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Policing Democracy: Communication Freedom in the Age of Internet
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
**** BRANTS ************* EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 2 1996 *******


Kees Brants
University of Amsterdam

     Abstract.  As ICT expands, especially over the
     Internet, so too do the purposes for which
     information is exchanged.  With competing
     interests, the accessibility of information is
     becoming an arena of ethical and legal contest,
     resulting at times in restrictive legislation.
     The debate essentially exists between the
     boundaries of "freedom to..." and "freedom
     from...", and when either of these impinges upon
     the other, regulation and censorship become
     issues.  This article looks at some recent
     regulations in Germany and the U.S. which have
     limited such information exchange.  In
     juxtaposition to those regulatory efforts, and in
     light of current optimism which envisions the
     Internet as a vehicle for increasing local and
     global democracy, this article also details the
     real political application via the Internet of a
     specific example in the Netherlands, the
     Stadsgesprekken (City Talks).


     At the end of 1995, a Munich prosecutor visited the
German offices of the American on-line service CompuServe to
complain about certain sexually explicit material on
Internet, as this was illegal under German criminal law.
[1] Although CompuServe as a self-contained electronic
community is only an access provider and thus not, they
claim, responsible for the origination or nature of content
on the Internet, the prosecutor wanted to block access to
more than 200 of the about 10,000 newsgroups.  Most of the
two hundred were identifiable by the prefix "@sex" and
ranged from pedophilia with boys and bestiality to material
not illegal for (German) adults, but of such an explicit
nature that it is for (German) minors.  CompuServe complied,
thereby not only restricting access to the German users, but
to all the 500,000 members in Europe and the four million in
the US and the rest of the world.

     Although some on-line services have rules governing the
language and materials used on their own services, the
companies have no control over Internet to which they all
offer access.  CompuServe is working on a technology
enabling restriction of access according to geography.
Others, such as Microsoft and America On-line, offer parents
screening software to limit children's access to sexually
explicit material.  In an attempt to crack down on
pornography on its own service, America On-line (which
started a European partnership with Bertelsmann and Deutsche
Telekom) not so long ago restricted access to users who
included the word "breast" in their user profile.  The
action, however, inadvertently affected women who had
identified themselves as having an interest in breast
cancer, and the service later dropped its ban (San Francisco
Chronicle, Dec. 12, 1995).

     These measures of self regulation have not been enough
for the US House and Senate, which on February 1 passed a
Communications Decency Act.  This amendment to the new
Telecommunications Bill requires all content on the Internet
to be acceptable for distribution to young children.
Distribution of pornographic material ("in terms patently
offensive as measured by contemporary community standards
... regardless of whether the user of such service placed
the call or initiated the communication;" sec. 502) is
prohibited with a maximum penalty of two years.  Although
the enforcement of the Act is expected to be problematic,
civil liberties groups in the US see it as censorship and a
violation of the First Amendment.

     The recent examples from Munich and Washington show -
be it only from the moral panicking side of powerholders -
two important and related issues of the new information and
communication technology (ICT):  the pros and cons of its
anarchistic nature and emancipating potential on the one
hand and the far reaching ways and means of (self)regulatory
control and other restrictions on the other.  New
technologies of communication have always been greeted with
enthusiasm and looked at suspiciously at the same time, but
there now seem to be at least three stands regarding the
workings of Internet.  The normatives see a world wide web
of filth, a global highway lined with hookers, pedophiles
and (other) dirty old men.  Euphorics or utopians, on the
other hand, will say that the ultimate result of the ICT
will be an abundance of information, intellectual pluralism,
direct democracy and personalised control over

     Where these optimists see a new Athens with more and
more people participating on the electronic agora, critics
of such "video-utopians" like to refer to an Orwellian
state.  A new reality where Big Brother (hiding himself in
an ever growing information gap) not only registers what
people think, but provides legitimating ideology for global
capitalist enterprise.  The new electronic media will extend
the power and reach of large, multinational corporations and
generally accelerate forces of tansnationalisation.
Interactivity in general and the newsgroups in particular
might potentially revive a democracy troubled by political
cynicism and voter drop out, but in practice, the cost of it
will strengthen inequality and reaffirm political elitism.

     All rhetoric aside, the Internet and new interactive
media in principle can, and do provide an unregulated
platform for the exchange of ideas, but at the same time, a
part of its contents seem to trigger kinds of regulation
which we thought had been pass‚ in western democracies.
Will ICT and its far reaching possibilities for freedom of
expression be the panacea for, or the nightmare of,
democracy?  What are the needs, possibilities and limits of
regulating it?

