|THE CHANGING SHAPE OF INFORMATION AND THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
Mr Thomas B.Riley
Visiting Professor, University of Glasgow
Executive Director, Commonwealth Centre
For Electronic Governance
This paper shall look at ways in which governments can facilitate better access to information in both the public and private sector. The particular emphasis is on the growing influence of the Internet on all sectors of society. The role of the Internet and the growth of electronic democracy, are briefly explored. This is to set the parameters for discussion on how an information intensive society is changing the expectations of the citizen. In particular, the paper contends that in our information rich environment we need to finds ways for the citizen to be better informed. In the emerging knowledge economy it is time we looked at the whole question of information rights from a new perspective. In the past, the push has been access to official government information. Much of this is codified in law in many developed countries (with laws currently emerging in England and Scotland). These laws have resulted in government accountability. But, the rise of the Internet has created new expectations and citizens are now beginning to demand accountability from private sector organizations. Thus, governments have a role in providing not only better access to government information, but also leading discussions on how private sector organizations will be more accountable to the citizen and contemplating what legislation might be necessary.
This is perhaps one of the most interesting times in history to be alive. We are witnessing a phenomenal abundance of change in societies around the world in a very short period. The source of most of this change is new technologies and the Internet. In the past decade we have seen every aspect of the lives of individuals and organizations go through many evolutions and uncertainties. Large, medium and small corporations alike have discovered the need to adapt to the new technologies, or sink in the emerging global knowledge economy. There is no facet of life in the industrialized world that has not undergone some form of shift. The resultant new information economy has brought with it different approaches to work. There has been a surge in tele-workers, entrepreneurs and home run businesses. Corporations have downsized and knowledge workers migrate from company to company, open to the highest bidder and the organization with the best deal. The highly proficient, intelligent and innovative knowledge worker is in demand. Knowledge itself seems to have become a commodity in the marketplace of ideas. The pace of change has been so dizzying to some they have difficulty in meeting the challenges these shifts have brought. We now live in an information intense driven society.
Nowhere has this been more evident than with government, who are constantly having to cope with the persistently emerging new technologies and demands from citizens. In today’s wired world, the interactive citizen is one of the fundamental cornerstones of change. The Internet has put new power into the hands of the citizen. Governments can no longer simply be dispensers of information, even in sophisticated forms being developed by many governments. But governments have not been passive observers and are rising to many of the challenges. New technologies are being used not only to deliver services to the public but also to enhance government administration and facilitate businesses.
This section looks at the means by which some governments are moving to electronic governance and what role information will play in the future. In this context, governance can be seen as both a means of using new technologies to deliver services to the citizen, and ways in which to change and improve the efficient methods of administration within governments themselves
2. The impact of the internet
At this stage of development few governments have effectively been able to involve their citizenry electronically in the democratic process. Many governments have been effective dispensers of information, which often passes as a means of enhancing the democratic process. There are many government initiatives seeking to help citizens to get online, seek feedback on government reports online, and develop listservs and discussion groups to elicit the views of the citizens. There are also many groups actively participating in online activities in the hope of influencing government policies. But for the most part, governments are far behind the activities of citizens online around the world. Those actively engaged in online activities involving social or political change see the Internet as a medium to foster, enhance and change the way people have traditionally engaged in the democratic process.
The story of the Internet and electronic democracy is a cautionary tale. Much of the enthusiasm and hope for new forms of democracy and citizen input into public issues, sound very like the gushing optimism expressed about the potential of television in its nascent years. It is not yet known if the potentials offered by the Internet will be met. Will the Internet become like television, an arid desert with only a small oasis of excellence? This is an important question because the potential is there for the Internet to become dominated by a few large, corporate interests, or subsumed by government regulation that could inhibit the freedoms offered by this new technology. There is also the danger in a recent trend indicating that people are increasingly spending more time in isolation sitting in front of their computer terminals.
