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Democracy, New Social Movements and the Internet: A Habermasian Analysis

Authors:
Democracy, New Social Movements and the Internet: A Habermasian Analysis
Lee Salter
Faculty of Environmental and Social Sciences, University of North London
Introduction and Clarification
It is perhaps unsurprising that the theoretical constructs of one of the most important
social philosophers of the present time have been applied to the study of the Internet. These
theoretical constructs offer not only a clear factual explanation of how democracy has
become subverted, but also, more recently, a normative guide out of the impasse envisioned
by his predecessors. Habermas (1996) has recently attempted to apply his vast theoretical
framework to a proposal for a constitutional democracy. In so doing, he has attempted to
provide an explanation of how flows of influence may be organized so as to allow the most
extensive democratisation as possible, without that democracy becoming subverted by
systemic imperatives. It has seemed clear for some time now that the informal layers of
political society identified by Habermas have suffered a communicative deficit that may well
be filled by a medium such as the Internet. In various discussions, the work of Habermas has
been used as a theoretical backdrop to the claim that either the Internet provides citizens with
a public sphere, or that it does not.i To be sure, there have been numerous conflicting
accounts of the degree to which the Internet does or does not constitute a public sphere. Many
such discussions suffer one or both of two fundamental flaws: either that they fail to make
use of an appropriately hermeneutic methodology, such as that employed by Dahlgrenii; or
they have tended to restrict themselves to the notion of the public sphere developed in The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Structural Transformation), mentioning
other aspects of Habermas’s work only in passing, if at all. However, to be sure, there is a
wealth of insight and analysis in the work of Habermas, much of this has yet to be employed
in analyses of the Internet.
In the first section of this chapter, I will provide an overview of the contemporary
discussion of the public sphere, adding few substantial contributions. I then briefly introduce
the main implications of the “system/lifeworld” dichotomy developed in The Theory of
Communicative Action and the more sophisticated conceptualization of the public sphere that
Habermas advanced in The Theory of Communicative Action and Between Facts and Norms.
Next I argue that the Internet is well positioned to facilitate communications in the less
formal sense layer of political society, introduced in Between Facts and Norms. Finally, I
illustrate how social movements shape the Internet to suit the form of communication
appropriate to their interests, and how successful they are in so doing. To this effect, I
examine one of the most important facilitating movement groups, the Association for
Progressive Communications, and its relation to the Internet. Before going any further, it is
necessary, and good practice, to clarify the object of analysis. To this end, I want to explain
what I mean by the “Internet,” and I hope to pre-empt concerns over the question of
technological causation.
The Internet has become an unclear concept. Whereas it is recognized in dictionaries
as a noun, it is also subject to normative description and use, which, to paraphrase
Wittgenstein, determines its meaning. Indeed, when Nortel Networks ask the reader of their
adverts what they want the Internet to be, they illustrate just this point. The Internet is, at
base, merely a network of computer networks. However, who can use it, for what purposes,
and with what restrictions or support are all questions that advertisers, companies,
governments and civil society organisations are trying to answer at the moment. Indeed, one
pertinent question asked by Calabrese and Borchert (1996) is whether we might be able to
regard the Internet as a social good and thus encourage its provision under the auspices of
public service broadcasting. So, when referring to the Internet, I am not restricting myself
only to the technical definition of a computer network, but rather to the social construction of
it, and I will return to this question in due course. It is worth making a distinction between
different Internet technologies in this context. The Internet is accessed by various
applications, such as Telnet, Bulletin Board Systems, Usenet, e-mail, and the World Wide
Web.
The Web was initially just one part of the Internet, linking text documents together
via hyperlinks. Hypertext mark-up language and the hypertext transfer protocol used for the
www has evolved so that it can now be used to access most other Internet applications. Thus
the Web has not only made Internet access available to millions more people than any other
Internet application, but it has also made the Internet easier to use in a technical sense, and
has reduced the number of separate applications required in order to access it. Further to this,
the Web is now the main access point to the Internet, the application that people are most
familiar withiii.
An additional cautionary note must precede the following discussion. Much of the most
insightful and original writing about the Internet seemed to have taken place in the mid
1990s, prior to the expansion of the Web. Thus, essays such as Poster’s (1995) were
essentially addressing bulletin board systems (BBS), e-mail, and the array of local area
networks, such as the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network surveyed by William Dutton
(1996). There is, then, a methodological difficulty in comparing, for instance, Poster’s
comments on the implications of the Internet in 1995 with the implications of the Web in
2002. One such difference is that between the thirty million Internet users that Poster wrote
of, a large proportion of whom were computer enthusiasts, and the three hundred million
users of the Web today. Such difference consists not merely in a quantitative sense, but also
in the notion of qualitative difference between constituencies. In addition to this, as
mentioned above, the Web connects up other Internet applications so that it is more difficult
to make distinctions between them. Nevertheless, it is still important to recognise which
application is the object of analysis, that is an analysis must note whether and when it is
addressing the Internet as a whole, or a particular application.
Further to the above is the question of the direction of causality between the Internet
and society. Various writers, such as Martin Heidegger, Alvin Toffler, Marshall McLuhan,
and Mark Poster have found themselves accused of technological determinism in relation to
information technologies. Even for Habermas (1971) “there is an immanent connection
between the technology known to us and the structure of purposive-rational action” (104-105)
such that the former necessarily caters for the latter interests. I shall make only a few brief
comments on this matter, which I hope will sufficiently depict my position. The notion that a
new technology has some necessary impact upon society is wrong. “Strategies” of
interpretation and implementation mean that the impact of a particular technology on a range
of distinct societies is often diverse. The society, and groups within it, will interact with the
technology both before and after the design process, shaping it and modifying it to suit their
own practical prioritised objectives. Indeed, different groups and classes in a single society
will have divergent (often conflicting) interest-requirements of a technology and will struggle
to control its implementation in accord with these. In order to adequately assess a technology,
it is important to realise the range of interests, and those that attempt to dominate discourse,
whilst recognizing that struggles take place between interests. So as to avoid, on the other
hand, excessive social determinism (see, for example, Brian Winston 1998) whereby
technological rational of domination ‘is the result not of a law of movement in technology as
such but of its function in today’s economy’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997: 121), the degree
to which a technology is “closed” to interests, in the short and long term, must also be
considered. Such an approach allows us to consider, in addition to a plurality of interests
effecting the development of a technology, that the influence of these interests on a
technology changes over time. Technological development is an ongoing process.
