Internet as Democracy

Among the many misconceptions about internet communication is the democratizing effect.

This myth begins with the idea of the marketplace of ideas. This is fundamentally an idea that as long as ideas are allowed to freely compete the best idea will emerge. This is a myth since it does not explain why bad ideas and regimes gain in power. If we add to this the techno-optimism of the early internet (which is still sometimes present) which put forward ideas such as John Gilmoreâ??s famous quote: â??The Net treats censorship as a defect and routes around it.â?? Similar sentiments were reflected in Yochai Benklerâ??s new book â??The Wealth of Networksâ?? (download as pdf here).

These sentiments are overly optimistic and mythical since the reality is far less utopian. It is important to understand the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Stated simply the Internet is all the hardware and cables which connects the world of computers. The Internet is the necessary technology on which different applications can be run. The World Wide Web (WWW) is one such application which is run on the Internet. eMail is another. Filesharing is another etc. You can have file-sharing without the WWW but you cannot have any of the applications without the Internet.

Since the Internet is based on physical cables and physical equipment. Technical, social, economic and legal pressure can ensure that regulation (both good and bad) can be applied to the Internet. Thus we can see that Internet censorship is a growing phenomena. Among those studying and reporting on this phenomena are the Reporters without Borders and the Open Net Initiative.

What their work clearly shows is that by using a mix of hi-tech and low-tech states are ensuring that the Internet is not an automatic democratizing tool.

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