Global Governance and the Information Infrastructure:
Implications for Policy and Law
The successful, widespread implementation of the global information infrastructure of electronic networks has made rapid and fundamental changes in the most important aspects of society in much of the advanced industrial world. Nearly instantaneous access to all varieties of information between any points on the globe is permanently changing heretofore definitive ideas of media, culture, community, and especially government. Ease of access to knowledge, formerly limited to the privileged ruling classes, has enabled a significant segment of the common populace to gain awareness of important issues facing society and, thus, the ability to criticize and change them. The hierarchy of nations, states, and local policy-making centers as the prevailing structure for government in much of the world has been fundamentally shaken.
In many first world nation-states such as the United States, Western Europe and Japan, we are often said to be witnessing the end of the industrial age and the beginning of a new, as-yet-undefined age of information. Some theorists and futurists have been predicting that the sudden introduction and use of information technology is as dramatic a historical development as the advent of the printing press, the invention of gunpowder, and the demise of feudalism some five centuries ago at the end of the middle ages. There is some evidence that just as these developments in the western world brought about the fall from power of the Christian church, so these new changes may well cause the decline of the nation-state as an institution of hegemony.
Development of Democracy in Theory and Practice
As a starting point, one can look at the origin of the concept of democracy, how it has developed over centuries, and how it is likely to change again on the basis of what is now technologically possible. The city-states of ancient Greeks are believed to have introduced direct democracy, or rule by the people, with a system in which all citizens (meaning free men) cast mandatory votes on every political issue. These societies at this time were sufficiently isolated from one another and small enough in population that such a system was feasible. In thirteenth century Great Britain, the absolute control of the monarchy was finally broken when a weak king was forced to sign the Magna Carta, granting some decision-making powers to a limited class of vassals and landowners. The establishment of a bicameral parliament with Houses of both Lords and Commons distributed power among a larger, presumably more representative group of citizens. In the United States the Constitution, seeking to limit the powers given to one leader, created a three-branch system of checks and balances. Elected legislative representatives were split into two houses, the (also elected) executives were charged with carrying out the law, with appointing cabinet members and justices to serve in the courts of the judicial branch.
In the nascent history of the United States, the founders also recognized the need for public choice between candidates and ideologies. Conflicting ideas regarding centralization of powers resulted in two political parties from which the electorate could choose candidates. One of these parties split again (and the other died out) some fifty years later, as the population grew and its character changed, to accommodate differing importance of issues to the agricultural and businessman classes. A multitude of interest groups, not to mention ethnic, racial, and gender segments, have been created and grown in size in this century, and the makeup of American society has morphed beyond recognition since then. Unfortunately, the two-party political system remains dominant here in the U.S., although with dwindling, less-than-majority public support.
Political participation by the public in its most basic form, elections, has slipped to its lowest levels in this century. The last election in which turnout was less than fifty percent was during the 1920s, and even this was a special case since a tremendous voting bloc, namely women, had just become eligible for the first time. In the November 1996 general election, although nearly 200 million adults were eligible, fewer than 150 million registered, and fewer than 100 million actually voted; even of those who did, fewer than half supported the Democratic candidate, and only about forty percent the Republican. Traditionally turnout is usually highest for elections at the national level (president), partly since these get the most media coverage, resulting in public perception that this office is the important influential one, and therefore requires their input. In California, not a typical state but likely the largest and most diverse in population, slightly more than two-fifths of those eligible cast votes for governor and U.S. senator in the most recent election in November 1998. Of those registered, fewer than half did so as Democrats, and only thirty-five percent as Republicans, with an astounding one-eighth of the registered electorate (nearly two million) declining to state a political party. (See Appendix for actual statistics.) This latter statistic alone would seem to indicate that a significant fraction of informed adults still consider the political process important enough to take part, but are dissatisfied with the partisanship and candidates.