Notwithstanding this, to say that a particular technology has no intrinsic qualities is
equally inaccurate: no matter how much social shaping takes place, it is absurd to suggest that
a television can be used to wash clothes. Thus, a cautious balance must be held between the
transformative capacities of a technology on the one hand, and the capacity of social agents to
utilize technologies, and shape them in their use, on the other hand. This interplay will be
held to be of utmost importance in this chapter.
The Public Sphere, Lifeworld, and Colonization
Structural Transformation has been rightly criticised for a number of historical and
theoretical omissions and suppositions (see Calhoun 1992). Although Habermas has accepted
many criticisms, such as those pointing to his exclusion of the idea of working class public
rationality, he passed over the opportunity to make changes to the 1989 English translation,
believing the general points to still hold validity. Indeed, it would be folly to deny the
importance of the book, especially in view of its important critique of modern capitalist
democracies.
Habermas’s central thesis in this work is that during a period of epochal change, there
arose independent forums for rational-critical debate. In the spirit of the bourgeois revolts, the
relationship between title, status, and voice was eliminated in the public sphere of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: it was formally open to all irrespective of class. In the
bourgeois public sphere, arguments stood or fell in accord with the power of the better
argument rather than with the power of coercion. However, once the bourgeoisie had
consolidated their hegemonic position, their public sphere, which employed, or was founded
upon, the public use of reason to critically challenge authority, became an empty concept.
The entry of diverse claims of the working classes, of women into the public sphere, and the
influence of heterogeneous cultural products conspired to drive out the universalistic ethos of
the homogenous public sphere. During this process of “refeudalisation,” of the disintegration
of dialogical publicness and its replacement with public displays designed to gain popular
consent, what was once referred to as “public opinion” became something to be manipulated
and at best consulted rather than something autonomously generated by rationally debating
citizens.
I do not intend here to get involved in the debate over the accuracy of Habermas’s
historical account. Nevertheless, it must be accepted that as a normative critique of capitalist
democracies, there are important lessons to be learned, not least that a democratic
government is one that acts upon the genuine will of the people, that is, a general public will
rather than isolated particularistic interests. A number of writers who specialize on the study
of the Internet have taken the account of the bourgeois public sphere more or less as given,
and have tried to project it onto the Internet. The folly of such an exercise consists not only in
that the bourgeois public sphere arose in a specific period of legitimation crisis, but also due
to the supposedly commensurable objectives and interests of participants in the bourgeois
public sphere, against the plurality of Internet users. In fact, referring solely to Structural
Transformation24 , it seems that the only commonality is that they are both formally open to
all (notwithstanding the fact that in practice “all” in the bourgeois public sphere meant all
aristocratic and bourgeois males). To be sure, the fact that the bourgeois public sphere sought
to form a common will, whereas that Internet seems to fragment or at least question the idea
of universality or common interest, facilitating precisely the opposite--pluralism, may be
evidence enough of the dissimilarities.
Communicative Action and Between Facts addressed not only some of the major criticisms of
Structural Transformation, but also developed positive prescriptions for democratic society,
revisiting the link between the public sphere and government. In Between Facts, Habermas
makes an explicit claim for the structure of a democratic society. Whereas in Structural
Transformation, the public sphere was (empirically) homogenous and was rather simply
related to the sphere of government, in Between Facts Habermas’s prescriptions are forced to
address the fact of plurality in modern society. Furthermore, between writing Structural
Transformation and Between Facts, Habermas developed his system/lifeworld dichotomy in
Communicative Action, which led to the development of his idea, in Between Facts, of a
sluice-gate mechanism to prevent power from the administrative and economic system
infiltrating lifeworld contexts of interaction and social reproduction.
In moving beyond the Marxian class dichotomy, Habermas argues that the lifeworld,
which is “a reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in
communication draw upon in co-operative processes of interpretation” (Habermas 1987:
124), struggles against over-extensions of the systemic imperatives of money and
administrative power. Both lifeworld and systemiv attempt to coordinate society, but on
Habermas’s analysis, only the lifeworld can make a legitimate claim to social coordination.
Habermas refers to the process whereby, through legislation and subversion of
communicative rationality, the system penetrates forms of lifeworld sociation as the
“colonisation of the lifeworld.” To better understand the difference between lifeworld and
system, it is necessary to understand the types of rationality upon which they are based.
Simply put, the lifeworld is based upon communicative rationality, coincidental with the
“original” mode of language, whereas the system is based upon instrumental rationality,
coincidental with a mode of language that is “parasitic” upon the original. The lifeworld
relies upon, and is generated and sustained by, human communication, whereas system does
not. Habermas refers to the aforementioned process of colonization when instrumental
rationality ‘surges beyond the bounds of the economy and state into other, communicatively
structured areas of life and achieves dominance there at the expense of moral-practical and
aesthetic-practical rationality’. Systemic colonization doesn’t go as far as to replace action
oriented to mutual understanding, rather, it disempowers it: steering mechanisms weaken
communicative action’s ‘validity basis so as to provide the legitimate possibility of redefining
at will spheres of action oriented to mutual understanding into action situations stripped of
lifeworld contexts and no longer directed to achieving consensus’ (Habermas 1987: 304-311).
Whereas in certain contexts relieving the lifeworld of coordinating capacity is
appropriate, in others, Habermas argues, it has a damaging effect. Whereas communicative
action ‘offers the possibility of rationally motivated consensus,’ which is akin to how
Habermas saw communication in the bourgeois public sphere, we in fact become empirically
motivated in interactions motivated by money. The media of power and money ‘encode a
purposive rational attitude... and make it possible to exert generalized strategic influence on
the decisions of other participants while bypassing processes of consensus-oriented
communication... the lifeworld is no longer needed for the coordination of action’ (Habermas
1987: 183). Further to this, administrative power makes normative claims on citizens, which
means that unless these requests are to be reduced to simple imperatives relying on sanctions,
they must be legitimated (Baxter 1987: 59-61). On this view, the citizen’s role in a colonized
society has becomes ‘neutralised’, there has been ‘a cleansing of political participation from
any participatory content’. (Habermas 1987: 350).
