Access To Public Information:
A Key To Commercial Growth And Electronic Democracy

Conference - Stockholm
27/28 June 1996


Flags of 15 EU Member States

Citizens' Participation in an electronic Democracy: building an electronic Citizenship?

Professor Stefano Rodotà

University of Roma


1. Times are changing, democracy too. After the times of the democracy of the elites, followed by the mass democracy of this century, are we entering the new era of the "democracy of the public", made possible by the information and communication technology?

Is Athens coming back? A strange mix of new possibilities and old models is before us, and it is not surprising that the information society is regarded as the moment in which our political systems could reach something that during centuries has been considered as the highest democratic idea - Athens direct democracy. At the same time, however, the new technologies are regarded as the means that can make possible a balcanization of the society, as the form more close to the logic of the political populism or to the negative utopia of the society of the total control. Is the actual perspective that of "Orwell in Athens", as the title of an interesting book suggests? I think that what is actually happening must be analysed more carefully, if you would like to have more precise indications about what kind of society is now emerging.

While we are looking at the Athenian model, in fact is the Spartan model more close to some forms of political communication and participation. What did happen in ancient Sparta? The members of the Council, the city government, were elected by a method called the Shout. The order in which candidates to the Council were considered was determined by lot. This order was not known to the group of impartial evaluators who were seated in a separate room with writing tablets, without seeing candidates. The evaluators' job was simply to assess the loudness of the cheering each candidate received when he walked in front of the assembly. The candidate receiving the loudest shout and applause was deemed the winner.

This method was very far from the open and rationale debate of the Athenian institutions. It looks like the applaudometer of some tv shows or the reaction determined by some polls. Can we escape this model?

2. In the great majority of debates, the perspectives of the political systems in the age of the information and communication technologies are analysed regarding the possibilities of a new, richest direct democracy. I believe that this approach reflects ideas and methods which do not correspond to the framework that these technologies are building up. In fact, the crucial point, today, is not the conflict between direct and representative democracy, or the research of their possible integration. What we are facing now is the passage from an intermittent to a continuous democracy (other say to an endless democracy). And I think that, for explaining this change, the right references are not to Athens or Aristotle, but to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Bryce.

As you know, in the Social Contract Rousseau said that English citizens were free in the elections' day, and slaves in all other times. How to fill this gap, and have citizens instead of slaves also in the times between two elections, has been, and is, one of the greatest problem of the modern democracy. A century after Rousseau, James Bryce, in his American Commonwealth, noted that the political system of the United States was marching towards a stage where "the sway of public opinion would become more complete, because more continuous ".

The signs of a continuous democracy are before us. People can meet continuously in the cyberspace; citizens can access continuously a tremendous amount of information; polls give continuous opportunities to be heard; electors can pressure continuously their representatives; the perspective of instant referenda implies the possibility of continuous consultations. Information and communication technologies make it possible. And some landmarks of the democratic process, elections first, have changed already their meaning.

Which are the actual effects of these changes? Are citizens more powerful or only more manipulated and controlled? Is their voice becoming stronger, or they are considered more and more only as "numbered voices"?

Deep concerns are behind these questions. They are not new, but the "technopolitics" makes this dimension particularly important. More and more the word "democracy" is followed by some worrying specifications: "plebiscitarian", "authoritarian". So, there is the risk that the adjective deprive the substantive of his meaning.

3. If we would like to follow another way, we must reconsider places, conditions and means of the citizenship. In the continuous flood of the democratic process, in a completely new dimension of space and time, citizenship is rapidly changing. But that can happen either as an effect of a technological drift or as a result of conscious efforts and politics.

Until yesterday, the first and essential reference of the citizenship was the territory. What we are living now is precisely the end of the jacobin territory, with his precise boundaries and that could be governed by a unique centre. The citizen is no more "prisoner" of that kind of territory. He can navigate everywhere, his new dimension becomes the net. The language reflects this change: more and more often we speak of "netizens", and not of "citizens".

How can or must we organise these new spaces? Like a Los Angeles of the information superhighways? Like a Venice of the promised five hundreds channels?