Communication, Universal Access, and Growth of the Network
Telecommunications among all members of society, both around the U.S. and internationally, made its first great leap forward with the invention of the telephone and aggressive efforts by government and industry to attain universal access to its service. Although it has taken more than a century to accomplish, this has been greatly successful, with greater than 95% household penetration having been recently achieved. (Television, although it too has achieved a near-universal penetration rate, is not similarly of such dramatic political import, as I will describe below.) Japan, western Europe, and a number of major population centers worldwide have also connected many if not most members of their societies via phone lines, although in less wealthy areas of the world large numbers of people remain unreached, for reasons economic, political, and social.
The internet began as a project of the defense department to construct communication lines connecting major government, military, and academic research centers nationwide with secure, underground, packet-switched networks that would remain operable in the event of nuclear war or natural disaster. Funded entirely by government with tax revenues for its first twenty-five years of existence, and largely limited in its numbers and types of hosts and users, the internet was by all accounts a resounding success. Its complete decentralization and its transfer control protocol allow messages to be broken up and travel to their destinations through any number of machines and lines and be instantly rerouted in the event of a break or block anywhere in the circuit. Theorized, designed, and implemented largely by brilliant, top-level computer scientists in academic, non-profit environments, it has proven to be a technological breakthrough of the highest order, with praise from all sectors of society speaking in superlatives. For precisely these reasons, it has proven a nightmare for elements wishing to control knowledge and power.
The internet has created connections between communities and individuals across great physical distances, who almost certainly would never, until just the last five years, have had the opportunity to meet, interact, and debate ideas in any previous forum known to humankind. Scientific experimental data, institutional reports and documents, news, correspondence, questions, answers, and conversations can now be transmitted virtually anywhere that can be reached by telephone at the speed of light, enabling real-time interaction between parties that approximates spoken conversation in person or by phone.
This is the crucial difference between the internet and other "broadcast media" such as television and radio, which transmit signals nearly instantly and to a large audience, but only in one direction, from producer to consumer. Without a doubt, first radio and later television were great advances in communication that enabled the spread of ideas to millions via speech, and later images. Thus, a tremendous segment of society, not just in the U.S., could hear and then see programming from which they could (and still can) gain great amounts of information about culture and events locally, nationally and worldwide. And both these media have proven wildly popular and are likely to remain so in the near future. But it is abundantly clear that such passive reception of content, though possibly occasionally educational, is largely merely entertaining in nature. Such broadcasts are not likely to involve their audience in any real or productive fashion, or result in interactive communication among members of the audience, which might invite thought or debate about the content itself.
The internet critically changes the dynamic between the mass public and both the content providers (i.e. media conglomerates) and the various levels of government. Because of its great speed and widespread access to citizens (whether at home, work, school, libraries, the post office, etc.), opinions can be exchanged and ideas debated among whole segments of the populace. These are citizens who previously would likely have been excluded from such discussion, either by being disregarded by elected officials or those in power, or by inability to afford "access" to such power. Such access has been, at least in recent years in the U.S. if not throughout history, through only a few major means. Briefly, these are: independent wealth used to fund a foundation, "institute", or lobby; direct donations to candidates in order to sway their votes on issues in which the donor has an interest; and (possibly paramount) ownership of media: TV or radio stations, newspapers or magazines, which are widely consumed and thus influential.
Possibilities for Political Utilization of the Network
With the internet already pervasive and likely to become more so, the possibility of using it to negotiate political ideas becomes more realistic than ever before. This could be accomplished through newsgroups, listservs, chat rooms, or (more likely) some public, electronic communication method yet to be invented. Millions of individuals and households already own or have access to the resources with which to express themselves in the political realm. The opinions and survey results can be received and counted within days or hours, rather than weeks or months. The ideas stated need not be simple yes or no votes on a proposition or a choice between two candidates for an office. The concept of annual elections, political representation, and terms of office can all now be challenged. The public no longer requires officials, parties, or platforms to have their views heeded; the outcome of an election need not even be an all-or-nothing proposition. Votes need no longer determine the absolute victory of one candidate over another, but rather the relative support for each of many slightly different stands on any one issue.