            Communication Freedom and Regulation

     Regulation of communication in liberal democracies is
mainly based on traditional principles of freedom:  freedom
from state interference, that is to say, no government
action to prohibit a publication before it has taken place
(no censorship or, in the American legal terminology, no
"prior restraint") and, the other side of the coin, the
right or freedom to express oneself.  Over the years, in
most countries in Western Europe the "freedom to" principle
has come to be safeguarded by the state as well:
governments do have an obligation to enable freedom of
expression and a diversity of ideas.

     The idea of diversity or plurality - as both the result
of freedom of expression and a prerequisite for democratic
discourse - refers, firstly, to the number and variety of
providers of information.  Thus state support for ailing
(privately owned) newspapers in order to guarantee a certain
level of pluralism in the production of information has
become a common feature of many a Keynesian welfare state.
A concern for pluriformity might also lead governments to
stimulate new entrants and thus competition in the
telecommunications sector.

     Another aspect is the diversity of information
contents.  It is defined as an obligation of many European
public broadcasting corporations which are expected to
provide a "reasonable ratio of information, culture,
entertainment and education," as stated in the 1967
Broadcasting Law in the Netherlands.

     A third and central aspect of the freedom of expression
and the plurality of information is the right of access to
channels of communication, enabling reflection or
representation of the prevailing differences of opinion and
culture in a given society.  The fundamental conditions for
effective access are freedom and opportunity to speak out,
and thus a sufficient number of independent and different
channels, plus autonomy over media access opportunities
(McQuail 1992:  145).  Access to the network for all on
equal terms, and a guarantee of continuity of the "universal
service" performed by public telecommunications operators
are typical examples.

     As all these aspects of guaranteeing diversity imply
some form of government action - be it prohibiting,
prescribing or supporting - based on concrete decisions and
an abstract notion of the "general interest," there is by
definition an inbuilt tension in the traditional idea of
communication freedom.  In order to improve the "freedom
to," one might well have to be a bit lenient with the
"freedom from."  And there are other, more legal,
limitations to the principle of freedom.  To put it bluntly,
freedom of the one person or group usually meets its
boundary where it interferes with the freedom of the other.
Communication freedom is thus legally limited in most
countries by privacy laws, property rights (copyright),
libel laws, a perceived threat to state security and public
order, and some norms of taste and decency.

     Although we are facing the beginning of a supranational
regulation (e.g., the Right to Reply in the EC-Directive
Television Without Frontiers), limitations on communication
freedom usually differ from one country to another.
Regarding taste and decency, the cultural differences
between countries are most clear.  What is tolerated or even
appreciated in one country might be a sin in another.
Especially in the area of "explicit material," countries
like the Netherlands and Denmark have a more liberal stand
than, for example, the UK or the US.[2]

Information Services

     To understand the complexity of different areas and
kinds of the existing communication regulations, it is
useful to distinguish between different types of information
services.  According to Bordewijk and Van Kaam (1982),
communication patterns may be characterised in terms of two
dimensions, i.e., central versus individual control of
information storage and central versus individual control of
timetable of distribution and choice of subject.  The
combination of these two dimensions results in four basic
communication patterns:  allocution, consultation,
registration and conversation (see Table 1).

           Table 1: Model of Communication Patterns

  |                          Central      Individual     |
  |                          Information  Information    |
  |                          Storage      Storage        |
  |                                                      |
  |                                                      |
  |                                                      |
  | Centre chooses                                       |
  | subject and timetable    allocution     registration |
  |                                                      |
  |                                                      |
  |                                                      |
  | Individual chooses                                   |
  | subject and timetable    consultation   conversation |
  |                                                      |
  |                                                      |
           Source: Bordewijk and Van Kaam 1982.

     In allocution[3] -- one-to- many communication with
usually little personal feedback opportunity -- information
is distributed from a centre that decides the timetable of
communication simultaneously to many peripheral receivers.
The most common example is broadcasting, where programmes
are received by large numbers of scattered individuals at
the same time.  Consultation refers to a many-toone-to-many
situation in which individuals at the periphery look for
information at a central storage of information, like a
library, database or teletext.

     Registration is in effect, the consultation pattern in
reverse, in that a centre searches for information from a
participant at the periphery; with the centre usually
determining the content and occurrence of the communication
traffic and often without the awareness of the individual.
This many-to-one communication applies to all systems of
surveillance and relates to a variety of services:  from
automatic recording at a central exchange of telephone calls
to audience research (the "people-meter") and for purposes
of charging consumers.