A recent survey of 4,113 adults conducted by Stanford University's Institute for the
Quantitative Study of Social Sciences found that “55 percent of Americans have access to the Internet at work or at home, and approximately 20 percent of regular Internet users spend more than 5 hours a week online. Of those 20 percent, 13 percent spend less time with family and friends, 8 percent attend fewer social events, and 25 percent spend more time working at home in addition to spending a full day at the office. The findings of the study also support the assertion that Americans are abandoning traditional forms of mass media, such as newspapers and television, in favor of the Internet.” 1 There is wide potential of change here for the way people will interact as a society as the Internet continues to grow.
Suffice to say at the moment the Internet is creating major change both positive and negative. One of these changes is in the ways citizens are engaging in the democratic process and beginning to slowly altering the face of democracy. The next section looks at some of the initiatives and the reshaping of the face of democracy which online citizen participation is bringing.
2.1 We are the internet: information as a democratic tool
This could well be the anthem for all those netizens who want to continue to recognize their particular identities on a medium that is increasingly being dominated by the corporate world. “We are the Internet” could well be the clarion call stating loudly and clearly that this medium is for all the people, that this is the medium, which will bring new forms of expression of the democratic will of the people. However, “we are the Internet” is taking on a more prosaic meaning in that the growing connectivity with many forms of media is making all users of the Internet increasingly one with technology.
Within the next decade, or sooner, we will probably not even use the word the Internet, or the Net, because the actual convergences of technologies is creating a new phenomenon. Now an individual can be connected to the online world through a variety of technologies. In experimental stage in the labs now are glasses you will wear that will bring the online world to your lenses. You wont need to boot up and go through all the messy program commands as these glasses will be linked to a micro cellular device which will be voice activated. You will just say what you want, get your email, send a message, take a virtual tour of the office, meet others in virtual meeting spaces, go there anonymously with created identities, book a holiday, look for new online or whatever any of the things you want to do. You will be in cyberspace, disconnected from the physical offline world except for the glasses you are wearing.
Experiments are currently ongoing to have automated automobiles on the highways so all you have to do is program your destination (probably by voice) and off you go. The car, as it travels, will not necessarily go to the route you (once known as the driver) will tell it, as it is will be connected to a GPS (GeoPositioning Satellite) which will alert your autocar to any potential traffic jams or road problems ahead. Thus, your car (or, that is to say, the machine the technological masters are letting you occupy) will be diverted as needed to the most desirable and quickest5 route. This mapping of cars is not a fantasy or possible scenario for the future but a reality, as mapping programs already exist to get you to your destination by the quickest route. In much of the industrialised world most countries are already mapped electronically, thanks to satellite technology, and available on the Internet. Other ideas for the Internet include the wired home in which everything from your electricity to your heat to your refrigerator would be connected to the Internet and connected to whatever company is providing you with the service. Thus, the electricity corporation can adjust uses of electricity and your refrigerator can alert you when you are low on milk or, more probable still, send a message to your grocery supplier to send more supplies to you. This is all very efficient, and perhaps even a time server for the consumer, but do we want our lives to be governed by disparate pieces of technology? For the sake of efficiency and time do we really all want to be wired to a seamless technological mosaic? But this is just one small example of the technological world we are building.
That is not to say there are not intrinsic values to the Internet and the new technologies and that many have benefited. The Internet has been a tool of enrichment for large numbers of our populations. It has allowed diversity, the rise of the entrepreneur, the mushrooming of home businesses, the bringing together of family and friends through instant communications, the Internet has been a voice for many who for too long did not have the means to express themselves because prior mediums of the expression of communication have been controlled by the few. The Internet has been many things to many people. New, advanced medical technologies and scientific breakthroughs have lengthened our average life span and brought us better health and lifestyles.
On the Internet, there are pockets of dissent and discourse. there are many who use the new technologies for learning, to facilitate their businesses, to get a service, whether from government or business, play games with each other over long distances, keep in contact through email and a thousand and other good usages that can benefit the individual. We know the benefits, we know of the attempts of many professionals who seek to use the Internet to both gain knowledge and dispense and share knowledge. Perhaps, the most important feature of the Internet is that it has allowed individuals to communicate in ways not available before. This is an important new channel through which communication, ideas and knowledge can flow. The Smithsonian Institute in the United States, the British Library along with a wider consortium of universities and libraries are joining together to put online the Magna Carta, the Lindisfrane gospels and the entire contents of the Smithsonian online. Their purpose is to take the massive volumes of knowledge available in off line libraries and to make available online for the whole` world to benefit. The intent is simple: what an individual can get by going to a library should be available to the world through the Internet. But as with all things in life there are positive benefits and negative impacts. The questions now we must ask ourselves collectively are: how do we manage to grow the benefits while neutralizing many of the negative elements? And there are many negatives surfacing as technological advances far outstrips society’s ability to determine the direction we will go as a result of the developments.
