Does Institutional Democracy Matter on the Internet?

Some user-citizens are more equal than others, making digital activism a flawed alternative to institutionalized democracy. (image: Wired)

How do we ensure that the interests of citizens are respected in the architecture of the internet? The Declaration of Internet Freedom campaign aims to convince governments to protect the internet’s civic qualities. The Global Network Initiative aims to get technology companies to regulate themselves by voluntarily opting-in to protect the human rights of those who use their services.  Yet, despite nation-sized populations of user-citizens, no tech firm provides feasible and binding mechanisms of democratic accountability to its users.

According to Anil Dash, this may not matter.  In the current issue of Wired, he takes the example of Facebook’s customer “vote” earlier this year on its terms of service.  I used quotations marks because, as Dash points out,

Facebook policy states that user-driven changes to its TOS require 30 percent of the site’s nearly 1 billion members to agree. So all you have to do to bend Facebook’s TOS to your will is create a friend list equal to the entire population of the US and then get them all to vote your way.

However, while the 350,000 Facebook users that voters could not swing the ToS vote, one particularly influential user-citizen was able to shift the public policy of another tech company with global reach:

[Network hardware manufacturer] Cisco has a TOS that permits it to make unilateral changes at any time. This summer the company did just that, with an update to the software that runs customers’ Wi-Fi connections. It required users to register with Cisco’s cloud service, which of course meant accepting the TOS. Among other things, that granted Cisco the right to shut off the connection of anyone who used their device for “obscene, pornographic, or offensive purposes.”

…The response from tech journalists was immediate. Podcaster Leo Laporte declared not just that he’d never again purchase a wireless router from Cisco but that he’d never accept any advertising from the company across his popular network of geek-oriented shows. Days later, Cisco backed down.

In other words, a fairly mild form of digital activism (angry blogging) was quite successful in changing the public policy of Cisco, while over at Facebook an institutionalized democratic mechanism (a referendum) accomplished exactly zip-o.

This is not necessarily good news.  A lack of institutionalized (formally codified) democratic mechanisms means that some user-citizens are more equal than others because they have more resources. One Leo Laporte > 350,ooo average Facebook users not because he has more money, or standing within a hierarchy, but because he can generate attention, the currency of the networked age.

It also leads to a “tyranny of structurelessness,” whereby lack of formal processes for democratic decision-making means that elites influence decisions without accountability.   It is not that users have no power over technology companies, it is that some have far more than others and these super-user citizens are not accountable to other users.  As Jo Freeman explained in 1970 when she coined the term, structurelessness “does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.”

Digital activism gives citizen-users some mechanisms of accountability over the companies that own the virtual nations of which they are a part.  However, the informal system of digital activism lacks any mechanisms for equalizing the power among those citizens (as the principle of “one man / one vote” does in the physical world, for example).  As such, digital activism provides a flawed alternative to institutionalized democracy in the new trans-national nations of the internet.

Mary Joyce
Written by Mary Joyce

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