     In cases of conversation, individuals interact directly
with each other, bypassing a centre or intermediary and
choosing their partners, time, and topic of communication by
themselves.  It is a one-to-one pattern of communication,
usually with symmetry and balance between the parties, like
in an exchange of personal letters or the use of electronic

     Another relevant dimension in comparing these different
information services or communication patterns is that
between the public and private domains, areas where
traditionally different fields of regulation apply:  privacy
and property rights more in the private domain, public order
and taste and decency more in the public domain.  Mass media
contents, for instance, which are widely available to all
without restriction are most public by their nature, while
the registration and storage of data concerning people or
organisations are least public.  Conversation services (like
the telephone) are more likely than consultation services to
belong to the private sphere, although the ostentatious use
of portable phones in public places seems to point to a
cultural shift.

     The allocution pattern, more than the other three, is
associated with the "old media" of mass communication.  Not
that old necessarily means dying in due course - as some say
is the case with newspapers.  The allocutive pattern remains
important and may still grow in absolute amount of traffic.
Especially consultation and conversation however, have been
able to grow because of new telematics - combining
telecommunications, informatics and digitalisation - and the
diffusion of video and sound recording equipment.  The
steady increase of subscription and payper-view channels, as
part of the explosion of cable and satellite television,
will further contribute to a relative decline in allocution.
At the same time, computerisation and extended
telecommunication connections have favoured the growth of
registration potential.

Three Regulatory Domains

     New information and communication technologies are said
to demonstrate three basic trends:  the redistribution of
information traffic from allocutary to conversational and
consultative patterns; the shift of emphasis from the public
to the private domain; and the convergence, overlap and
interconnection of communication functions and technologies
(Van Cuilenburg and Slaa 1993).  In spite of these trends,
many national communication systems are still regulated
according to their basic technology and often for historic
reasons (Pool 1983).

     Thus, print media are almost entirely free from
regulation or control and often protected and privileged, as
they are (were) judged to be the prime vehicle for the
expression of opinions and the control of decision makers in
a democracy.  Even with the increase of mergers, take-overs
and cross-media ownership, and the threat to diversity it
might have, many governments still hesitate to set rules
for, and limits to, press concentration.  Prohibitive
interference in an imperfect market is still seen as a
violation of the freedom to publish, a freedom generally
regarded as co-extensive with freedom of speech.

     The principle of freedom of communication got a
somewhat different interpretation when, during the
nineteenth century, telegraph and telephone, and later
telecommunications became popular.  To solve market
imperfections, these so-called "common carrier" media were
often regulated as to their infrastructure, ownership and
pricing, while there was no regulation of contents.  They
were considered a natural monopoly which should provide
universal service.  All over Europe, the regulatory regime
of cable networks and telecommunication services has
recently been shifting towards a press model, with
liberalisation of the market and privatisation of (some of)
the services.

     Broadcasting, historically due to the physical scarcity
of frequencies, has always been much more subject to
regulation.  In public broadcasting systems, the scarcity
usually meant a semi-monopoly situation, where governments
or government controlled bodies decided on who was allowed
the entrance, and on what grounds.  At the same time, a
central collection of license fees had to be organised in
order to finance programming.  Together with the supposedly
intrusive and at the same time distractive nature of the
medium television, this prompted governments to set all
kinds of norms and standards for entry and performance.
Liberalisation (breaking the monopoly of the public
broadcasters and allowing commercial channels) and
privatisation (e.g., TF1 in France) represent a deregulatory
trend in terms of the structure of the broadcasting market;
the content, however, remains an area where rules are

     Although there is a hesitant trend towards convergence
of these three policy domains, new information and
communication technologies go beyond the separate boundaries
and, even more so, beyond those of the separate countries.
This poses special problems.  Does the common carrier
element of much ICT ask for regulation of infrastructure and
access?  Should the press or broadcasting model be applied
to the content?  Is ICT the new battleground for deciding
the "openness" of a society?  All questions relate, in one
way or the other, to the problem of communication freedom,
especially where ICT is applied in the field of political
communication, participation and democracy.

      ICT in Politics: Medicine for a Mid-life Crisis

     One should not forget that many ICT, and the Internet
in particular, were first implemented in the area of defence
and surveillance.  At the moment, they are primarily
treasured for their economic potential, and regulation of
access and content is hardly a part of the industrial logic.
The relative shift in information traffic from allocution to
consultation and conversation is also largely a consequence
of its economic use.