Technology is the modern spider that has increasingly built a web around our lives. The collective question for us as a society is: are we the fly now captured in this complex, intricate web or are we still the masters of our destiny? Where is the debate, discussions about the social, cultural and political impacts of technologies on our lives and what these technological changes are doing to our humanity? Has society become the fly willingly ensnared in this new web (and not simply the Web on the Internet) actually created by a few and used to drive the new economy and the engine of consumerism? Has electronic commerce and the burgeoning global information economy so subsumed the agendas of world governments that we can no longer objectively look at where we should be going? It can be persuasively argued that throughout history all new technologies have changed the way the world lives and operates as a society. Transportation brought the world together and television resulted in the global village that brought all of us on the planet closer together as a people (though not necessarily in a harmonious way). Now tourism is the world’s second largest industry with millions of people on the move all around the world, experiencing and sharing in other cultures.
Of course, these millions are mostly from the rich nations. It appears we see nothing wrong in going to exotic and culturally challenging parts of the world, in the quest for something new and exciting and the next best thing to experience, and then pay scant attention to the many more millions of poor. Ironically, many will argue that tourism brings needed dollars and helps these economies. But even this does not ring with the hallowed sound of truth as studies show that those who benefit most are the western multinational recreational chains and others who sell their wares globally to all and sundry. Usually, the locals benefit only to the extent they receive minimum wages.
The point here is not a quick analysis of the rich vs. the poor but rather that we as a people who experience the offline world as we do, and are often blinded to the consequences, might be just as blinded to what technology is doing to us. The message might also be that most people don’t really care and are happy to carry on enjoying the new wealth and comfort that technologies are bringing.
Whatever the opinions or views of individuals and governments in society it is evident that we need a far deeper debate and discourse over the impacts of technologies. There are concerns over ensuring all citizens have universal access to the Internet (and are free to use it or not use it as they wish), there are serious, abiding anxieties about the digital divide that is occurring throughout the world. Privacy laws, to protect people’s information and endow on their certain rights over their own personal information, are spreading. But the implementation of such laws is but one small step. Articulation of these issues is just the start. We need deeper discourse. Ironically, it is this medium that affords the opportunity to bring such discourse forward.
This is why online e-Democracy is so important as this activity represents the power of this technology and how it can be used to embrace democracy and involve people in the social, economic, cultural and political issues of the day. This is a tool that can give people, the individual citizen, the power to influence public policy. Governments are slowly coming to realize that there is an undercurrent of democratic change going on in the world. The face of democracy is beginning to change and a few thousand at the moment are doing it. But this is a change that has the potential for growth.
Technology is a cold and neutral medium. It is people, individuals that bring passion, life and meaning to this medium. It somehow seems that this point is missed as society collectively races to embrace technology. We are the inheritors of our past that we did not bring about but the creators of our collective futures. At this point in our history we have a collective responsibility as to how our society will shape itself. We have the capacity to create change in our societies through speaking out. Many changes do occur in society when people speak out and spark debate. It is now time for such a discourse over the future of technology. We need to develop a philosophical base about all these new technologies so society drives technology and not technology drives us.
This next section looks at the distinctions between electronic governance and electronic democracy and how the latter is having a wide impact on civil society. The move towards online activism, and the use of the Internet as an information and communications tool to forward common social goals, is important to understand. The mechanisms evolving in the developed world to influence government policy can also be used as tools to help those in the developing world.
3.0 Electronic democracy in a wired world
3.1 Introduction: electronic governance vs. electronic democracy
Many governments are moving to electronic governance. In this context governance can be seen as both a means to using new technologies to deliver services to the citizen and ways in which to change and improve the efficient methods of administration within governments themselves. Another element looked at in this section is the means as whereby governments will increasingly be able to involve citizens in the democratic process of government.