The internet and web have been employed recently for opinion polls and surveys by organizations wishing to find out where the public stands. These are often organizations which used to (somewhat successfully) use telephone-based models to reach a wide swath of the public, accumulate answers and tabulate their results. Although internet access has not penetrated a majority of households even in the U.S. (as has the telephone), polling methods have become sufficiently sophisticated to gather and weigh representative samples of various groups, as has been done in the past by phone. It is thus not only possible, but maybe even desirable, to allow maximally accurate polling to substitute for elections of offices and ballot measures.
Government frequently lags behind private industry in this methodology, as industry has already detected the profitability of marketing to customers easily and directly via electronic networks, supplementing or even supplanting former methods of contact. However, political campaigns in recent years, with regard to not only every conceivable election issue but candidates’ personalities, attitudes, and appearances, have come to rely increasingly on frequent polls and surveys of public interest and perception; these results are employed to make the tiniest of adjustments in the message to accommodate. No polling method has proven to grant perfect results (lessons can be learned from the Dewey-Truman campaign of fifty years ago when the wrong winner was chosen as a result of imbalance in American households with telephones) but the internet has the potential to survey far faster and wider than any previous means.
Depending on continued popular interest and commercial exploitation, it seems likely that a larger and larger fraction of the American public, of all classes, races, and genders, will be at least capable of being reached by information networks in the next few years. The successful spread of the telephone was due in part to price controls to maximize the number of persons served (and thereby make the whole network that much more valuable), and in part to gradually changing public perception of telecommunications from a luxury to a necessity. A similar economic and social developmental path can be expected for the internet; only the rate at which it is achieved is at issue.
Changing America: Historical Perspective
At the time of the American Revolution and the founding of the republic, the country was relatively small in terms of population and land area. To the founders it no doubt seemed a sensible solution to create a central, federal government, headquartered in the new city of Washington D.C., with individual states having limited powers to govern within their areas. The House of Representatives was formed to voice the interests of the public in terms of number of population, while the Senate was created as a compromise to allow each state a form of equal representation. Each elected member in Washington represented a certain defined number of constituents from his home district. With a largely homogeneous populace (as I will describe further below), it was rational to think that such an official could accurately heed the concerns of many of his electorate, and make decisions in the best interests of most.
As the population grew the number of representatives in the House necessarily expanded, until logistically the growth had to be stopped, and since then each official has represented a larger and larger group of citizenry, now more than six hundred thousand persons, or nearly three hundred thousand households, on average. With more than a hundred million U.S. households and no further growth in the Senate, each senator now must represent on average a million households. It is simply unrealistic to assume that all of these persons have opinions on issues compatible enough to be reflected by their one (or very few) congressional representative(s).
The American population in the late eighteenth century was largely agricultural; the vast majority of the public was small farmers, with a few tradesmen; heavy industry and factories were as yet unknown and unpredicted. The thirteen colonies had developed as separate port cities on the Atlantic, each with its own character of citizenry; transportation between them was difficult and time-consuming, and frequently unnecessary. There was a feeling of local community, with proprietary standards and philosophy, not unlike among the different provinces or states in the commonwealths of Great Britain and what is now Germany and Italy.
Two centuries later, and even more so by the end of the twentieth century, society in the U.S. and the many parts of the world has radically changed. Modern modes of transportation and communication has greatly shrunk the former distances between individuals, business centers, farms and markets, factories and consumers of manufactured products, banks and their creditors and debtors, and state and national seats of power in general. Few self-employed farmers or tradespersons remain; even factory workers are declining in number and political voice; an increasingly significant segment of the population are employed in information-related and/or "wired" work. Physical location has declined nearly to the point of insignificance for many areas of employment, i.e. finance and insurance, engineering and design, and of course programming and software development, all increasingly lucrative fields of work. Critically, the American way of government and elections has changed hardly at all in response.