In Between Facts, Habermas constructs a system whereby such pathologies noted
above can be avoided. In doing so he introduces his center (or core)/periphery dichotomy for
the public sphere. The core is made up of ‘complexes of administration’, the judicial system,
and democratic opinion- and will-formation (in a parliamentary body). This nexus differs
from the periphery insofar as the former has the capacity to act and is subject to formal rulesv.
On Habermas’s normative account, the public sphere is a “social space generated in
communicative action” that must be protected from systemic imperatives by separation. The
periphery public sphere must be grounded in a civil society made up of “those non-
governmental and non-economic connections and voluntary associations that anchor the
communication structures of the public sphere in the society component of the lifeworld,”
and enables problems perceived in private life spheres to become amplified in the public
sphere (My emphasis). For Habermas, civil society has an egalitarian and open structure that
mirrors the “essential features of the kind of communication around which they crystallize”
(Habermas 1996: 366-367), that is, around communication oriented to mutual understanding,
the inherent telos of human speech. On this account, the periphery public sphere itself is an
elementary “social phenomenon… [which] cannot be conceived of as an institution and
certainly not as an organization… [nor] a framework of norms with differentiated
competences and roles, membership regulations and so on. Just as little does it represent a
system… the public sphere can best be described as a network for communicating
information and points of view” (Habermas 1996: 360, my emphasis). The public sphere is,
like the lifeworld, “reproduced though communicative action.” It is grounded in the
lifeworld, and leaves the “specialized treatment” of “politically relevant questions” to the
political system. The political system should then only act upon issues that have been
contested in the autonomous public sphere. Only after the latter process has taken place “can
the contested interest positions be taken up by the responsible political authorities, put on the
parliamentary agenda, discussed, and, if need be, worked into legislative proposals and
binding decisions” (Habermas 1996: 314). The informal public sphere must be able to have
an effect on the political system, but the latter must not adversely effect the autonomy of the
former, lest decisions reached within the political system lack legitimacy. When this happens,
Habermas argues that “the political system is pulled into the whirlpool of legitimation deficits
and steering deficits that reinforce one another” (Habermas 1996: 386).
Indeed, in the sense of the informal, as opposed to the eighteenth century bourgeois,
public sphere, perhaps the Internet may act as a facilitating mechanism. If Habermas’s
requirement of the informal public sphere is that it “has the advantage of a medium of
unrestricted communication” whereby it is more adept at perceiving problem situations,
widening the discourse community, and allowing the articulation of collective identities and
need interpretations (Habermas 1996: 308, my emphasis), then there must be a medium to
facilitate this. Importantly, the role of the media in the public sphere has been accounted for
by Habermas. His claim in Social Transformation was that mass media was anti-democratic,
duping the public into accepting manufactured opinion as their own. However, in Between
Facts, Habermas had rejected much of the “cultural dope” approach to media studies, arguing
instead that citizens adopt strategies of interpretation against media messages. Although he is
by no means uncritical of the mass media in today’s Western democracies, he seems to rely
on media which simply lack the communicative capacity to facilitate the informal public
sphere, leaving a communicative deficit. Even in its ideal form, removed from the
imperatives of advertisers and with a strong public service ethos, broadcasting, for example,
is still unable to facilitate effective communication in the informal public sphere. Whilst it is
better suited to the core public sphere, it will still suffer the problems of facilitating
autonomous unfiltered communication, of translating informal messages, and those of
choosing the language (and direction) in which to translate such messages. In the following I
intend to show how the Internet is currently being utilized by groups which have the intention
of filling this communicative gap.
The Informal Public Sphere, New Social Movements, and the Internet
A form of lifeworld activity in modern democracies is that undertaken by new social
movements. New social movements (NSMs) patrol the boarders between the system and
lifeworld, protecting the “grammar of ways of life,” also protecting civil society from
encroachments by the system (Habermas 1987: 391-396, 1989a: 66-67, 1996: 373). In
addition to this, NSM’s generate collective identities, knowledge, and information. They are,
as Eyerman and Jamison (1991: 55) assert, “like a cognitive territory, a new social space that
is filled by a dynamic interaction between different groups and organizations.” New social
movements are precisely the bodies that perceive problems and push them onto the public
agenda. NSMs on this account aim to generate and publish information that is generated
autonomously from the needs of administration and the market. The loose structure of the
Internet also provides for NSMs being, on Eyerman and Jamison’s analysis, processes in
formation, being the product of a series of social encounters. Traditional news and
information services are simply not suited to such needs, being, as they are, reactive rather
than active. Furthermore, NSM’s may be regarded as taking the “moral point of view,” that
is, they are not working for the interests of their members, but for those of humanity, or
nature, as a whole.
NSM’s have often faced hostile representations in the mass media. Numerous
accounts of the latter (see Curran and Seaton 1991; Garnham 1992; Golding and Murdoch
2000; Hall, 1982; Herman and Chomsky 1994; and Murdoch 1982) have illustrated the many
structural barriers that prevent fair representation to “aberrant” groups. It may be said that
traditional mass media are inadequate representative media not only due to social, political,
and economic constraints, but also, in some respects, due to technological limitations that
ensure that, even under ideal circumstances, conditions conducive to the reflexive interaction
and information storage appropriate to social movements are not met.
To avoid accusations of technological determinism provoked by the above comment,
we can conceive of technological limitations in terms of the extent to which a medium or a
technology can be shaped by its use depends upon its openness to influence. In this instance,
the mode of development of the Internet was one in which multi-directional communication
and cooperative activity played a central role. From as early as when former head of the
Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Agency
(ARPA), Joseph Licklider, penned “The Computer as a Communication Device,” the
importance of cooperation in the development of the networked computers became clear.