As noted above, at this stage of development few governments have effectively been able to involve their citizenry electronically in the democratic process. For the most part, governments are far behind the activities of citizens online around the world, who see the Internet as a medium to foster, enhance and change the way people have traditionally engaged in the democratic process. There are some efforts on different government fronts.
In the United States and Great Britain governments are looking at setting up online voting. The British Electoral Commission recently announced that they would be looking into the feasibility of online voting. A similar announcement was made in California in January 2000. February 28, 2000 saw the meeting of the first Internet Voting Technology Alliance in Washington, D.C. Initial participants included: Safevote, of San Rafael, Calif.; VoteHere, of Kirkland, Wash.; Modulo Security Solutions, of Rio de Janeiro; International Foundation for Election Systems, of Washington, D.C., and e-Elections, of Oakland, Calif. The group met to get public funding for their activities. The group’s goal will be, amongst other things, to develop the proper tools and protocols to ensure online voting is safe and secure for the citizen and is not subject to corruption or manipulation. But this is a tool for voting under the current system of democracy as we know it. People were able to participate online in this opening assembly at 2
Governments, for the most part, are far behind the public in developing tools for electronic democracy. There are some good initiatives, such as the web sites of the British Prime Minister, which seek to garner public comment, opinion and discussion.
There was also an online consultation run by the British parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration. It was run from mid-November 1999 for one month, in connection with their inquiry into e-democracy and e-government. The online discussion centred on "innovations in citizen participation in government". The Committee sent out electronic notices, which were picked up around the world, asking people to send in their experiences in e-democracy and e-governance.
These are true, but limited, steps towards electronic democracy. However, on the whole, governments tend simply to provide information on their web sites and use the Internet, and other technologies, to deliver services electronically. The prime example of this is the US White House site3 which is primarily an information tool and conduit to executive agency web sites. It was only in January 2000 that President Clinton announced that government had to be interactive with the citizen.
The dispensing of information, without substantial input from the citizen, is not a real interactive transaction. Yet, the Internet in and of itself is an interactive medium. Individuals on the Internet understand this and, for growing legions of people, it is becoming a force that is changing the nature of democracy as we know it today.
But this is just part of the wider picture of developments in electronic democracy. In fact, individuals and groups are coming together online around the world to influence policy. Politicians are also using the web. In the United States every Presidential candidate has a web site. There are also alternative web sites by interested citizens or groups who want to have their say about the candidates. There are also other groups who are offering sites which will present in-depth analysis of the issues in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections as well as elections at the local and state level. Those wanting to check out the activities of the US Democratic party or the Republican Party can go to either: http://www.democrats.org or http:// www.rnc.org. If you want in-depth details on the 2000 Elections in the USA you can go to: http://www.Politcaljunkie.com There are also many independent sites that either oppose the mainstream candidates, satirize the candidates, or offer alternative in-depth information and analysis of the issues. But the phenomenon of engagement in politics online is not restricted to the United States.
3.2 The changing shape of democracy today
There are thousands of other individuals who are active online and attempting either to get more information from their government or to influence policy. The online world of democratic activism is growing around the world. This section looks at the emerging trends in electronic democracy, how citizens active online are changing the nature of democracy as we have understood it, and how governments are going to have to tap into this emerging trend. This section shows the distinction between online democracy, and what its participants are achieving, and electronic governance.
In the wired world, the online citizen is increasingly playing more and more of a role in the democratic process. There are now hundreds of groups involved, from the community and local level to the national and international stage, in some way working to have an influence on government policies and programs, and on societal issues of our age.
Because of these changes, the process of government will soon no longer be controlled from the top and micro-managed by a few when it comes to public policy. In the changing wired world, citizens are voicing their say. Governments may not necessarily be listening, but the thousands upon thousands of people engaging in discourse on the thousand and one issues of the day are certainly listening to each other. This is resulting in powerful currents of change which are only beginning to manifest themselves. Electronic democracy is not about citizens voting on a multitude of referendums as laid out by governments. Electronic democracy is citizens engaging in the political process in means chosen by individuals.