     Most large enterprises in the US and more than half in
the Netherlands have a site on the Internet.  In taking over
the "backbone" of the Internet from the National Science
Foundation in 1995, the US telecommunication giants Sprint,
American and Pacific Bell were more interested in the
commercial than possible democratic opportunities.  American
and European publishers and newspapers get "on line" not
because this is an extra medium to inform, but because it is
a potential market and a means to avoid distribution and
paper costs.  They are also afraid that others might take
off with their classified ads and thus with an important
part of their income.[4] The technology-push policy of the
Dutch government, spending ECU 30 million on infrastructure
and the development of consumer services, in order to get
one million Dutch on the Internet by 1997, is particularly
inspired by the social (employment) and economic potential
of telematics development in Europe, and the aim to be in
its forefront.

     For most political decision makers, the applications in
political communication have been a spin off from the
industrial policy.  Not so for the grass roots movements
which have hailed the new medium as a means of enriching
democracy.  Its flat, open and unstructured organisation,
its nonhierarchical and potentially bottom-up structure and
the possibility to combine allocution, consultation and
conversation through interaction is seen as bringing back
direct democracy.

     A reference is often made to the Greek city states
where all citizens actively participated in political debate
and opinion forming, and often were even obliged to fulfil
political tasks in rotation.  Many centuries later Rousseau,
reminding us in passing that participation in Athens was
only by male citizens and made possible because they had
slaves and thus a lot of spare time, rephrased the idea of
direct democracy in that volont‚ g‚n‚ral could only be
achieved by all sharing in its formation.  What is often
forgotten in references to the Contrat Social is that,
according to the French philosopher, direct democracy would
prosper best in small communities where citizens are
relatively independent and the difference between rich and
poor is small.

     Rousseau's ideas about democracy paved the way for
universal suffrage in the 19th and 20th century.  But where
he saw an obligation for the people to actively participate
in politics, the earliest election studies in the US and the
UK during the Second World War and shortly after it
demonstrated that even voting, the minimal participation in
the political process, was not common among all and interest
in the political affairs was an exception.  While some saw
non-voting as a serious problem in a democracy, modern
democratic theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter labelled
notions like the "will of the people" and the "general will"
a myth.  He criticised the classical idea that the final
goal of democracy is the emancipation of the dignity and
happiness of the individual through significant
participation in decision making.  Schumpeter proposed
instead a democratic "method" (which in fact legitimised
non- participation), an "institutional arrangement for
arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire
the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for
the people's vote" (1943:250).

     Although representative democracy is often seen as the
second best solution, democracy as a method is the political
form liberal democracies have taken.  At the same time, the
sometimes nostalgic and romantic (and selective, for that
matter) references to Greece and Rousseau come from a
realisation that at the fin de siŠcle, parliamentary
democracy is suffering from a sort of mid-life crisis, may
be even a terminal decease.  Its symptoms being:  a
diminishing importance of political ideologies as the
"cement" of society and growing fragmentation and
individualisation of its population; a decline of voter turn
out and extensive political cynicism towards policies,
politics and politicians; citizens turning their backs on
the present day bearers of the volont‚ g‚n‚ral:  political
parties, in favour of singleissue social movements.  All
this has led to a call for a return to direct democracy as a
favoured cure and ICT, readily available with its
communicative possibilities, as its vehicle.  It is here
that political parties and grass roots movements have found
each other in ideas about the role of interactive
communication in the political process; bien etonn‚s de se
trouver ensemble, because the former see chances for
reviving contact with voters while the latter see it as a
means to circumvent traditional politics.

Improving Democracy

     While Internet is renowned for its global reach and
lack of frontiers, it is worth noting that the more
interesting, democracy related applications and experiments
with ICT are taking place at the local level.  Several
projects and experiments show that the Netherlands, with a
cable density of around 85 per cent, a PC in every four out
of ten households and in 1995 around 300 thousand people
(two per cent) using the Internet, is a European forerunner
in interactive political uses of ICT.[5]

     The so-called City Talks (Stadsgesprekken) in Amsterdam
were a prudent attempt to combine allocution with
conversation and consultation.  Based on a limited form of
two-way communication, the local municipality initiated from
1989 a series of live discussion programmes on "hot" issues
on the local television channel "Salto."  Although
television is by definition an allocutory, one-way medium,
this public access channel has for years facilitated
minority groups to voice ideas and broadcast cultural
experiments.  In the "Talks" politicians and representatives
of non-governmental organisations discussed a chosen topic
(drugs, crime, housing), while the home audience could get
extra background information via teletext and react to the
opinions voiced (through telephone and later computers
placed in public places like libraries and the town hall).
These reactions were then included in the debate, while the
viewers could also vote for certain statements or policy

     The philosophy was "information in reverse:"  citizens
telling politicians what they think of certain issues
instead of politicians gaining support for decisions by
explaining and persuading.  It was a limited form of input-
democracy, with wants and desires articulated and formulated
bottom-up.  In spite of its open structure, or may be
because of it, none of the actors were really happy with the
space they got to make their say.  The non-politicians were
also dissatisfied with the lack of follow-up in terms of
political consequences.  In 1995 the programme was moved to
the local semi-commercial channel AT5 and the interactive
element taken out to give it more the format of a talk show.