Another drastic development in society, especially in the U.S., has been the diversification of the population, which has only accelerated each decade there has been a census taken, and seems unlikely to slow anytime soon. The country at its start was made up almost entirely of white Christian Protestants and Catholics, of Anglo-Irish, German, or Scandinavian descent, employed in a handful of professions mostly at subsistence levels of income, with few possessions or material wealth to speak of.
Several waves of immigration and economic change have wrought a very different melting pot of Americans. There is a majority, though threatened, middle class with measurable leisure time and discretionary income to spend. There are Africans, Asians, and Latinos; speakers of various native languages, some of whom cannot or choose not to use English; independently wealthy resource owners, employed educated professionals, middle-class managers and office workers, low-income service-sector employees, the unemployed and homeless. They include married couples with families, single parents, unmarried adults, an exploding number of retired seniors, sexual and spiritual minorities whose lifestyles do not conform to traditional standards.
All these are characteristic individuals and groups within the boundaries of the U.S. who have rights and responsibilities within society and whose voices need to be heard and acknowledged, even if historically they have not. The U.S. Congress has changed little to reflect these varying voices: most are still men (the population is more than half female), many are white, and a high proportion enter office as successful millionaires in business, or become so while in office using the power they wield on others. Large swaths of the public do not see their best interests taken in account by these officials, some to the degree that they opt out of the process entirely by declining to even take part in elections, which brings me to the following discussion.
Critical Issues of Governance, Law, and Media
It is clear from countless polls, surveys, interviews, and the alternative and even mainstream media that there is a crisis of democracy in the present-day United States. Fewer than half of registered voters turn out for even major elections, and still large numbers of potential voters remain unregistered (see above section, and appendix). Majorities of survey groups express distaste for and disinterest in the major parties and most of their chosen candidates. Strong leadership skills, adherence to ideology, and honesty and integrity, the very characteristics voters seek in their officials, are sorely lacking across the board. Extremes in political and religious beliefs are gaining ground on both ends of the spectrum and no doubt at various points in the middle as well, as moderates seem less effective at policy. The public feels that they are losing ground morally and economically, that they are working harder and earning less, that ownership of a home or car or access to a decent college or even secondary education, is escaping beyond their grasp.
There is a growing recognition in the U.S. of workers' role in a global economic market and the concept of corporate competition within the predominately capitalist world. Many Americans sense that hard work is essential for survival, but are unaware or unsure of who is competing against whom and, crucially, how much wealth is being created to go around in the process. They have gained awareness of the crippling aspect of the national debt and budget deficits, of the sorry state of public education and welfare programs, and the pressing need to address these issues. But at the same time they are dissatisfied with what they perceive as tax rates that are already too high for the middle-class majority, and fear that public funds are not being spent efficiently or effectively. These are themes that recur again and again in opinion polls, and even more so since the advent of internet-driven survey methods.
Another, contrary development of the past five to ten years in the "information age" has been the ability and eagerness of "netizens" to seek out and foster relationships with others in cyberspace. Physical community, local character and autonomy are being rapidly displaced by cyber-communities, which grow out of a common interest or belief among distantly located individuals who wish to share experiences and develop common bonds. This is a direct outcome of networked communication, prior to which it simply was not possible, i.e. via television, radio, telephone or postal communication. Many of these persons have sought out such community connections in part because they do not encounter others like themselves in the everyday interactions of the workplace or school, or do not see others like themselves represented in the mass media. As an indirect result, they tend to turn to new, alternative communication methods, to locate and interact with such others, who they correctly believe to exist physically elsewhere in the society. In this manner physical place continues to decline in political and social importance, with a corresponding irrelevance of physical boundaries and national, state, and local hierarchies of government. While physically located public services such as roads and bridges, schools, law enforcement, fire prevention, etc. still require a degree of local autonomy, many other aspects of social life are becoming national or even global in nature.