E-Commerce currently dominates the mass media as the main phenomenon of the Internet. But the real story lies in the changes being brought by the thousands of groups and people online around the world, who are engaged in some sort of civic activism, political engagement, or just plain discourse and debate, on the issues that are important to them.
The most evident manifestation of this was in Seattle in December 1999,subsequent events at the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C. in March, 2000 and the meetings in Prague in September, 2000. The massive protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Prague over the rise of corporate elitism and globalisation on the agendas of governments, demonstrated the power of the Internet in bringing people out to express their demands to be part of the process. These people were determined to have their say. Not only did they express their beliefs and ideas but governments were forced to listen. There is some growing awareness in government that their old dynamics of secrecy, closed meetings, and invitations to the special few to be part of the process, are starting to fade. In Seattle we saw the first shot fired across the bow of the old world order of democracy as we have known it. What we are witnessing is an emergence from the traditional forms of representative democracy to a new form that has yet to be given a name. For the moment, we can call it cyberism, as an expression of a particular form of politics. But that is still an expression born out of the old paradigm.
The new democracy we see surfacing is more the expression of individual voices that congeal into a collective whole over ideas that the society of peoples online develop into a consensus. And while a consensus might be formed on major issues, people are still in a position to express their individual thoughts and ideas (even if they range from the erudite to the opinionated). In this emerging world we see the evolution of a true populist democracy (albeit a small one at this point in time). Although people’s ideas do not necessarily have to be acted upon individually, the means exist for individuals to communicate freely to an audience. That audience can be large or small, but it represents a freedom for the individual that has not existed up to this point in time. The mass media still hold the reigns of mass communication. It is still important to get that letter to the editor published so you can reach a wide readership. But with this new medium of the Internet you can write something and it will reach the level of interest in the audience out there.
In Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Prague, the initial protests were organized off line and online. And it was the Internet that gave this movement the international momentum to make it the effective demonstration, and the somewhat collective voice of outsiders, that it became. It was the clarion call for democracy from voices across the world. It has become the symbol not only for the voices able to speak from the Internet, but of the fact that the citizenry has found the ideal tool by which they can bypass all the normal channels of government. This is not a small development at this stage in our history. Many people talk about the “Individual” being in control, or having great power because of the ability to tap into the world through the keyboard, but it is not certain if the real power is understood. It has mostly been identified as the power of the consumer to buy the product he wants, or read the online newspaper of choice. In fact, what has actually happened is we have collectively opened a Pandora’s box. And it really is too early to state exactly all the changes that will occur. It can be said with certainty that there is a powerful current of knowledge and ideas now circulating the world.
What once took months or years to turn into an issue now can occur in less than a day. This is the true power of the citizen. This is the story of the evolution of a truly populist democracy, an emerging democracy in which issues are being transformed from the hands of the few elite to thousands (and one day will be millions). It is like throwing one seed into the garden and from it a flower grows. Throw the seed of an important idea or issue out onto the Internet and it flowers thousands of times over. This is a key development in our evolution at this point in our history. Central to this development is the degree to which people can communicate, form opinions, make judgments from available data, and then act upon them. The Internet is a medium that allows ideas to flow among thousands of channels. People are empowered not because one can get onto the Internet and get a product, read a newspaper or research out some knowledge. That thinking is from an old paradigm succinctly expressed in the saying: knowledge is power. The new paradigm is the ability to talk back (true interactivity), dialogue and go to whatever source an individual wants to choose. This is not to say there are thousands upon thousands of people out there engaged in political activism. There aren’t.
There are legions of people who are out there ruminating and thinking, or engaging in conversation (or whatever activity one chooses). Many of these people are not restrained by the dictates of mass media which tell us what we must read, what is the story of the day, or what we must listen to on the radio or watch on TV. None of these media afford the independence of operation that the Internet allows. This is another reason why the Internet is developing into such a strong, world political force, not captured by boundaries, time, space or distance. It is true that many in the world still very much reflect their religious beliefs, cultures, ethnic or political bias. Beyond this lies the opportunity to break away from the intellectual and emotional chains of the past and be free as an individual. And this is occurring on the Internet. However, even with these changes, there are still opportunities for governments themselves to benefit from the changes. There are also efforts by many governments, worried about the potential freedoms a medium such as the Internet brings, to curtail both access and content on the Internet.
