The future of democracy is on the internet

From the Hansard Society lecture, given by Alex Allan, the Government's e-envoy, at the London School of Economics

Share

As the internet has become mainstream, rather than a tool for early adaptors, so we are beginning to see a clash of cultures - between those who want to preserve the freedom of access, expression and creativity that have been so important in developing the internet; and those who see a need or a commercial argument for greater structure and control.

As the internet has become mainstream, rather than a tool for early adaptors, so we are beginning to see a clash of cultures - between those who want to preserve the freedom of access, expression and creativity that have been so important in developing the internet; and those who see a need or a commercial argument for greater structure and control.

Governments are inevitably getting sucked into this debate. But what we mustn't overlook is that the key influence of governments so far has been through their role in liberalising markets and promoting competition. And the free-market culture of the internet is in marked contrast to George Orwell's 1984 vision of a world in which dictatorship was sustained by complete government control of information and communication. What Orwell underestimated was the power of market-driven IT - perhaps not surprisingly, given that he was writing at a time when communications systems were so heavily regulated and often under government ownership.

Governments have of course tried to take control of communications in order to hobble political opposition. I remember how the military leadership in Poland cut all telephone access to prevent internal or external opposition knowing what was going on. That has become much harder - though we still of course see attempts in some countries such as China to impose controls on access.

In the US, we have seen the internet play a significant role in politics. In Minnesota, when Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler, was standing for governor in 1998, he caught the imagination of young people, many of whom wouldn't normally have voted at all. They became enthusiastic supporters, discussing and campaigning for him over the internet. Ventura won despite a hostile conventional media, who often portrayed him as a buffoon.

Online consultations and forums are where the internet offers truly novel means of communication. One of the strengths of the internet is the way that it can create virtual communities whose members share a common interest, without regard to physical location. They can readily develop into pressure groups, political activists or self-help alliances. This requires a different approach to communication - though I'm not convinced that it yet means the "death of spin", as a recent IPR report put it.

We are determined to provide access to all government services online by 2005. There is an opportunity to enable citizens to deal with government in a way that suits them, rather than one determined by administrative structures and convenience. Many of the reasons that drive people to approach government - losing a job or having a baby - mean that they need access to a bundle of services from different departments. We want to provide structures that enable people to do that via a single entry point.

In 1964 the New Scientist assembled contributions from more than a hundred distinguished people on what the world would look like in 1984. They correctly foresaw that the key scientific developments would be in the fields of information and communications technologies and biology and medicine. They overestimated the pace of change in some areas - they thought videophones would be widespread by 1984 - and underestimated it in others - "nor are computers going to get much faster".

But the thing that most struck me was the way they underestimated social change. One quote sums this up: "It is still very unusual indeed to find a working-class wife who is allowed to drive her husband's car. By 1984 it will be more usual."

We need to remember that when we look ahead and speculate about the impact of the internet. I suspect that the greatest impact may come through the way it interacts with wider changes in society, in ways that we may not foresee at all. E-democracy may come about in quite unexpected ways.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: If you are a committed Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: There's a crackle in the Brum air

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Obama has admitted that his administration underestimated the threat posed by Isis  

Syrian air-strikes: Does the US have the foggiest idea who their enemy is?

Kim Sengupta
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style