     Consultation services -- especially in the area of
consumer use -- are probably the most publicised where it
comes to ICT applications.  Electronic banking,
teleshopping, electronic bulletin boards, etc. have not yet
become common place but are beginning to be part of everyday
discourse.  D-bases of newspaper archives, of laws, (local)
government reports, parliamentary questions and minutes, of
libraries (from the small and local to the extensive US
Library of Congress), of demographic statistical data, of
all kinds of information relevant for opinion forming have
become accessible for everyone, and in some cases only for a
minimal price.  Political parties have begun bulletin
boards, where voters can retrieve information (not that
there is much need for that, it seems).  All parties in the
Netherlands have e-mail addresses, some have set up a
mailing list to which one can subscribe while others have
opened up home pages on the World Wide Web.

     The way and speed in which data can be retrieved,
stored, analysed, manipulated and sent has certainly
affected the registration and surveillance potential of
civil servants and politicians.  Tele-polling and other
computer aided survey techniques have made it possible to
use knowledge about public opinion in the policy making
process.  In an experiment in Rotterdam with two-way cable
citizens were electronically questioned about wants and
grievances and plans are now drawn up to organise instant
referenda and electronic discussions (Depla 1995:50).

     It is this development which enables advanced marketing
techniques in election campaigns which are often seen as
another (negative) example of the "Americanisation" of
electoral politics in Europe.  According to Newman (1994),
Clinton based his programme, choice of and stand on issues,
and important political statements on the results of
computer aided opinion polls.  In Amsterdam the Green Left
party "manipulated" a group of 5,600 Amsterdammers who had
filed a protest against the building of a tennis court in a
city park.  The protesters had been registered and stored in
a database of the municipality and Green Left - which
supported the tennis park - explained its stand to the
protesters through direct mail.

Socialising Democracy

     The majority of examples to be found about the use of
ICT in relation to democracy is usually of an instrumental
kind:  applications aim at improving the existing
representative democracy.  In general they are initiated
from the (political) top and mostly based on giving more and
better (user-friendly) access to more information.  Only
very few of the ICT applications go for a more communicative
use, socialising democracy, improving the "responsiveness of
political representatives, active citizenship, communication
and public debate instead of information, consultation and
registration, bottom-up instead of top-down, responsibility
shared by decision makers and the public" (Brants at al
1996:  238; cf.  Depla 1995).

                       Table 2: ICT Applications

|               |                                          |
|               |         Communicative Patterns           |
|   Aim         |------------------------------------------|
|               |Allocu-| Consult-| Conversa-  | Registra- |
|               | tion  |   ation |   tion     |   tion    |
|               |       |         |            |           |
|               |Public | Bulletin| Interactive|  Electron-|
| Instrumental  |Access |  boards | tv-debates |   ic poll-|
|               | tv    |         |            |    ing    |
|               |       |         |            |           |
|               |------------------------------|           |
|               |                              |           |
| Communicative |        Digital City          |           |
|               |                              |           |

     With socialisation of democracy, allocution,
conversation and consultation are interactively combined
(see Table 2).  Such is the case with most of the now seven
existing so-called Digital Cities in the Netherlands.  The
first opened in Amsterdam, in January 1994, organised by a
group of citizens, actively involved in cultural, (nonparty)
political and the hacker's movement.  Essentially, this
Digital City is a site on the Internet, representing
Amsterdam as a virtual city and a virtual community with,
for example, a library, coffee bar (with virtual soft
drugs?), post office, museum.  The idea is that citizens
build there own city, there are streets and squares sharing
a certain (cultural, political, etc.)  "sphere," people can
"rent" flats and "construct" houses.