Indeed, he specifies a particular view of how effective communication facilitates more
effective research: “society rightly distrusts the modelling done by a single mind. Society
demands consensus, agreement, at least majority.” He adds that “a particular form of digital
computer organization… can improve the effectiveness of communication among people so
much as perhaps to revolutionize” it. With the adoption of the Request for Comments (RFC)
systemvi, which “inspired an open discussion model for creating common standards by
consensus, with no barriers, secret or proprietary content” (Beckett 2000: 13-15), cooperation
became semi-institutionalised and, arguably, reified into the application-structure of the
Internet. The Internet Architecture Board (IAB, formerly Internet Activities Board), which is
the main technical coordinating body, uses the RFC system. Before 1992vii, the IAB regarded
itself as ‘the coordinating committee for Internet design, engineering and management. The
IAB is an independent committee of researchers with a technical interest in the health and
evolution of the Internet’ (RFC 1160: section 2). Its functions were to set Internet standards,
to manage the RFC publication process, to review the Internet Engineering Task Force
(IETF) and Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), strategic planning, to act as a technical
policy liaison and representative to the Internet community, and to resolve technical issues
that cannot be treated by IEFT or IRTF. The standards procedures of the IAB are:
intended to provide a fair, open, and objective basis for developing, evaluating, and
adopting Internet standards. They provide ample opportunity for participation and
comment by all interested parties. At each stage of the standardization process, a
specification is repeatedly discussed and its merits and failings debated in open
meetings and/or public electronic mailing lists, and is made available for review via
world-wide on-line directories (RFC 2026: 1.2).
In adopting standards, the ultimate goal is to reach a considered consensus:
as much as possible the process is designed so that compromises can be made and
genuine consensus achieved, however there are times when even the most reasonable
and knowledgeable people are unable to agree. To achieve the goals of openness and
fairness, such conflicts must be resolved by a process of open review and discussion
(RFC 2026: 6.5).
It can be seen, then, that organization of the technical bodies that direct development
of the Internet mean that the latter can be considered to be open to a range of interests.
Indeed, such concepts can be seen as constitutive of “Internet culture,” or “computer culture.”
For example, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded 1985 as a response to the
continued commercialization of software, and supposed decline of the original computer
culture. Before the 1980s, the “computing community” did not regard the concept of “free”
software, as that was all there was. Interestingly, as Richard Stallman points out, the term
“hacker” originally referred to those who would alter programs and systems to improve them,
the derogatory sense of term only arising with the nondisclosure agreements forced upon
users by new commercialized software. These nondisclosure 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-profit software on users
(Stallman ‘The GNU Project’). Since it was founded, the FSF has a clear ethos that embraces
the self-help and non-commercial “computer culture”. The ethos of self-help, information
generation and dissemination, open public discussion are therefore far from alien to the
computer and Internet ‘technocrats’. It is this sense of culture that many of the engineers,
enthusiasts and users are aware of. Indeed, the IAB calls for the ethos of the Internet
standards process, as outlined above, as having a significant role in shaping the culture of
Internet users, urging them to embrace it ‘as a major tenet of Internet philosophy’ (RFC 2026,
1.2).
That NSM’s have taken to making good use of the Internet is not only theoretically
consistent, insofar as NSM’s seem to have a similar culture but empirically clear by the
number of Web sites they have produced, as well as the range and extent of content. There
are numerous forms of political, and therefore NSM, activity on the Internet. These include
what Risnick (1998, 55-56) has termed ‘political uses of the Net’, ‘politics within the Net’,
and ‘politics which impacts upon the Net’. NSM’s have engaged each of these forms. It can
be seen that NSMs may use the Internet to support external activity, they may work within the
Internet to create a foundation for their activities, and they have attempted to influence policy
effecting the Internet. The anti-globalisation, or pro-democracy as the Gramscians among us
might recommend, movement has used the Internet very effectively, with the Association for
Progressive Communications (APC) facilitating the former, whilst working within the
Internet, and attempting to influence policy.
If the lifeworld is premised upon human communication, and NSM’s are perceived to
be actors which support the former, then a communication system that is suited to NSM’s
must, to some degree, be supportive of communicative rationality in relation to the lifeworld.
Following this logic, one must surely be justified in making the argument that in
strengthening the lifeworld, the Internet can be seen as a foundationalviii medium for civil
society and the informal public sphere. In particular, the Internet, with its global reach, could
be said to be of value to of social movements. The Internet enables social movement groups
and organizations to communicate, to generate information and distribute it cheaply and
effectively, allowing response and feedback. This is in large part due to its structure as a
decentred, textual communications system, the content of which has traditionally been
provided by users. Again, such characteristics accord with the requisite features of NSM’s:
non-hierarchical, open protocols, open communication, and self-generating information and
identities. Further, the openness of Internet standards procedures to the admission of interests,
as well as the open nature of discussion means that Internet technology is indeed open to
shaping by such groups in the pursuit of such ends. Although the Internet does have novel
technological assets, for it to be a foundation medium, as it is well placed to be, requires
appropriate interests to be sufficiently articulated and acted upon. The APC is concerned with
doing so insofar as it is concerned with using the Internet to empower civic, social, and
political movements, it is concerned with regulation, and it takes an interest in the actual
structure and governance of the Internet. The work of the APC illustrates both the extent and
the limits of radical action in using and shaping a technology. I will now turn to an analysis
of the work of the APC to show what the extent and limit is.
The APC started out in 1990 as the first “globally interconnected community of ICT
users and service providers working for social and environmental justice” (APC Web site),
formed by various NGO and civil society networks. The APC currently has 25 member
networks serving over 50,000 activists, non-profit organizations, charities and non-
governmental organisations (NGOs) in over 133 countries. The APC is committed to
supporting international links with member and partner networks from Western, Central and
Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and North America. They are
one of the largest Web-based NGO/Civil Society organisation in the world, and they are truly
global. It might be argued by the most judgmental of observers that the APC has a Western
“bias”. This is true insofar as one would argue that democracy, freedom, and civil society are
Western notions (a complex argument that I don’t want to get into here), due to the fact that it
promotes a (again arguably) Western technology, and due to the fact that it is registered in
California. On the whole, however, the APC is a prime example of how foundational
organizations can facilitate NSM’s on the Internet. The APC’s mission statement is worth
citing at some length in order to illustrate the extent to which its self perception fits with a
Habermasian conception of the role of NSM’s:
The Association for Progressive Communications is a global network of non-
governmental organisations whose mission is to empower and support organisations,
social movements and individuals in and through the use of information and
communication technologies to build strategic communities and initiatives for the
purpose of making meaningful contributions to equitable human development, social
justice, participatory political processes and environmental sustainability (APC Web
site, Visited 01.07.02).