Because the Internet as a medium is becoming the tool through which the nature of democracy itself is changing and taking new shapes and forms, it is important that governments understand this phenomenon. Increasingly, public officials and elected politicians are going to be faced with not only an informed citizenry but a citizenry that wants to be engaged in the decision making process in some form or another. An analysis of the numerous groups springing up on the Internet on a multitude of issues illustrates that there are voices out there that governments are going to have to tap into.
The Internet has brought about a decentralization of power. In the wired world, individuals can now make their own choices as to which authorities and information sources they will accept. This is leading to a greater democratization of knowledge, empowerment of the individual, and the potential for more informed interactions between the citizenry and organizations, including government. Moreover, since individuals now have ready access to a variety of information resources, organizations have to adopt new proactive measures to compile and disseminate information in a competitive information environment.
A citizenry that is able to seek and obtain information and knowledge from any place in the world through the Internet will, in all likelihood, also expect more from government.
One of the means that people can collectively work together to bring about change is through the strategic gathering, absorbing and using of information. Online groups and online activists, researchers and others involved as information professionals, instinctively understand this. It is the understanding of the nature of information and how it influences us as individuals that is going to bring the next big shift in society.
4.0 The shape of information to come: democracy's best tool
As the Internet takes hold in our daily lives, and begins to take a new and ubiquitous shape and form, the need for governments to develop information policies to suit the changing nature of these technologies is becoming more evident. In much of the developed world, the Internet is a communications force that is growing. According to NUA plc, a company in Ireland, that tracks the growth of the Internet and the implication of our growing information technology infrastructure, as of the end of the year 2000, 60% of the population in the United States and Canada will have some form of online access to the Internet.4 This can be in the office, the home, an educational institute or some public space, such as libraries, community halls, Internet cafes and other public venues.
In the United Kingdom, over 50% of the population now enjoy some kind of Internet access.5 There, much of the growth of the Internet has been stimulated because many companies offer Internet access free. The citizen pays only for local calls. In Europe, the whole question of measured rates is a serious issue, as many contend, this does impede not only access to the Internet, but, even if there is access, then the individual has to be careful about how long one is online. This is because the cost factor can act as an inhibitor to accessing the Internet and the amount of time spent online. However, despite these problems, there are now over 200 million people online around the world.
We are now awash with information in our new cyber environments. There are currently billions of pages out on the world wide web. There is so much information that no single search engine can go out and suck up all the information an individual might be seeking. In fact, there is such a proliferation of information that many search engine companies now do not give total access to everything that is on the web. What some of the search engine companies are now doing is giving priority to companies who pay to have their company or organization show first on a search, when a given topic or key word is entered into their search engine. This is now giving an edge to those who can afford to pay the necessary fee to be at the top of the list.
The world wide web is now so big that some web sites are not even getting joined to the network of networks because there might be a connection problem in their local area. Also, government and private organizations are now building web sites that can only be accessed through their own Intranets, or by having a specific address for a web site with a password to enter. The world is at the fingertips of the citizen, but the new challenge is actually finding what is out there. The freewheeling, widely democratic, open, ubiquitous, and accessible Internet is still there, but the shadows of secrecy are beginning to move in. The danger exists that corporate dominance, with the economic rules of the market force at play, could inherently impede the free nature of the Internet over time.
When entering cyberspace, the challenges for the citizen who wants an open and accountable society, both from government and the private sector world, are now many. The success of our new information technology environments is going to depend on how much say and control citizens will have on information in the decade to come.
Information is shaping our world. We now live in the Digital Age, in which information, in a global knowledge economy, has become the supreme commodity. Information is not only a piece of barter for the business world to use for competitive and commercial value. Information is now a precious commodity for the citizen.
In our new Internet environments, citizens are increasingly demanding more privacy rights to protect their personal information. However, there is also a contradiction here, as at the moment, citizens are sharing and using personal and aggregate information more than ever before. But in a cyberspace environment, the citizen is becoming increasingly sophisticated in understanding the impact that information can have on one’s life. The individual wants to ensure that one’s own personal information is not abused. The individual wants the ability to control his/her personal information environment in cyberspace. At the same time, the individual wants unfettered access to all manner of information. But the sheer amount of information available, the ability to communicate information, and the value that individuals put on information, is bringing a new understanding of the nature of information itself. This understanding is also what is driving the new forces for change in the growing democracy online movement around the world.
