The internet versus democracy
The problem, of course, is Internet governance, namely the lack of rules. The virtues of cyber libertarianism have become inseparable from its vices.
Much has been said, and rightly so, about the violent mutiny outside the US Capitol on January 6. Politicians are grappling with issues of legal and moral responsibility. But horrific events also touch upon a critical controversy in modern societies: the role of the Internet as a tool to destroy democracy.
It was not supposed to be this way. The internet’s open architecture has long been extolled by cyber-libertarian futurists as a powerful new democratizing force. Information is free and available instantaneously—and anyone can now vote with a mere click.
The rapid expansion of the public square is offered as exhibit A. Internet penetration went from 1% to 87% of the US population from 1990 to 2018, far outstripping the surge in the world as a whole from zero to 51% over the same period.
The United States, the world’s oldest democracy, led the charge in embracing new technologies of empowerment.
The problem, of course, is the governance of the Internet, namely the lack of rules. Even though we are touting the virtues of the digital world, let alone accelerating digitization during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become impossible to ignore the dark side.
The Western model of open connection gave birth to platforms for the illegal drug trade, pornography, and pedophilia. It also fueled political extremism, social polarization, and now rebel attempts. The virtues of cyber libertarianism have become inseparable from its vices.
The Chinese model provides a stark contrast. Its censorship-intensive approach to internet governance is anathema to free societies. The state (or the Communist Party) not only restricts public discourse but favors surveillance over privacy. For China, governance is all about social, economic, and, ultimately, political stability. As a self-proclaimed bastion of democracy, America obviously doesn’t see it that way. Censorship of any sort is viewed with abject scorn.
Nevertheless, contempt is good, to say the least, expression of the reaction of most Americans to the bloody attack on the US Capitol. Social and political mobilization over the Internet – first seen in the Iranian Green Movement in 2009 and then during the 2011 Arab Spring – has now hit the heart of America.
Obviously, there is one significant difference: the protester’s citizens of authoritarian Iran and Arab countries were outside, looking inside, yearning for democracy. In the United States, the attack on the Citadel of Democracy was carried out from within on the initiative of the President himself. This raises important questions about America’s own imperatives for stability and the failure of Internet governance to disclose them.
US digital platforms—from Twitter and Facebook to Apple and Google—have taken matters into their own hands. Breaching a once sacrosanct line, they have closed down the insurrectionist-in-chief, Donald Trump. Yet this one-off reaction is hardly a substitute for governance. Understandably, there are great misgivings about entrusting corporate leaders with the fundamental task of protecting democracy.
But that is not the only line that has been crossed in the US. As Shoshanna Zuboff shows in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the business models of Google, Amazon, and Facebook are based on the use of digital technology to gather and monetize personal data.
This blurs the distinction between cyber-libertarianism and Chinese-style surveillance, and it highlights the essence of the privacy issue—proprietary ownership of personal data.
The Covid-19 crisis offers yet another perspective on surveillance and privacy. Here, too, China and the US bookend the debate. China’s response to the first sign of outbreaks—including the current one in Hebei province—stresses aggressive lockdowns, mandatory testing and masking, and QR-code app-based contact tracing. In the US, these are all matters of contentious political debate, viewed by many as unacceptable transgressions in a free and open society.
On the one hand, China’s results speak for themselves. Since the initial outbreak, there have been only minor outbreaks in Wuhan. Sadly, America’s Second Wave – much worse than the original Spring 2020 massacre – also speaks for itself.
Yet a recent poll by Pew Research shows that 40 to 50 percent of the US population still resists scientific practices such as cell tracking and public health interactions.
Add to that significant opposition to vaccines, and there is reason to believe that the foundations of democratic freedom are turning into an excuse to ignore the dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the aspirations and values of the so-called original interpretation of American democracy are being challenged more than ever. The January 6 insurgency and the pandemic have one thing in common: the potential collapse of order in a free society. It’s not that China is right. We could be wrong. Unfortunately, today’s hyperpolarization makes it extremely difficult to find common ground.
Barack Obama warned in his closing speech as president: “Our democracy is under threat every time we take it for granted.” Isn’t that what America is doing? In a decade marked by the global financial crisis, the Covid-19 crisis, the crisis of racial justice, the crisis of inequality, and now the political crisis, we have only paid lip service to noble democratic ideals.
Unfortunately, this complacency came at a time of growing fragility in the American experience. Internet connectivity is dangerously reinforcing an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of growing social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was painfully clarified on January 6th. Democracy governance is under serious threat.