implication of this
for the WWW was that certain forms of use could be restricted. Users or
providers of information or applications would have to pay to implement or
use recommended standards that were patented. This would have spelt the end
for free and open-source software (and, no doubt, open and free standards:
why develop for free when one can charge a fee?) being used on the WWW,
as payment of royalties would prevent developers from providing the software
and applications free of charge. Indeed, the type of autonomous communication
required for deliberative democracy must be met by a form of production
resembling open source so that it can be adapted to the specic needs of
specic groups. In this sense, design is an issue that cannot be avoided, but if
the basic tools for design are monetized, then options become more and more
limited (if one is to stick to standards). Although the proposition was eventually
defeated owing to public pressure, the fear was that open protocols would have
been replaced by proprietary standards, which would be regarded as private
property. This was a clear case of dominant interests reducing the range of
forms of use of the technology. It is unsurprising that such a proposition was
made because of the constitution of the membership. By and large, the interests
represented in the W3C are not those of the WWW community, but of
large businesses. The subsequent commercial restrictions on use would stymie
not-for-protdemocraticuses. Furthermore, the ongoing discussions of the
implementation of micro-payment technologies further threatens access to
information, whereby content and even per-links could become monetized,
compounding the position of users as consumers rather than producers and
participants. The result of this is that the coding of information becomes
commodied and access to it restricted. If this is done by political means, such
a system would be referred to as tyrannical or even totalitarian. To my know-
ledge, an equivalent term does not exist for when this takes place by economic
As I have tried to argue throughout this paper, few effects of the Internet can
be isolated from the ways in which it is used and the structures that are
developed around these uses. It is possible that the massive capacity of the
Internet will mean that it can facilitate a variety of uses. The problem enters
when one form of use dominates others, and shapes the Internet technologies
as well as the actual relations and expectations of users. Indeed, there must be
caution amongst developers as to the impact of their innovations, and given
the role that standards organizations have, there must be some reform of them
so that whatever the objectives of their sponsors are, they do not become
dominant. In this sense, there might be a good argument for the development of
the Internets and the WWWs basic capacities, with other specic commercial
adaptations being developed by specic parties. Christopher Blizzard of Mozilla
made a suggestion along these lines in the public consultation on the W3C
patent policy:
If there needs to be a venue where companies can get together and create
documents that describe their patent-encumbered standards, they should
do that outside of the W3C. The W3C should promote standards that are
truly freely available. This would promote truly interoperable software and
standards and would put the resulting technologies into the hands of as
many people as possible.
(Blizzard 2001)
The emergence of patent-encumbered standardswould certainly stie the
ease with which democratic forms of use may be developed. Indeed, for the
Internet to continue having effects that have positive implications for delibera-
tive democracy, the process of development must be subject to a wider range
of demands than those of business.
For those who argue that the negative effects of the Internet are over-
whelming, there is scope for their interventions in development. Rather than
merely dismissing the Internet as too likely to result in social fragmentation
and irresponsibility (Graham 1999; Dreyfus 2002), critics should engage in
discussions with those lowly souls whose lives and experiences they take such
a detached yet prescriptive stance towards, suggesting and arguing not only for
particular designs and norms of interaction, but also engaging in political
debates directly. Indeed, there are organizations that are trying to shape the
Internet in accord with the communicative requirements of civil society. For
instance, the Association for Progressive Communications ( is
not merely interested in ‘finding solutions to conicts through dialogue
(Gimmler 2001, p. 34), but is also interested in attempting to shape the Internet
by getting candidates elected onto the ICANN board of directors, by inuencing
government and international policy (which seems to be almost completely
biased in favour of e-commerce and e-government, the latter of which similarly
treats the citizen as a client or consumer of government services), and by
creating applications that enable social movements and civil society groups to
use the Internet effectively, by creating the Internet. To this end, they have
produced a charter that lists the rights that must be claimed in order to affect
democraticuses of the Internet.16 Unless this struggle continues, and unless
more people of inuence get involved in using and developing the Internet,
establishing and defending public spaces and public forms of use, the potential
for deliberative democracy that many have made note of will be lost.
These conditions correspond to a discourse theory of truth and moral
validity. I am supposing that democratic politics aims at truth and moral
2 At one level, the effects of the Internet depend upon how the physical
structure facilitates access. Unfortunately, there doesnt seem to be a great
deal of debate over the question of ownership and access in this area.
Notable exceptions include Calabrese & Borchert (1996), and on the
application structure, Introna & Nissenbaum (2000).
3 Again we see unintended or multifarious consequences of a technology.
Where the open standards and proprietary-free protocols of the Internet
were to a degree intended to facilitate a free market, they also provided
conditions under which there is a horizontal levelling and (formal) universal-
ization of access.
4 Rheingolds and Feenbergs accounts of the development of Minitel both
argue that the French governments intended use of the system as a passive
information distribution channel was subverted by users hacking the system
to enable them to use it as an active communications medium. Feenberg
(1999, p. 126) argues that such use was the very opposite of the rationalistic
project for which it was originally designed.
5 More abstractly, we might ask what sort of effect the uncontrolled discourse
of Usenet might have. Does the lack of authority of language and reason
mean that the need for reaching understanding is met less and less by a
reservoir of traditionally certied interpretations immune from criticism
so that new norms arise that are not guided by normatively ascribed agree-
ment but directly or indirectly by communicatively achieved understand-
ing(Habermas 1984, p. 340)? Does the lack of shared traditions mean that
conicting ethical positions lead to a form of reexivity that forces partici-
pants to reach moral positions on questions of mutual concern?
