Nations wary of e-democracy

Gorbachev Foundation of North America

In some towns in Sweden, local government meetings are carried live on the Internet and viewers are permitted to participate by asking questions or offering comments.

Using the Internet to encourage citizen participation in civic life puts Sweden on the frontier of electronic democracy, the next step beyond e-government.

In nearby Russia, however, only about 20 percent of the population knows what the Internet is. And those who do are leery of a technology that has the potential to enable the government to monitor their online activity — which, in fact, the government does, said Anthony Jones, director of the Gorbachev Foundation of North America.

For all its promise to change government, the Internet seems to produce more Russia-like suspicion than the Swedish-style embrace when it comes to e-democracy.

Even in countries where e-government has broad official sanction, such as Great Britain, there seems to be deep ambivalence about letting the public participate too directly in electronic governance.

A discussion among international e-government experts April 16 in Seattle highlighted the caution with which even the world's oldest democracies are approaching the electronic version of that form of government.

The problem, it seems, is the idea of turning democracy over to the people.

Unlike the widely accepted e-government — which uses information technology to speed the delivery of information and services to the governed — e-democracy uses technology to let the governed participate in government, said Steven Clift, head of the Web-based organization Democracies Online.

It's an idea that gives U.K. politicians pause, said Andrew Pinder, e-envoy for the United Kingdom.

In the United Kingdom, elected representatives don't want to find themselves "disintermediated" by such online innovations as direct polls, Pinder said. The United Kingdom wants to preserve the notion of representative democracy, he said. "Representatives are an important shock absorber" who apply reason and experience, while the masses are more inclined to act with emotion on the spur of the moment, he said.

France sees similar danger in direct democracy, said Michel Gentot, president of the National Commission on Computer Science and Liberties, an organization dedicated to IT and civil rights in France.

But neither U.K. nor French officials have experience with e-democracy to validate their fears. In Sweden, e-democracy has improved the relationship between citizens and their elected leaders, said Miklas Nordstrom, chairman of Sweden's Social Democratic Party IT Commission.

Politicians have been forced to respond more quickly to citizens' complaints because people are no longer willing to simply wait for action from the slow-moving bureaucracy, Nordstrom said.

E-democracy may work best at the local level of politics, where decisions are more likely to directly impact those involved in making them, Jones said. It may be idealistic to expect that most people will want to get involved in politics at the national level, he said.

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