     The City's philosophy is bottom-up, non-hierarchical
and voluntary, and the interface is user-friendly.
Discussion groups have started in virtual public spaces on a
variety of topics, of which the traditional political issues
form however a minority.  The emphasis is on horizontal
debate between citizens, without intermediaries, and between
citizens and politicians and it thus functions as a
community network, articulating wants and grievances.
Digital City's town hall provides access to the
administrative information system, while political parties
publish their programmes, policy documents and political

     For access one needs a PC and a modem and for full use
one has to log in via an Internet provider.  Public
terminals have been placed in libraries, museums, the town
hall and homes for the elderly.  Although access is free
(except for telephone cost), the users form a relatively
elite group.  Digital City claims a population of some 35
000 and around 5,000 consultations a day; the majority of
the citizens is young (58 per cent under 30), well educated,
employed or studying and male (85 per cent).

      Politics in ICT: The Other Site of Teledemocracy

     The issues coming up in discussions about the
instrumental or socialising applications of ICT partly
overlap with the recent hype around and prohibitive
regulations of Internet.  In the former the undertone is
concern for participation and political consequences, while
in the latter the worry is about content and sometimes
clouded by a moral panic.  But the discussion is also
clouded by the fact that the "euphorics" are allergic to the
word "regulation," while those in favour refuse to
acknowledge that ICT might be a "technology of freedom."
The adherents of the two positions usually talk at different
levels and thus fail to see that there is more between
heaven and earth than dirty pictures or the interfering
state.  At the heart is a question about the conditions for
and limitations of communication freedom.

     Broken down, the issues at stake in the role of ICT in
politics seem to be about (the relation between) access,
privacy, content, political representation and control of
politics:  is one to worry about the discrepancy between
optimal access and limited participation; does the
unregulated structure revive the "old" contradiction between
communication freedom and privacy; should norms be enforced
for content and who is responsible; and what will be the
effect on democratic control with the changing role or even
disappearance of the traditional actors in political
communication:  political parties and journalists?


     Access refers, in the first place, to the openness of a
network or technology to both information providers and
information users.  Where in the economic applications there
is a growing number of providers (and a possible threat of
future concentration in the hands of a few large ones), with
the political applications ideally the difference between
providers and users disappears.  With the non-hierarchical,
horizontal organisation structure and the interactive
possibilities senders become receivers and vice versa.

     Secondly, access is operationalised as the physical,
affordable, userfriendly and reliable opportunity to make
use of a channel or network.  At the moment access to ICT is
usually restricted to either terminals placed in public
places or offices which are "on line."  It is not surprising
that most users enter the Digital City during office hours.
If ICT is considered crucial in the realisation of socio
political and economic goals in society - and e.g. the Dutch
government's subsidy for Internet-use points to that
underlying discourse - then it should be considered as a
common carrier type "public service," guaranteed by the
state and apparent in universal geographical and affordable
access, and universal quality and tariffs (Garnham 1989).

     That does not necessarily mean universal use, let alone
maximum participation.  At the moment ICT is very much for
an elite and applications in political communication point
to a use by those already able to find their way into the
decision making arena.  The question is whether a minimum
percentage and representativeness is necessary in order to
talk about socialisation of democracy through ICT, or
whether different levels of participation only point to a
more flexible citizenship.  Certainly, the situation at the
moment is far from direct democracy, but discussions about
the lack of representativeness and low participation tend to
turn opportunity into obligation:  instead of imposing
conditions for participation one imposes participation

     There is also a problematic assumption in this Athenian
style obligation to participate, namely that people are
political animals.  Apart from consulting government
services, most people are seldom involved in politics and
rarely searching purposefully and actively for political
information.  The interactive possibilities of ICT, the
sensitivity to new social issues that can derive from the
horizontal structure and the issue-orientation of newsgroups
might contribute to more information and involvement in
debate, but it runs the risk of a self-defeating prophecy
and thus turning the high hopes around ICT into a self-
fulfilling disappointment.  The danger is that the potential
for participation in debate is enlarged, but that it takes
place in a public vacuum:  active participation grows but
passive participation (which is the characteristic of
allocutory political communication) diminishes (see Van
Praag 1996).  Many newsgroups on the Internet or in the
Digital City drown in the cacophony of their own
communications without many people listening or hearing.


     The freedom of the one might well be the insult of the
other, or touching on his freedom.  A major boundary of
communication freedom is set by privacy (laws), a boundary
which is not static but constantly under pressure.
Journalists test the privacy of public figures in the
tabloid press or through muckraking in investigative
reporting.  Police and other repressive state apparatuses
rock the balance of proportionality between their tracing
mandate and their privacy protection responsibility.  The
surveillance potential of the new technologies in Europe has
probably found its apotheosis in the Schengen Information
System (SIS).  European integration and the opening up of
frontiers has led to synchronisation of the respective
computer systems of immigration, security and police
services in the different EU-countries to control the
movements of non-EU-members.