It can be seen that the APC is interested in laying the foundations upon which other
groups can build. The APC aims to empower others to make “meaningful contributions to...
participatory political processes”, or, in fitting the Habermasian model, the APC aims to
strengthen the communicative capacities of the lifeworld, enabling it to assert itself against
systemic imperatives. As well as developing its own Internet charter
(http://www.apc.org/english/rights/charter.shtml), the APC’s Internet Rights Working Group
worked with GreenNet (the UK member) to develop the ‘GreenNet Civil Society and Internet
Charter’ further spells out its objectives, including facilitating:
the right to communicate [which] should be recognised as a fundamental right for
everyone. In a modern society in which communications has assumed a central role,
those that cannot be heard become largely ignored. It is essential for democracy that
such exclusion be ended. New communications technology must be made available to
all (APC Web site, Visited 01.07.02).
In addition to this fundamental claim, they assert their opposition to censorship, promote the
protection of privacy, and the pursuit of open democratic processes in setting Internet
standards and developing technologies. With regard to this latter, the APC has seen high
levels of success. A recent example of how the APC has been involved in the pursuit of
democratic procedures in Internet standards is with regard to the new governing bodies. As
noted, technology and the interests that shape them change over time. Indeed, this can be seen
concretely in the changes underway in the governing structures of the Internet.
In the mid 1990s, a series of reforms took place that resulted in the privatization of the
physical structure of the Internet. Accordingly, the constitutions of the governing bodies were
altered. Whereas it is doubtful that the Internet in any of its manifestations ever saw a
“golden age” of self-organization away from the influence of industry and government, it is
surely the case that the balance of power has been altered. Such a point has been related to
me by a number of engineers involved in the original APRA program. However, whereas
such engineers emphasise the plurality of interests that influence the direction of the
development of the Internet, it is clear that the dominant systemic interests have changed
from those of the government to those of the commercial sector. Thus, mission statement of
the now defunct Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) was that it was “dedicated to
preserving the central coordinating functions of the global Internet for the public good
(IANA Web site Home Page, visited 01.07.02. My emphasis). However, the public good
ethos of IANA seems to have disappeared with the “privatization” of the Internet. As a result,
the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), whose mission is to
‘facilitate the coordination and management of only those specific technical managerial and
policy development tasks that require central coordination.’ (ICANN Web site), replaced
IANA.
However, there a struggle within ICANN to reform its mission. The struggle for the
definition of the roles and responsibilities of ICANN itself was manifested in a recent
Bertelsmann funded conference on the role of ICANN in Internet governance. As noted in
Marcel Marchill’s (2001) Recommendations for Internet Governance on behalf of the
Bertelsmann Foundation, there are at least two differing interpretations of ICANN (44). On
one hand, from the perspective of the U.S. government, ICANN regulation is in private
hands, financing is internationalized, the status of ICANN as a non profit 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
United States and critics from both within and without’, ICANN is an American organization
whose authority is dependent on the United States., whose legal status is guaranteed by
Californian law, and which lacks legitimacy. Further to this, proponents of the latter view are
not passive in their belief that ICANN’s mission should be political and social rather than
purely technical. At the conference for which these recommendations were drafted, there
were clear conflicts between the directors of ICANN, who were divided roughly along these
lines. It is clear that the U.S. government view is problematic from the outset. Not only do
domain name options presuppose particular legal regimes and entities, and indeed prioritize
some over others, but this process has become explicitly formalised in the Domain Name
Disputes Resolution Policy (DNDRP). The DNDRP is a classical example of how, to
paraphrase Webster (1995), the Internet is shaped by ‘real world’ economic and social
relations. The APC sees such fundamental struggles as central to its mission. It sees its role as
shaping the Internet, rather than taking its technological or cultural basis for granted. For
example, the APC itself has been involved in the struggle for the soul of ICANN. In the
recent election for the board of directors of ICANNix, the APC recommended and supported
candidates, and succeeded in getting three elected. On the back of this success, and in accord
with their ‘Civil Society and Internet Charter’, the APC aim to form ICANN in accord with
the needs of civil society. This approach is formalized in the APC backed ‘Civil Society
Statement on ICANN Elections’, which expresses a similar conception of civil society to that
of Habermas. In this, they clearly distinguish civil society from the market, in
contradistinction to classical liberal conceptions, as well as the state in accord with
Habermas’s own normative account:
Civil society is a third sector of society alongside the state and the market. The values
underlying civil society include freedom of association, freedom of expression, participatory
democracy, and respect for diversity. A vigorous civil society is an important counter-balance
to government and business. Moreover, the APC’s account of the development of Internet
culture is similar to the aforementioned, in that “when neither commerce nor governments
paid too much attention to the Internet, the people setting the standards worked within a
prevailing Internet culture favouring openness and the consensus of all stakeholders.” These
presuppositions cause the APC’s view of ICANN to contrast with that of the U.S.
government noted above: ‘Technical coordination of the Internet’s core resources has
unavoidable social, economic, and political consequences” (APC, ‘Issues in Internet Rights –
Governance of the Internet’. APC Web site, Visited 01.07.02).
