Watchdogging Government

18.08.2007

On the 10th Anniversary of the Print Edition of "Netizens"

Ten years ago in 1997, the print edition of "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet" by the IEEE Computer Society appeared. (The book is now distributed by John Wiley and Sons.) The book had been made available in 1994 in an online edition. With the encouragement and help from several in the online community, the book was published in a print edition in English in May 1997 and in a Japanese language edition in October. The 10th anniversary of the print edition offers an occasion to consider the potential of the Net that was identified in "Netizens" and to assess what has developed with regard to this potential today.

During the course of his pioneering online research during the early 1990s, Michael Hauben discovered a surprising phenomenon. He recognized that there was a new social consciousness developing among those in the online community. At the time, the Internet had recently emerged as a new communications infrastructure. More and more people were gaining access. The experience of being online and of having access to the participatory interactive online environment was proving to be a significant experience.

People were eager to explore the nature and power of these new communication capabilities. To be online led to a feeling of empowerment. The idea began to impress itself on some in the online community that here was the potential for a new meaning for the concept of citizen. Could the Internet make it possible for the citizen to be able to act in a way not hitherto possible?  Could the Net really make it possible for citizens to become active participants in the process of determining what happened in their society?

Hauben documented his findings in his article, "The Net and the Netizen", which subsequently became the first chapter of the book. These findings in turn impressed people who then adopted the concept of netizen as expressive of their activities online. A new identity was in the process of being generated. This was a social identity as a citizen of the Net, as a netizen.

Doing Democracy?

One important example of the potential of the Net, Hauben explains, is that the Net bestows "the power of the reporter on the netizen," at least on those netizens who choose to activate this power. In Chapter 13, "The Effect of the Net on the Professional News Media" Hauben explored whether the Net and netizen could potentially change not only the role that the press plays in our society, but also the very nature of the press itself

In Chapter 18, "The Computer as a Democratizer" Hauben looked at the problem of government in the works of two political thinkers, Thomas Paine and James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill). The need for citizens to exercise control over their government officials was a problem Paine discussed, writing in the latter part of the 18th Century and a problem subsequently explored by Mill at the beginning of the 19th Century. Could the Net provide a means for citizens empowered by the Net to oversee the actions of their public officials?

The problem was raised and the potential of the Net to meet this challenge began to be explored. Already, by the mid 1990's there were online conferences held by government officials where citizens were invited to contribute their views and ideas on issues of public policy. Hauben documents the potential of such government processes in Chapter 14, "The Net and the Future of Politics: the Ascendency of the Commons".

An online conference in the U.S. in November 1995, and other similar experiences in other countries, demonstrated that there could be prototypes developed of online public meetings which made possible wide ranging discussion and participation. The Net and netizen could indeed provide the catalyst for new and more inclusive democratic processes. Government officials, however, were reluctant to support such grassroots participation, and even when citizens were able to take part in such meetings, government officials were reluctant to consider this input as part of the decision making process. The technical and political forms were available, at least in the form of a prototype, but government officials did not voluntarily adopt them.

Describing the problem that will occur unless a means is found to curtail the unbridled power of government, Mill writes:

Whenever the powers of government are placed in any hands other than those of the community, whether those of one man, or of a few, or of several, those principles of human nature which imply that Government is at all necessary, imply that those persons will make use of them to defeat the very end for which Government exists.

The Press as Watchdog

Traditionally the power to act as a watchdog over government is a power exercised by the press. Yet the mainstream press, particularly in the U.S. rarely fulfills this vital function. Hauben describes the great dissatisfaction among many of those online in the early 1990s with the mainstream press.

One of the questions posed by the book is whether it is possible to create a press that will act as an effective watchdog over government. Will netizens empowered by the Internet be able to assume this role?

The Internet and Netizens as Watchdog

Since the publication of "Netizens" there have been many efforts to explore whether online forms can be developed as an effective watchdog over government. Efforts include the use of online newspapers and magazines, political blogs, discussion forums and other online media that have been used by netizens to try to impact the actions of government officials.

A few of the many examples follow as a beginning effort to suggest the variety and range of what is being done. My purpose is to propose the need for a more systematic investigation of how these efforts are developing and the nature of their impact.

With the trauma that spread around much of the world in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, a particular silence developed in much of the world press with regard to the U.S. government. A series of articles in Telepolis, starting only a few days after September 11, 2001, bravely explored many of the contradictions in the official explanation offered by the U.S. government and the lack of attention to the need for an investigation to determine the real culprits. Similarly, there were articles and discussions in Telepolis and other online media challenging the pretext created by the U.S. government to justify its invasion of Iraq[1].

Another such example is the online campaign waged against the ratification of the European Union Constitution by netizens in France in the Spring of 2005. At the time the newspapers and most official institutions in France supported the campaign to ratify the EU Constitution. Using online discussion and publications to organize their anti-ratification campaign, citizens in France succeeded in defeating the official pro-ratification campaign and voted instead for a social Europe.

Similarly, a situation developed in South Korea, in 2005-2006, when the mainstream media, the government, the scientific establishment, big corporate entities, and even many online were adamant in their support of the then celebrated stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Users on various scientific or graduate student oriented discussion forums, on blogs and on other online forms, however, were able to document evidence of fraud in Dr. Hwang scientific papers. Netizens in the online community spread this knowledge. Subsequently, a team at Dr. Hwang's university carried out an investigation of his work. The critique developed and spread by the online community was proven to be accurate.

Another instance, is the investigation and discussion on TPMuckraking, an online news site, which led to the exposure of a series of political activities by the U.S. Department of Justice and its head Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. This has resulted in an investigation by members of the U.S. Congress into the activities behind the Justice Department's decisions to terminate a number of high level officials, not for work related problems as claimed, but for political ends.

There are numerous other examples in the U.S. and in other countries of online efforts to explore how the Internet can make possible the watchdogging of public officials.  A recent article in wired.com describes efforts by bloggers SusanG of DailyKos and Mrs. Panstreppon of TPM Cafe and TPMuckracker.com to organize online resources to do investigative reporting toward this end.

Summarizing her experience with investigative reporting, Anna Haynes writes:

But truth can be a passion of the bloodstream and gut as well. A journalist once told me '[Investigative] reporting is like crack.' He's right; I've tried it

Ten years after the publication of the print edition of "Netizens", the online scene is ever more lively. This is still a relatively early stage in the development of netizens exploring how the Internet can facilitate investigative reporting and other forms of watchdogging government officials. Nevertheless these are activities that citizens have been able to explore because of the Internet. Ten years after the publication of the print edition of one of the earliest books exploring the democratic potential of the Net, there is a continuing dedication on the part of many to not only understand the potential of the Net to develop a more democratic society, but to become part of the practice of finding how to bring this potential into being.

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