A Democratic Internet
Jan 25, 2011

A Democratic Internet

Unique among institutions in our democracies, the press is given a series of explicit protections. The reason for this reflects the acknowledgement that the press plays an important role in the functioning of democracy and it is this role that is being protected. The internet, new as it is, also has a dramatic and important role in democracy yet it does not yet have the kind of protections or even recognition that the press has. The debate over Net Neutrality and Wikileaks demonstrate some of these issues.

The Internet is one of the most dramatic levelers of the playing field ever invented. With a low barrier to entry - an Internet phone in rural India say - an enormous number of people can afford access to the Internet. After this barrier, the Internet is fundamentally democratic allowing one to converse, interact and engage in society as one chooses. One now has access to information today in a few seconds that scholars in the field wouldn't have dreamt of two decades ago. Any voice or perspective - such as my own - is accessible by anyone and often in a highly multilateral and interactive way. Here is the point: the Internet is and should be a fundamental component of modern democracy whose value at liberalizing people is enormous.

Unfortunately, the Internet could never be predicted by the writers of constitutions long ago and so could never be protected from the onset the way the press is. And our political process is sufficiently slow and bureaucratic that change to recognize this new reality of the Internet is slow at best. So the question becomes, what recognition and protections should be bestowed upon the internet given its new role as a valuable aspect of democratic societies?

One major avenue where this is being currently debated is net neutrality. This is actually a larger principle asserting the value of an equal Internet equivalently neutral to all parties. However, the current battle being fought is over Internet service providers (landline and mobile) being prevented from discrimination via limiting speeds to some sites and not others. Such an argument takes away rights from certain companies to run their business as they choose and can only be defensible if the action serves a distinct public good. In this case, it is the preservation of the democratic value of the Internet.

In many ways, the functions of the press have simply moved onto the Internet. Numerous news and opinion sites, countless bloggers, forums, audio and video podcasts, etc. all serve the function of engaging in the public dialogue once largely served by the press. It is thus natural to extend the recognition and protection of the press to these online avenues.

The idea of simply extending our definition of the press and what is covered by freedom of the press to these new media is I think insufficient. The distinction between journalist and engaged citizen is too blurred on the Internet. Instead, the Internet needs recognition and protection of its democratic value of its own and not merely a partial extension of the press.

These issues are exemplified in the discussion of Wikileaks. Establishment politicians frequently derided Wikileaks as criminal (amazingly even calling for assassination!) but make no criticisms of the New York Times which published them. In what way then is Wikileaks different from the NYT or, alternatively, is Wikileaks a journalistic institution? The NYT published more or less the same small subset of cables as Wikileaks did and Wikileaks published them on their website along with various commentary and like as most newspapers will do. Indeed it is not just a de facto action of the press but an explicit and heavily protected purpose of the press to release information about the wrongdoings of government without fear of retaliation. Thus if one accepts that Wikileaks is as much a journalistic institution as the NYT is, one would extend the same protections to it. It is my view however that while that could work to exonerate Wikileaks in the short term, simply extending these explicitly press protections to certain aspects of the Internet is insufficient; the Internet should get its own recognition and protection. 

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