The successful election of APC candidates to the board of ICANN has important
implications for the future of the Internet. This success is even more notable in consideration
of the former’s record in assisting social movements to date. In terms of its practical support
of new social movements, the APC has been rather successful. Perhaps their most notorious
project was their support of the southern Mexican rebel organisation, the Zapatistas. The
Zapatistas have been referred to by Manuel Castells (1997) as the first informational guerrilla
movement. However, it is not the case that the Zapatistas are engaged solely in an
information war. Indeed, their struggle against repression from the Mexican state is very real,
very material, and very violent. The Zapatistas took to arms in the early 1990s partly as a
response to systemic threats (such as the NAFTA agreement) to their lifeworld. In the course
of their struggle for social justice, they recognized the common struggle of all humanityx,
incorporating a very wide range of interests, and thus interest, into their movement.
Notwithstanding the material base of their struggle, in certain respects Castells is correct in
his assertion. The Zapatistas became rapidly adept at utilising counter-information to
publicise their cause, assisted by NGOs and social movements with appropriate computer
equipment.
In turn, the well known case of the Chase Manhattan Bank memo illustrates the
successful implementation of Internet technologies by the Zapatistas and their supporters.
Written during the Peso crisis of December 1994, the report called for the elimination of the
Zapatistas as a means to convince international financiers and speculators that the Mexican
government was in control. The document was leaked originally appearing in a limited
circulation paper newsletter which was by and large ignored. When the story was published
on the Internet, however, it circulated so widely and so quickly that it was picked up by the
mainstream media, and the resultant negative publicity and widespread protests forced Chase
to disassociate itself from the report and from its author. In fact, such was the impact of the
APC’s support of the Zapatistas that it prompted the Rand Corporation to pay special
attention in their analysis of the Zapatista movement.
Of these (outside network organizations), the most important from a technological and
training standpoint is the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a global
network of computer networks that has many affiliates... The APC and its affiliates amount to
a worldwide computer-conferencing and e-mail system for activist NGOs. It enables them to
consult and co-ordinate, disseminate news and other information, and put pressure on
governments, including by mounting fax-writing and e-mail campaigns. The APC also helps
activist NGOs to acquire the equipment and the training their members may need in order to
get on-line (Ronfeldt and Martinez 1997: 10). This serves as a useful example upwards
pressure from civil society to government and the economy.
Since the various successes of the APC in their influence upon the governing bodies,
and in facilitating the fulfilment of social movements’ information and communication
requirements, they have gone further in attempting to shape the application structure of the
Internet. To this end they have developed ActionApps, employing the General Public Licence
of the FSF (see APC “ActionApps. Building information communities”), to further help
NSM’s, ActionApps are, essentially, software that enables persons to update Web-based
information without specific skills in Web site design. Furthermore, ActionApps also enable
users and groups to pool information and share resources, thus extending their body of
knowledge and information, which, in particular accommodates Eyerman and Jamison’s
conception of social movements as being intimately tied to knowledge production,
broadening the range of knowledge past what suits business and administration. Indeed,
ActionApps have enormous benefits for social movements, but only time will tell their long
term effectiveness, and their impact upon the application structure of the Internet.
Reservations
As the above account shows, the APC has been relatively successful in developing not
only the Internet infrastructure itself, but also in assisting the practical activities of social
movements. So, if one rejects the view that the Internet can be thought of as a public sphere
in itself, we might come to regard it a supporting foundation upon which public spheres can
be built. There are, however, still some reservations about this capacity not only in terms of
the APC’s use of the Internet, but also in the structure of the latter itself. In the first case, the
APC has minimal interactivity in their own Web site, but this may not be as important as it
first appears due to the fact that their primary objective is to enable other groups.
Furthermore, the degree to which they do facilitate other groups is considerable. A notable
contribution of the APC to the communication structures of social movements is their
development of the aforementioned ActionApps.
Perhaps a more pressing problem, as it effects all Internet users, is that of the
communicative capacity of the Internet itself. As I noted above, lifeworld or civil-society
phenomena must have a communicative capacity. Yet this capacity must not be thought of as
simply providing voice. For communicative action to be successful, there are a number of
requisite conditions. Without going into too much detail on this complex matter, Habermas
takes communicative action to be premised on the existence of criticisable validity claims.
That is, whenever we act communicatively, we raise claims that the other party(s) in
communication can question. In order for a speech act to be accepted, the hearer must be able
to accept its truth, the corresponding normative basis, and the sincerity of the speaker. Of
course, such criteria might be unattainable on the Internet. Firstly, verification of information
on the Internet, as with any medium, is a complex process requiring the will and time that
many are not prepared to invest. Secondly, the lack of a shared lifeworld, or even a shared
cultural background of international Internet users,xi causes problems for the acceptance of
normative acceptability or rightness. Finally, the much championed anonymity of the Internet
makes the assessment of sincerity very difficult indeed. As the difficulty of ascertaining truth
is common to most media, I want to focus briefly on the latter two points.
In the first case, that of normative rightness, it is clear that there is not a set of norms
freely developed by an international civil society from which participants in Internet
communication can draw. In his empirical study of Usenet newsgroups, Wilhelm (1999)
found that the content of communication was “dissonant, unmoored to contemporary
language norms” (162). However, one only need think of netiquette to realise how rapidly
norms rise from chaos. Further, Slevin makes the point that the Internet is able to ‘connect up
many cultures and different experiences, increasing the likelihood of clashes of interest’
because “given the interactive potential of Internet technology, such views are easily
challenged and revealed for what they are” (2000: 196, my emphasis). It might be suggested
that such a situation is analogous to the what Habermas referred to as the risky freeing up of
language from convention. Mere convention becomes weakened through Internet activity as
the exposure to alternatives and the need to explain and justify directly to the Other means
“the need for reaching understanding is met less and less by a reservoir of traditionally
certified interpretations immune from criticism... [the lifeworld] can be regarded as
rationalized to the extent that it permits interactions that are not guided by normatively
ascribed agreement but--directly or indirectly--by communicatively achieved understanding”
(Habermas1984: 340).
Anonymity on the Internet presents itself as a double-edged sword in terms of
communicative action. On one hand, it means that those perhaps too shy or otherwise
inhibited will feel more confident about expressing their opinions, especially opposing
political opinions against someone who might be physically intimidating. Further to this,
profession, class, accent, body language, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, physical stature,
speech impediments, and so on all act as potential obstacles to “real world” face-to-face
discussion, but are not so apparent online. Thus Professor X must rely solely on the strength
of his or her argument against shop assistant Y, so we might say that in such cases,
“consensus formation that rests in the end on the authority of the better argument”
(Habermas1987: 145). However, although Slevin (2000) asserts that “the paradox of isolation
and visibility means that those using the Internet... must still treat distant others on peculiar
terms of equality” (185), in practice the responsibility to do so is not immediately apparent.