     Knowledge from computer aided polls, discussion groups
or interactive programmes like the Amsterdam City Talks does
give invaluable information to decision makers about people
and their wishes.  It might well influence the political
agenda from below and politicians have to take stock of
these opinions.  The data from mass surveys and the
deduction of profiles from the many d-bases available on
demographic data and people's consumer behaviour can, on the
other hand, be combined to target specific groups in society
with specific information and thus turning "coproduction"
into allocution, debate into persuasion again.

     The tension between communication freedom and privacy
is not always recognised or admitted here.  Complaints about
the misuse of privacy in the case of the Amsterdam Green
Left party and their direct mail campaign to the tennis park
protesters were turned down by the Amsterdam municipality.
Targeted communication is becoming more and more popular.
According to Selnow (1994) all presidential candidates in
the 1992 US election applied it and with the advancement of
technology in the past four years, the 1996 election
campaign will also see a combination of databases, e-mail,
direct mail and other forms of targeted campaigns with
restricted information.


     Is it not a paradox that in telecommunications, the
recently most liberalised and privatised domain, prior
restraint is being reintroduced by netprovider CompuServe
with the blocking of access to the Internet of some 200
newsgroups?  The pornographic and in some cases racist
content of certain newsgroups seem to be the most pressing
issue in relation to communication freedom and regulation.

     The problem with Internet is its cross-frontier
character:  information "unwelcome" in one country
"migrates" to another to find a free area.  Originally
national prohibitions did not count because Internet does
not pay attention to local boundaries (Rodriquez 1995:127).
But as long as there is no geographical way of excluding
particular newsgroups, chances are that national regulation
catches up with this migration.  The most restrictive policy
then becomes the dominant one for all, be it sex in Germany
or the US, racism in Germany or the Netherlands, and may be
in the near future religion, politics, etc. in other

     The moral panic over some of the content of the
Internet and the call for (self)regulation brings back
memories of the introduction of the printing press,
newspapers, film, radio and television.  Restrictions and
often some form of regulation or even censorship of their
content have been common place in the first phase of new
media.  And it was mostly the provider that was held
responsible:  the printer, publisher, bookshop or bookstand,
the telephone or cable company and now the access providers
on Internet.  The choice seems to be between a tightly
regulated information network where the most restrictive
national values of one country are applicable to all or a
network the content of which is constantly challenging the
limits of free speech in a democracy or of the sexual norms
in certain countries.

     Experimental forms of teledemocracy take place at the
local level, but it is the global nature of the Internet
that is threatening communication freedom.  Although the US
Communications Decency Act and the actions of CompuServe
point to a serious tension between theory and practice of
free speech in the information society, civil liberties
movements tend to idealise the Internet newsgroups as a sort
of vehicles for world direct democracy.  Internet is
important for consultation to strengthen democracy,
newsgroups less so for conversation, let alone allocution.
Rousseau was right when he said that direct democracy
prospers best in small communities where citizens are
relatively independent and with little difference between
rich and poor.

Political Representation

     There is another paradox in the arguments about ICT in
politics.  Where many applications were enthusiastically
greeted by party politicians with a silent hope that
interaction, debate and more information would lead to a
closing of the gap between citizens and politics and thus to
a revitalisation of parliamentary democracy, these same
applications are said to result in the end of political
parties themselves.  It is a notion heard among both
euphorics who see this as another proof of the direct
democratic potential of ICT, and party politicians who
suddenly fear they fetched in the Trojan horse.  Electronic
referenda and other forms of direct contact between decision
makers and the electorate would render the intermediary
function of political parties obsolete.

     The arguments of both are flawed, or at least one-
sided.  Where political parties are traditionally the
brokers and articulators of what the wants and grievances in
a society are and the translators of these into political
demands, newsgroups on the Internet and discussion groups in
the Digital City tend to strengthen single-issue politics.
Moreover, their voluntary nature are not only their strength
but also their weakness:  no one is committed to the
outcome.  Debate in newsgroups might lead to consensus over
(the solution of) certain issues, but as long as passive
participation diminishes they are not much more than the
traditional soapbox allowing for screaming in the dark.

     Improvement of consultation potential will make
government and administration more transparent and probably
more responsive to questions asked.  It will remain the
function of political parties and elected representatives to
make choices between the different particular interests on
the basis of a notion of the general interest.  That does
not mean that these choices should take place in an ivory
tower.  More than before, the existence of interactive media
will mean that listening to and participating in debates -
and thus making oneself accountable - becomes a part of the
political trade.  And politicians could feel a bit
uncomfortable with that, as they are more used to
persuasiveness than responsiveness.