Thus we have begun to witness the decline of previously secure notions of broadcasting and programming to a mass audience. Mainstream media such as television, radio and newspapers have been long accustomed to creating and churning out content intended to appeal to the largest possible audience or lowest common denominator. Now, content creators at any and all levels can and must increasingly tailor to specific niches or segments of the market, with vastly differing, frequently changing interests and concerns. The delivery of content, whether text, images, sound, or video, is becoming feasible and less expensive over networks as bandwidth increases, modem speeds rise, and technology as a whole progresses at an ever-increasing rate. In a pure market economy, the public makes their preferences known through purchasing power, and as these markets segment further, a multitude of new media sources will need to arise to serve them, as the old ones stand only to lose audience share. This phenomenon has been termed "narrowcasting".
At the same time as we witness these developments, another economic phenomenon is gaining momentum which threatens this entire paradigm. This is the "media monopoly", the trend of large, multinational corporations to increase in size and gain power and influence through the financial maze of leveraged buyouts and mergers. While new startup businesses appear in great numbers every year, only very few manage to succeed, while simultaneously giants are crushing competition by acquiring their rivals, or engaging in behavior strategically designed to put them out of business.
We have seen a corporate world in which, in less than twenty years, the number of firms controlling the vast majority of global commerce has dropped precipitously from fifty, to twenty, to fewer than ten. A corresponding change has been the increasing wealth and profitability of media outlets such as news, television, and film studios, compared to large companies of fifty or a hundred years ago, which manufactured and marketed more traditional, real-space products such as oil, steel, automobiles, and railroads. The wealth of today and likely tomorrow is not in tangible goods but in informational content.
This consolidation of information providers and sources puts profitability before diversity of audience. It is likely that just a few forms of business and entertainment, which appeal and sell to the lowest common denominator of the public, will generate the most profit per investment. As a result many if not all other forms, which may appeal to moderate, niche, or cult segments of the population, will be eliminated to protect the bottom line. If such decisions are made by only a few directors at the top, a multitude of media can now be affected, likely reducing options and choice for a increasingly heterogeneous public.
Elections, Offices, and Parties in Politics: An End in Sight
In a parallel development, our politicians have demonstrated a serious loss of audience share, with few alternative consumer choices being offered to the general public. The persistent paradigms remain in place: the system of one office, held by a single individual for a certain term length, and filled by general election, by majority rule. Perhaps we are moving toward a system by which a large field of candidates run for positions, similar to a city board of supervisors or rent stabilization. The candidates earning the greatest numbers of votes (however small the fraction) would gain select positions, or even better, a fractional representation purely on the basis of actual number of votes received. Continuing the idea to its logical conclusion, the numbers of votes themselves could determine the policies, dispensing with the intermediary elected officials entirely, in a sort of narrowcasting of policymaking. This sort of system, while probably never seriously considered in the pre-information era, is now an increasingly feasible one, and likely to be as popular among voters as unpopular among aspiring and career politicians.
Granted, this political paradigm has its flaws. It could not function to serve a large population, as two, three, five or ten conflicting proposals would all gain some voter support and could not simultaneously become widespread law. It breaks down when applied to physical "meatspace" issues such as transportation infrastructure, in which only one of many solutions can logically be carried out. But it does have some validity for issues relevant to small minorities of the population, whose ideas were formerly politically and socially invisible under tyranny of the majority. The absolute nature of laws, with all the moral imperatives inherent in them, and their application to all residents of a physically bounded region, need to be reconsidered, and these are pressing issues which have simply not been part of the public discussion through mainstream media.