Thus, on the other hand, one might insist that anonymity means that the fundamental requisite
of human communication, responsibility, is lacking in Internet communicationxii. In this
sense, a discussant may simply disengage in debate, with his or her anonymity making it
impossible to be compelled to continue. In addition to this, a discussant may disengage,
simply to reengage under a different identity. Therefore, with anonymity comes
irresponsibility, and responsibility is one of the most important, yet perhaps most under-
emphasised, aspects of Habermas’s theories of communicative action, discourse ethics, and
public sphere. A precondition of communicative action taking place is that actors accept
responsibility for their utterances. Indeed, this is the basis upon which speech act theory rests,
and from where many of Habermas’s critics begin. The balance of anonymity and
responsibility often depends on what sort of discourse is sought. On one hand, if the
background culture of the user is authoritarian (to whatever degree), then anonymity is an
important tool that enables criticism without the fear of repression. On the other hand, if there
is a liberal political culture, the likes of which exist only in approximation, then anonymity
loses its role as security, leaving the question of whether anonymity serves to allow
utterances to carry only their internal weight at the expense of responsibility.
Conclusions
In the course of this chapter I have shown firstly that a more comprehensive
understanding of the work of Habermas enables one to gain a better understanding of how the
Internet works in relation to society, and the democratic importance of social movements in
this process. Furthermore, I suggest that the drawbacks and benefits of the Internet and the
Web are not to be simply understood – there are complex relations between society, the
Internet, government, business, Internet governance bodies, and political and social
movements. What the Internet can do for these agents is not predefined in the technology
itself, but is open to definition by the users, and both citizens and systemic steering media are
struggling for hegemony. In this sense, the APC can be seen as a significant movement in
attempting to secure not only the use, but also the structure of the Internet against systemic
imperatives.
In view of the above conclusion, it is imperative that Internet users take an interest in
how they shape the medium, especially its communicative capacity. Perhaps the most
pressing challenge for Internet users, one that Habermas’s work can also illuminate, is that of
commercialization and control, of colonisation. As I have alluded to at various points in this
essay, there has been a recognisable shift in the content, use, and structure of the Internet over
the past five years. This has occurred as business and government have began to take more of
an interest in what they can gain from this medium. The former have seen money-making
opportunities and have pushed governments to secure the Internet for their own use, and the
latter have seen the propaganda, surveillance and administrative potential of the Internet. The
development of the Web has been an important factor in this process by increasing the
number of “consumers”, by enabling multimedia presentation of goods, and by making the
navigation and use of the Internet so much easier.
Whereas on one hand the Web has allowed greater access to a greater number of
communication technologies than before, on the other it might be said to have reduced the
interactivity of the Internet as official political and business Web sites are developed to act as
one-way propaganda platformsxiii. Whereas it would be absurd to use Usenet as a one-way
communication mechanism, it is now becoming acceptable to use the Web in such a way. So,
rather than the users themselves providing the majority of content on the Internet, companies
and governments are colonizing more and more. In fact, one might argue that a form of
enclosure is occurring whereby “small-holders” are being forced into the heavily populated,
controlled, and regulated areas such as those provided by America OnLine and Microsoft
Network. If this process continues Internet users will be increasingly herded along
predefined enclosures, or channels, which become more and more difficult to leave,
rendering the Internet just another colonized mass medium providing standardised
information, discussion, limited interactivity, and everything the consumer needs to satisfy
her or his manipulated material desires. Again, this process, as grand as it may seem, is not
predetermined. It is up to citizens, representatives, and political, social, and cultural
movements to stake their own claims on the frontier, and ensure they remain protected as
necessary.
See, for example, Mark Poster’s (1995) well known essay, Friedland (1996), the collection of essays in
Toulouse and Luke (1998), Malina (1999), Wilhelm (1999) and Slevin (2000).
s262 See Dahlgren, 1995 for an account of his employment of four methodological dimensions: media
institutions (or media structure), media representations, social structures within which media operate, and social
interaction in terms of reception.
3 Although e-mail is probably the most commonly used Internet application, the prevalence of web-based e-mail
means that the www is increasing as a primary access point to e-mail outside the workplace.ar 4 For simplicity’s
sake, I use “system” to refer to the economic and administrative subsystems.
5 This capacity to act differs in terms the organisational complexity: ‘the parliamentary complex is the most
open for perceiving and thematising social problems, but it pays for this sensitivity with a lesser capacity to deal
with problems in comparison to the administrative complex’ (Habermas 1996: 355).
266 RFCs are documents that articulate problems faced by engineers, and invite responses. The problems may be
technical in essence, but RFCs also include more “political” questions. They are open to all for contributions,
and are published in full, for all to see, on the RFC web site – www.rfc-editor.org.
7 In 1992, the Internet Society (ISoc) was formed as a result of the broadening of the Internet community, and
the ‘need for community support’ (Leiner et al, 2000) in processes of governance. The Isoc is now regarded to
be the main governing institution for the constitutive structure of the Internet.
8 I use the term ‘foundational’ here in the sense of the foundations, the core, of civil society. As John Keane
(1998) has asserted, there are certain prerequisites for civil society which must be strengthened and maintained.
9 Elections took place in 2001. However, at the time of writing this paper, there is a discussion relating to the
future of a democratic ICANN. Some directors have expressed concern as to the effectiveness of the elections.
For example, the Africa ICANN member was elected with only 67 of a total of 130 votes cast in Africa. Others,
such as board member Andy Mueller-Maguhn, point to a corporate takeover of ICANN. This is a useful
example of the limits of influence. Indeed, if the procedures, and the substantive resources are skewed against
civil society, then the outcome is to an extent predetermined.
