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

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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.

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