7 October 2011

With the Arab Spring of 2011, the democratising potential of the Internet has received renewed attention all over the world. While few would argue anymore that social media have been the cause of the revolutions that have taken place in the Arab world, the new possibilities that they created caught the attention and imagination of activists far beyond that region as the events in the Middle East unfolded. And so time and again, in the past few months, where social protest took off with social media support, the question seemed to be asked: ‘Is this our Tahrir Square?’.

But in the uplifting climate of hopefulness that has been created as a consequence of these events, there is an important issue that seems to have by and large escaped attention. It is true that critical voices (perhaps most notably Evgeny Morozov) have pointed out that the the link between the Internet and democracy is by no means direct: that the Internet can just as easily be used to strengthen dictatorships as to improve democratic elections, to increase surveillance as to enhance freedom of speech. But the consequences of these possibilities have mostly been examined for their impact in authoritarian regimes. How the Internet and the new possibilities it enables - both good and bad - affects democracy, as a system, as a practice, is something that has received far less sustained and systematic attention in recent times. Surely few were surprised that when Reporters Without Borders issued its 2011 report on ‘Enemies of the Internet’, Belarus and Libya were included as ‘countries under surveillance’ in that report, but what does it mean that Australia found a place on that list as well? That when riots hit the country’s capital, UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggested a clampdown on social networking sites? That France has a law that cuts off its citizens from the Internet if they have violated copyright provisions three times, in clear contravention to the obligation states have to make the Internet available and accessible for all, as highlighted by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Mr. Frank La Rue?

What does the Internet do to democracy in places where democracy as a political system has already been put into place? What are some of the ways in which we perhaps have to reimagine our conceptualisations of democracy for it to be able to fully live upto its empowering potential in the digital age? Or in other words: If the Internet changes democracy, too, irrevocably, what does that do to our struggles and visions for social change?

Seeing that there are almost four times as many democracies than dictatorships in the world today, it is about high time we start to ask these questions.

At the Internet Democracy Project, this is what we have set out to do. An ambitious goal, we admit, and so to make it a little more concrete, we start small. In our first phase of activities, we will be focusing on assessing and trying to further the compliance of India and South Asian countries more broadly with the recommendations UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Mr. Frank La Rue made in his report on “the Internet and Freedom of Expression”. You will be able to find more information about what we are doing and thinking, including through networking, advocacy and research, on this blog.

Why take India as a starting point? Not, it should be said, because we believe that democracy is particularly under threat in this country. As the examples above show, all around the world, the Internet seems to have become an excuse to contract, rather than expand the rights and freedoms that people in the democratic world have enjoyed. But the challenges that are thrown up by the Internet are perhaps felt particularly sharply in a country like India. How to fight growing levels of surveillance when bomb blasts rock the country on an all-too-regular basis? How to advocate on privacy issues when culturally, privacy as a concept has relatively little meaning? How to protect expanding possibilities for freedom of expression when censorship has a certain level of acceptance across the political spectrum as a legitimate way to contain conflict in a diverse country? Black-and-white retorts simply will not do in India. What we need are much more nuanced, refined arguments that don’t shy away from the difficult questions mentioned above but instead tackle these concerns head-on in the formulation of renewed defences of our democratic rights, updated for the Internet age. As such challenges do not, of course, pose themselves in India alone, the result, we hope, will be greater clarity on the potential and actual impact of the Internet on modern democracy that will have a relevance much beyond this country.