     The pallbearers of the political parties forget three
more things.  Firstly, that political parties are a
recruitment base for future decision makers and power
holders, and thus will remain needed.  Secondly, for
newsgroups and discussion platforms to take over the role of
intermediary organisations people will have to become
political animals.  As we have seen, most of them are not
even consumers of political information, let alone political
actors.  The anarchistic structure of Internet and the open,
non-hierarchical structure of initiatives like the Digital
City can, however, be an incentive for participation.
Thirdly, political parties are needed as the organised
control over power holders as, with electronic polling etc.
they might base their decisions more on political marketing
than ideologies and weighing different interests.

Political Control

     The other controllers of power holders are the media,
the watchdogs of democratic politics.  Here again the
argument goes that their role becomes less important now
that people can consult all kinds of sources themselves.
Citizens are not dependent anymore on the journalistic
selection criteria based on sensational news values,
databases are open for them and not only for journalists.

     And again this assumption is based on a notion of the
public actively and consciously searching for (politically
relevant) information.  In reality political communication
as well as communication use have traditionally been
allocutive; over the years we have been allocutively
socialised.  The noted trend from allocution to more
consultation and conversation is first of all a relative one
and secondly more the result of industrial use.  With the
commercialisation of television, the popularity of video as
a time shifting apparatus and remote control enabling to
"zap" around informative television programmes, political
communication becomes more than ever:  politicians in search
of an audience.

     And moreover, with the abundance of information,
political marketing and targeted political communication,
the critical and selective role of journalism is probably
more needed than ever.  Discussion and newsgroups can
contribute to debate and opinion forming, but with their
non- compelling nature they run the risk of remaining in the
discursive public sphere, while journalism can lift issues
more easily into the decision making sphere and on the
political agenda.


     With the same ease that notions like tele-democracy
have been introduced, when new information and communication
technology was applied in the domain of politics, one now
talks of censorship and a return to the dark ages.  A German
prosecutor, CompuServe and the USgovernment have certainly
triggered a debate over communication freedom in the age of
Internet.  And not only a debate.

     Internet, with the characteristics of
telecommunications and the free speech claim of the press,
has triggered a kind of regulation which may turn out to be
more strict than most broadcasting laws in Western Europe.
Access and content rules with regard to broadcasting were
legitimised with the argument of scarcity of channels and
the supposedly intrusive nature of the medium.  Neither can
really be applicable to Internet and other interactive ICT
applications.  There is an abundance of channels and
potentially wide access while the elite character of the
users can withstand intrusiveness, if that is the case.
Only the position of children is comparable, but it remains
a question whether this is a responsibility of the state or
of their guardians.

     The panic, both over the content and regulation of
Internet, overshadows the fact that a notion of tele-
democracy can really only be used at local applications of
ICT, and even than with reluctance.  More than content,
questions of access and participation, of privacy and
registration, of control and representation come here to the
fore.  A discussion about fact or fiction of teledemocracy
should take the complexity and interrelatedness of these
questions into account.


     [1].  Early February 1996 the German prosecutor started
another investigation, this time into CompuServe enabling
subscribers access to a neoNazi web site.

     [2].  Early 1996 the Dutch government decided not to
introduce new legislation with regard to the content of the
Internet, after questions from two Christian Democratic MP's
about sex and soft drugs on the Net.  They were though more
worried about the image of the Netherlands abroad than the
effect the content might have on children.

     [3].  The word allocution is derived from the Latin for
the address by a Roman general to the assembled troops.

     [4].  The majority of newspapers, both in the US and
Europe, go "on line" without a really knowing why, but just
afraid to "miss the boat" whichever way it is sailing.  The
same goes for a lot of other big businesses:  they are in
there for the money, although it might still take a while
before it begins to pay.

     [5].  Some of the examples discussed here are reviewed
in more detail in Brants et al.  (1996).  There are of
course other examples in Europe, notably the CityCard
project in Bologna, Italy.  This is an interactive system,
accessible via Internet and kiosks all over the city, which
offers residents the opportunity to send messages to and
request information and services from the local authorities,
and to set up discussion groups with or without the
participation of the local authority.


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Author Information:

     Kees Brants is lecturer at the Department
ofCommunication, University of Amsterdam, Oude Hoogstraat
24, 1012 CE Amsterdam.
                      Copyright 1996
   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

     This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced
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