I would like not to insist on images or metaphors. The reality is that we are reconstructing, reshaping the self and the community, in all forms and at all levels - local, national, international. In this broader perspective we must build up the electronic citizenship.

So, the problems of the citizenship are immediately related with the evolution of the electronic space, of the cyberspace. We know, for instance, that Internet is changing its nature, transforming itself, at least partially, from a place of anarchist freedom into a commercial space. But the commodification of this dimension can change the citizen-netizen in consumer. The socio-political electronic space can become like New York described by Herman Melville at the beginning of Moby Dick: "commerce surrounds it with her surf".

More dramatically than in the past, we are facing the problem of the autonomy of the politics, and more generally of the autonomy of an individual and social space free from the pressure of the pure logic of the market. So, when we are reflecting on universal service and right of access in this perspective, we are aware of the necessity of conscious politics in order to give all people the same opportunities.

The problem is crucial. As a recent study of the Rand Corporation shows, since 1989 gaps in access to computers and network services have increased significantly in the United States as a function of socioeconomics status variables such as income, education, race, age. If these new media were merely consumer goods, large and even increasing socioeconomics gaps might be acceptable. When viewed as means to participation in intellectual, social, political and economic life in an information society, lack of access is much more disturbing. There is the potential for emergence of an "information apartheid", as some scholars say. In our debates we speak often of a "two-tier" or "two-speed" society. Does it mean that we are ready to accept that the information society will be an exclusion society - the contrary of democracy?

We cannot accept that the promise of information and communication technologies will be converted into a source of inequality and restriction of civil and political rights. As in the last century, and also in this century, building up citizenships means politics for mass literacy: otherwise, the same promise of universal access will be frustrated.

4. Starting from these points, we can indicate some basic conditions for an electronic citizenship:

Regarding universal service, we must consider the problem of literacy, on one side; and the problem of the "critical mass", on the other side. It is obvious that without literacy the right of access to information and services becomes an empty promise. And the way to mass literacy is very far from some political oversimplifications, like the proposal to give every student a PC. Mass literacy is a great challenge to public sector and industry. It implies new strategies for public demand, an adequate answer by the industry, the birth of a network of mediators (schools, libraries, kiosks created by municipalities, and so on).

But also the right of access can become an empty promise, if it has no critical mass: it means that this right must be filled up with a "basic information content". Recently, for instance, the Chamber of Lords has passed a deliberation stating that some important sport events must be diffused by tv without any access restrictions or fees, and the European Parliament adopted the same attitude. In this perspective, electronic citizenship means a free or at low cost access to a certain amount of information.

That is also a pre-condition for making the right of access a premise for a "democracy by initiative", which needs active citizens. And it means that we must rebuild in the electronic space the possibility of a "face-to-face democracy", for instance through deliberative polls, like those which have already been realised twice by the British television Channel 4 and in 1996 by the American National Issues Convention, broadcast on Pbs on the eve of the presidential primary season.

But a true access to the electronic space is also a condition for making concrete one of the more important changes of this age. In the new space all people can be at the same time information consumers and producers. A true new "information subject" is born, which can make concrete the promise of the art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the right to search, obtain and diffuse information. So the right to information can be converted into a true right to democracy.

5, On this road to electronic citizenship, we encounter three P: property, pornography, privacy. It means that we need at least completely new antitrust policies, for reducing the influence of the economic power; adequate guarantees for free speech; freedom to build up the private sphere without constraints, looting to privacy in the framework of the citizenship, that means as a right, and not as a commodity.

So, we must go beyond the same request of an Information Bill of Rights. Certainly, such a Bill is a pre-requisite of an active citizenship. And this citizenship must have roots in a context where people are not only protected against abuses, but can play an active role, be protagonists of the building of their own citizenship, directly participating in the design of the information society.

We cannot expect gifts, like kings did in the last century with the "octroyées" constitutions. Powerful forces inside information and communication technologies push towards more social control, more concentration of powers. So, the electronic citizenship can be only the result of multiple efforts, of a difficult day-by-day work of- a crowd of motivated citizens, in a framework built up also by conscious public powers. That's the challenge not for the future, but for today.

Proceedings ]


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