Mark Warburton (Global) - Is the Internet a Democratic Space?

The Internet is becoming increasingly commodified and controlled. Mark Warburton, editorial assistant at IDG Connect, discusses the implications of a world where internet restrictions proliferate.

In China, a brow raising 1.3 million websites were shut down last year. Authorities stated that these closures stemmed from the momentum of a purge of pornographic websites started in 2009. However, sites like BBC's Chinese language service and the major (Western) social media sites are regularly blocked. While many countries police their Internet 'space', China rules its online space with a particularly vigilant eye.

Why? China's authorities perceive online space to be threatened by foreign websites - jeopardising its cultural climate. Officials outlined a massive increase in Chinese-based webpages; a staggering 60 billion during 2010. In regards to the situation, one Chinese official, Liu Ruisheng, stated matter-of-factly, "this means our content is getting stronger, while our supervision is getting stricter and more regulated." There is clearly an imperative for increasing local content while restricting foreign content; this is a reaction to the pervasiveness of Western electronic colonialism. In response, China has created a sovereign, electronic culture (via Chinese online-trade, news channels, ‘Weibos' etc.). Such intervention is timely, as the Internet's reach and influence is increasing at an alarming rate - in fact it looks set to overtake TV as the prime mediator of news and information by 2014.

The Internet was conceived free of ‘property' boundaries; before the .coms, before site filtering, the democratic possibilities of the Internet were discernible in its openness and ability to create unions of like-minded people. What we really take to be the Internet's democratic possibility is actually anarchic; in this sense, the Internet's landscape was free of hierarchy. This openness has eventually given way to centralised powers; states have dispersed ideas and culturally-specific biasness within ‘their' cyberspace. As state authorities and their regulations solidify online, the least static elements of the state machine; the flow of capital, advertisement and marketing etc. saturate online space.

Can the Internet have a paradoxical nature? What is the Internet's ‘natural' state? Does it even have an essential nature at all? During a debate on the ‘inherent democratic nature of the Internet' in The Economist, the anti-democracy debater, Evgeny Morozov, stated:

"To argue that the Internet is not an inherently democratic force is simply to point out that while it has the potential to both oppress and liberate, which of these two sides dominates depends on the social and political context in which it is used rather than on some internal "logic" that derives from its architecture or its culture."

Morozov is right. The Internet has no ‘internal logic' (read: essential nature). After all, the ‘birth' of the Internet was an ambiguous one. On the one hand it was adopted as a tool of communication to compliment the military, while on the other, its first researchers wanted it to provide a democratic web of communication. It was a blank canvas for existing ideals; yet the eventual power struggles it would play host to, would mimic real-world antagonisms.

It is wrong to think that the Internet has lost all of its democratic promise. We only have to look at the current events of the Middle-East to see that the Internet had a powerful rabble-rousing effect; coupling the desire to revolt, with its ability to transmit up-to-the-minute news on the course of events. Additionally it served as a cheap, strategic tool for mobilising the rage and desire of the masses into action. It also improves access to all manner of information otherwise neglected - making it easier and cheaper to publish said information, creating cliques and communities that share interests.

However, this democratic side is dwarfed when considering the ‘logic' of state. The adoption of Internet filtering, network surveillance, timely ‘appearance' of malware, and the peddling of false information, are anything but democratic. The very idea of sacrificing a degree of freedom to gain greater security from perceived threats opens the door for an intensification of surveillance. What is to stop the formation of a fully-fledged online surveillance society? As individual privacy has become increasingly threatened in the real world, so too will the liberties and privacy of the online user. As already mentioned, the Internet reflects the power struggles of the real world, and given the suppressive tendencies of state intervention, we could be left with a thoroughly undemocratic online landscape.

By Mark Warburton, editorial assistant, IDG Connect