Another flaw worthy of mention in the notion of internet governance is the importance of literacy to the success of the medium. Communication via the net, at least up until the present time, has been mostly text-based, in the form of typed messages. Audio and video, and consequently teleconferencing, via the internet are for the most part still in their infancy; the necessary bandwidth to accommodate this kind of data transfer is as yet simply too expensive and time-consuming to wire. Thus, the opportunity for real, informed, intelligent discussion of issues is completely contingent on a network of users who can read, write, and comprehend in this context. Statistics about the sorry state of education in the U.S., and a public with only about 50% functionally literate at a secondary-school level, lead us to believe that discussion of sophisticated ideas via written words is still a long way off.
However, the optimistic view of this problem is that schools are being wired for internet access at a remarkably fast pace, email and the web are incorporated into classroom and home schooling at an early age, and evidence shows that many American children may be as comfortable with using these technologies as with reading, history, or math. In addition, critical thinking skills, including isolating subjects and topics in written work, defending a thesis, and evaluating both sides of an argument, skills that likely cannot be taught to children by a computer, are much-needed to foster effective communication. To some extent we as a society need to emphasize inculcating the next generation with the familiarity and skillset needed to function as active, informed citizens in a greater social sphere.
The idea of internet governance is one that should have appeal for any and all small segments and "special interest" groups in the population, nationally and possibly internationally as well. Certainly there are large numbers of young, disaffected, predominately libertarian citizens who are regular users of the internet and other technologies, but irregular or absent participants in other media and the political forum, who would likely welcome some form of representation of their interests and preferences. But they are far from the only such group. It has been demonstrated that other groups such as Jewish, Muslim Arab, East and South Asian Americans, not to mention far-right white supremacists, have already found the internet very valuable in networking and communicating their message(s) to interested persons who may be very physically remote from one another. Surely there is ample evidence that all these groups are underrepresented and consequently marginalized socially and especially politically within the U.S. culture.
Conclusion: A Better Informed, Connected Society
Once law and policy are considered as relative concepts instead of black-and-white dichotomies, one needs to reexamine the needs for and purposes of such structures. Broadly, legal systems arise out of a public need for order, and for basic human rights and lifestyles to be preserved and made secure, or out of a public perception of this need. Thus, laws develop against actions considered criminal by most societies, such as murder, rape, perhaps trespass and thievery. The continued need for laws governing these basic areas does not seem to be at issue. However, developed societies often have thousands of laws on their books, accumulated from years of social interaction and newly encountered activities whose legality, or tolerance by society at large, at some point comes into question. The continued necessity, and enforceability, of laws regulating human behavior not directly harmful to society, far too many to enumerate here, must be critically reconsidered, and the debate must involve the maximum possible number of citizens throughout our society.
Scientific studies have been conducted from the late 1980s to early 1990s, comparing the relative impact of electronic media on the world’s national governments. A fairly clear correlation was found between the relative percentage of telecommunication methods (phones and/or internet connections) available within the country, and the level of democratic liberty, or freedom from totalitarian state controls. This would indicate that an informed citizenry who have the power to communicate freely among one another are more likely to organize politically and socially, and less apt to tolerate authoritarian control by a distant, elite minority claiming to know what is best for them. By extension of this finding, it would make sense that as improved, faster communication methods, especially the internet, permeate more completely a society like the U.S., that distances among disparate groups and individuals might decrease, leading to better cross-cultural understanding and a greater ability, and desire, for self-governance.
The internet has wrought fundamental change on methods of communication and interaction in society, in not only the United States but much of the world, among a broad swath of cultures, in a very historically brief period of time. The decline of state-controlled economies in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China have brought about unexpected and often dramatic changes in political borders and government structures worldwide. Additionally, the populations of most nation-states have grown geometrically in the past few decades, with often catastrophic effects on employment and the economy which states and leaders have been at a loss to address adequately. The internet has already demonstrated great success and power as a tool for far-flung, disparate communication and ideological debate. It seems long overdue that its capabilities be maximally exploited to encourage political discussion, lawmaking and unmaking, and governance in the greater public sphere.
Appendix A: 1996 Voter Turnout
Appendix B: 1998 Voter Turnout