10 ‘All humanity’ is my term. More specifically, Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas argued for
“indigenous brothers and sisters, workers, peasants, teachers, students, farmworkers, housewives, drivers,
fishermen, taxi-drivers, office workers, street vendors, gangs, the unemployed, journalists, professionals, nuns
and monks, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, artists, intellectuals, sailors,soldiers, athletes and legislators,
men, women, children, young people and old, brothers and sisters” (The Guardian 15th March 2001), to join his
struggle.
11 This is contingent on the extent to which one accepts that we are sufficiently ‘globalized’ at the moment.
12 The relationship between anonymity and responsibility is a complex one. Indeed, it might be the case that
those who habitually frequent particular web sites - especially the kind of new social movement sites
traditionally dedicated to ideals of transparency and honesty etc - are more likely to conform to such principles.
I am grateful to Shivdeep Grewal for proposing this point. Furthermore, IP blocking software can be used to
ensure that “flaming” and other such abuses do not prevent proper debate taking place. It must also be noted,
however, that such software is often used to block legitimate comments that do not accord with those of the web
site, newsgroup, or bulletin board. Further to this, the question of responsibility in “real world” discourse has
engaged moral philosophers for millennia.
13 The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main body for the agreement of www protocols and
standards. This body is fast becoming the most important in terms of questions of e-commerce, privacy,
property “rights”, and communicative capacity.
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i
fs24 See, for example, Mark Poster’s (1995) well known essay, Friedland (1996), the collection of essays in Toulouse
and Luke (1998), Malina (1999), Wilhelm (1999) and Slevin (2000).
ii See Dahlgren, 1995 for an account of his employment of four methodological dimensions: media
institutions (or media structure), media representations, social structures within which media
operate, and social interaction in terms of reception.
iii Although e-mail is probably the most commonly used Internet application, the prevalence of web-
based e-mail means that the www is increasing as a primary access point to e-mail outside the
workplace.
iv For simplicity’s sake, I use “system” to refer to the economic and administrative subsystems.
v This capacity to act differs in terms the organisational complexity: ‘the parliamentary complex is
the most open for perceiving and thematising social problems, but it pays for this sensitivity with a
lesser capacity to deal with problems in comparison to the administrative complex’ (Habermas
1996: 355).
vi RFCs are documents that articulate problems faced by engineers, and invite responses. The
problems may be technical in essence, but RFCs also include more “political” questions. They are
open to all for contributions, and are published in full, for all to see, on the RFC web site – www.rfc-
editor.org.
vii In 1992, the Internet Society (ISoc) was formed as a result of the broadening of the Internet
community, and the ‘need for community support’ (Leiner et al, 2000) in processes of governance.
The Isoc is now regarded to be the main governing institution for the constitutive structure of the
Internet.
viii I use the term ‘foundational’ here in the sense of the foundations, the core, of civil society. As
John Keane (1998) has asserted, there are certain prerequisites for civil society which must be
strengthened and maintained.
ix Elections took place in 2001. However, at the time of writing this paper, there is a discussion
relating to the future of a democratic ICANN. Some directors have expressed concern as to the
effectiveness of the elections. For example, the Africa ICANN member was elected with only 67 of
a total of 130 votes cast in Africa. Others, such as board member Andy Mueller-Maguhn, point to a
corporate takeover of ICANN. This is a useful example of the limits of influence. Indeed, if the
procedures, and the substantive resources are skewed against civil society, then the outcome is to an
extent predetermined.
x ‘All humanity’ is my term. More specifically, Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas
argued for “indigenous brothers and sisters, workers, peasants, teachers, students, farmworkers,
housewives, drivers, fishermen, taxi-drivers, office workers, street vendors, gangs, the unemployed,
journalists, professionals, nuns and monks, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, artists,
intellectuals, sailors,soldiers, athletes and legislators, men, women, children, young people and old,
brothers and sisters” (The Guardian 15th March 2001), to join his struggle.
xi This is contingent on the extent to which one accepts that we are sufficiently ‘globalized’ at the
moment.
xiis26 The relationship between anonymity and responsibility is a complex one. Indeed, it might be
the case that those who habitually frequent particular web sites - especially the kind of new social
movement sites traditionally dedicated to ideals of transparency and honesty etc - are more likely to
conform to such principles. I am grateful to Shivdeep Grewal for proposing this point. Furthermore,
IP blocking software can be used to ensure that “flaming” and other such abuses do not prevent
proper debate taking place. It must also be noted, however, that such software is often used to block
legitimate comments that do not accord with those of the web site, newsgroup, or bulletin board.
Further to this, the question of responsibility in “real world” discourse has engaged moral
philosophers for millennia.
xiii24 The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main body for the agreement of www
protocols and standards. This body is fast becoming the most important in terms of questions of e-
commerce, privacy, property “rights”, and communicative capacity.
Works Cited
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APC ‘ActionApps. Building information communities’
http://www.apc.org/actionapps/english/general
APC ‘ICANN Election Results’
http://www.apc.org/english/rights/governance/icann_election2000/index.shtml
APC ‘APC Internet Rights Charter’ http://www.apc.org/english/rights/charter.htm
APC, ‘Issues in Internet Rights – Governance of the Internet’
http://www.apc.org/english/rights/governance/
APC ‘The APC Mission’ http://www.apc.org/english/about/mission/index.htm
Barbrook, R. and Cameron, A. The Californian Ideology. http://cci.wmin.ac.uk/HRC/ci/calif5.html
Baxter, H. (1987) ‘System and lifeworld in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action’. Theory
and Society No. 16 pp.39-86.
Beckett, D. (2000) ‘Internet Technology’ In Langford, D. (2000) Internet Ethics. London:
Macmillan Press.
Calabrese, A. and Borchert, M. (1996) ‘Prospects for electronic democracy in the United States:
rethinking communication and social policy’. Media, Culture and Society Vol. 18: 249-268.
London: Sage.
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... The first characteristic of digital media is the low cost of a stakeholder's communication and participation, allowing for quick organization of many participants (Carty, 2002;Salter, 2003). Digital media, writing, viewing, commenting, forwarding and even talking to friends can contribute to a stakeholder's voice. ...
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