6 David Miller (1993) suggests that it is a necessary characteristic of delibera-
tive democracy that different discourses may require different fora.
7 These are stored atóy&rstó
8 For Habermass concept of colonization, see Habermas (1987).
9 The US Justice Departments case against Microsoft clearly illustrates these
processes. (United States of America v. Microsoft Corporation, C.A. 98-
1232. Details of the ndings are available at
(accessed June 2004).)
10 In fact, on the Internet every action involves copying the information to the
users computers cache.
11 See
12 Even the much lauded Google search engine, which is by far the best search
engine available, suffers defects. Although it does not include sponsored
links in the actual search results (it does have Premium Sponsorships
and Adwords, but although these are separated from search results, this
separation is not always obvious to novice users), the way that the results
ranking system, PageRank, works means that the more popularan impor-
tantweb page is, as long as its text includes ones search terms, the higher
its ranking is. The unintended result of this is that those websites that are
recognized as authorities (often as a result of greater market power) are
more likely to be viewed. In this case, even Google has a tendency to
consolidate existing inequalities between information providers. To be sure,
whilst this is almost certainly an unintended consequence, it does act as
evidence against the supposition that the Internet causesa more dynamic
and responsive market system, or at least that the Internet encourages a
more equalized playing eld one of the key characteristics of the Internet
claimed by advocates is its positive effects. The issues surrounding search
engine rankings have been competently investigated by Introna & Nissen-
baum (2000).
13 Indeed, BTs homepage has quick linksto the following categories: Music,
Games, Shopping, Travel, Business, Sport and Bets, and Money. A deeper
level of links adds: Property, Travel, Auction, Lifestyle, Jobs, and Cars. The
news section of the site consists of the following categories: Top Stories,
World, Business, Entertainment, Music, Oddly Enough, and Sport. It is
hardly in the economic interest of BT to provide facilities for citizen
14 The minimum membership fee is £5,000 per year (rising to £50,000) for a
minimum of three years. In addition, members are expected to provide staff
for working groups, committees and boards.
15 Kendall Clark has written insightfully, at, on the formulation of
XML schemas, whereby they are designed by interested parties other than
the end-user. This imposes relations on users rather than allowing the latter
to shape use themselves (see Clark 2001).
16 For this charter, see
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Lee Salter is a lecturer in Media and Communications in the Department of
Media and Communications at Edge Hill College of Higher Education. His back-
ground is in political and social theory and media and communications and his
research interests include political theory and the material limits on reason,
and language and media. Address: Department of Media and Communications,
Edge Hill College, St Helens Road, Ormskirk, Lancashire L39 4QP. [email:]
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... Finally, the different options and features of each digital tool should be considered in this evaluation. For instance, one could analyse the need for identification, the role of moderation, technical features of each software (e. g. how reply and feedback work, if it is voice or text-based, if it is possible to send/upload images, videos, files, emoticons and so on, if it is more "online forum-like" or if it resembles a social network website), etc (Janssen and Kies, 2005;Salter, 2004;Wright and Street, 2007). Of course, design should not be regarded as the main deciding factor for whether digital initiatives succeed or not, as this would be a sort of technical determinism (Coleman and Blumler, 2009). ...
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Sumário: 1. Introdução. 2. A eficiência e a efetividade dos programas governamentais e a concretização dos direitos fundamentais. 3. Tecnologias de informação e comunicação e democracia virtual. 4. Democracia virtual brasileira. 5. A eficiência e a efetividade dos programas de acesso de iniciativa governamental. 6. Conclusão
E-government discourse implicates state-produced Websites to enable opportunities and citizen spaces on policy issues, subject to demands to be inclusive, engaging, and free from commercial interests. Policy-making for a global issue like climate change takes place at the inter-governmental United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC). It becomes critical to examine if and how the governments hosting this restrictive global policy-making space may engage citizens through their online presence—host country conference outreach Websites. The chapter explores relational underpinnings between states and citizens in such Websites by examining the values privileged by designers using mixed methods. Among UNCCC Websites from 2007 to 2009, the Danish government Website's enhanced features may have contributed to potential inclusivity for the inter-governmental process online compared to previous government's efforts. However, findings have shown such interactive Website's inherent design aspects may potentially shape the manner that climate conversations are limited in an assumed democratized space online.
E-government discourse implicates state-produced Websites to enable opportunities and citizen spaces on policy issues, subject to demands to be inclusive, engaging, and free from commercial interests. Policy-making for a global issue like climate change takes place at the inter-governmental United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC). It becomes critical to examine if and how the governments hosting this restrictive global policy-making space may engage citizens through their online presence-host country conference outreach Websites. The chapter explores relational underpinnings between states and citizens in such Websites by examining the values privileged by designers using mixed methods. Among UNCCC Websites from 2007 to 2009, the Danish government Website's enhanced features may have contributed to potential inclusivity for the inter-governmental process online compared to previous government's efforts. However, findings have shown such interactive Website's inherent design aspects may potentially shape the manner that climate conversations are limited in an assumed democratized space online.
Full-text available
This paper investigates the factors that influence how members of the Brazilian House of Representatives adopt Twitter as part of their political communication strategy. Our intention is to understand the main variables that lead legislators to invest time and resources in microblogging. This quantitative study examined all of the 457 official congressional accounts registered on Twitter. These accounts were monitored weekly between February 2012 and February 2013. After empirically exploring the data, this work reflects on the results thanks in part to an examination of the literature on the intersection of the Internet and politics. The results indicate correlations between the use of Twitter and attributes like age and occupation of leadership positions. © 2014, Francisco Paulo Jamil Almeida Marques, Jakson Alves de Aquino, and Edna Miola.