Thus, on the side of freedom of information, the public is starting to demand more information for all facets of their lives. We see more data on labels of commercial products; shareholders demand more information about the activities of the companies in which they are investing (not just the usual "hyped" good news about the company's activities in the past year). Citizens are demanding and seeking more information about many activities in society. The Information Age appears to be bringing more demands for accountability. In the years to come, the public will come to expect more and more accountability, in the form of enlightening information, from private sector organizations. The Internet is an open network, which has created open environments. With this openness has come a demand for certain rights, to ensure the inherent democratic nature of the Internet is maintained. This idea is now spreading into society as a whole, resulting in demands for more and more accountability from all our public and private sector organizations.
Thus, it appears that the next wave of information rights will spread out to the private sector. As the average citizen becomes armed with more knowledge (or at least has the capacity to be armed with knowledge), then it will be private sector organizations, along with governments, who are going to have to become more forthcoming about the information held in their organizations. The private sector here means not just large corporations or businesses, but rather all organizations, including non-profits. Just as privacy moved into the domain of the private sector thirty years ago, when Sweden passed the first data protection law in the world, so will freedom of information become a part of the private sector domain. The shape and form it takes will be different, but the providing of more information to society will occur.
We currently live in an age of individuals’ rights, because in our current climate of the citizen as consumer, the individual is paramount. This will change, as the recognition dawns that it is also aggregate rights that strengthen the citizenry as a whole. As this idea flourishes, then privacy will now hold the same sway, and demands for information on a more sophisticated level will grow. Privacy will become a part of civil society’s infrastructure. As the knowledge economy grows, and the knowledge professional comes to be seen as a powerful force in our society, so will the demands for wider swathes of information grow. It might seem at the moment that we already live in a world with too much information. This change of demand for information will be for “organized” information that informs, not overwhelms, the citizen.
Information is now an issue in a new form. Governments are also going to be subject to pressures from emerging information forces in society. For example, the secrecy of governments, at the moment, is defined to the degree that information is shared with the public. The lack of efficacy of a freedom of information law is shown by the narrowness with which government exempts information from the public. Canada’s information law is currently under review, because of the criticisms that the statute too much favours the public sector, and too much information is withheld on specious grounds. Another reason for a review of the Canadian Access to Information Act is that it was developed in the late seventies, and passed by Parliament in 1982, before the emergence of new information technologies. But the challenge of governments now is not just to pass or amend freedom of information laws.
In our new environments, we have to look at information as the force it has become in society. Changing environments bring different attitudes.
For example, as governments go online with electronic service delivery, more content is going to become available to the public. But it is not going to be enough to put information up on a web site. Any information is going to have to be organized.
In many cases, there is too much information on a web site, which makes the site virtually unusable by the citizen. Thus, information management is rising as a discipline within government. This is vital, so that policies can be evolved which ensure citizens are getting the information they need and want (not what someone ‘thinks’ the public want), while at the same time protecting individual privacy. Once governments put content online, a policy issue will immediately emerge. The private sector learned this in the early days of the web. The growth of online marketing and ecommerce brought with it major privacy and copyright issues. For the citizen, who is going online for government information, if a request is rejected, the issue will become: why can’t I have access?
In an information-intensive society, citizens want more from both governments and the private sector alike. The above is simply an overview of the emerging issues and problems. Solutions need to be sought, as these new technologies become even more persuasive forces in our society.
5. Possible solution : information as a practical tool
There are numerous ways that governments at the local, regional and national level can facilitate these new forms of democracy that are emerging. One is to take the example of
Canada. The Canadian government, through their Community Access Program (CAP) has a goal to establish over 10,000 public access sites in rural and urban communities across Canada. Launched in 1994, CAP has already established over 4,200 sites in approximately 3,000 rural and remote communities and is a key component of the government's "Connecting Canadians" strategy - aimed at making Canada the world's most connected nation." The program is now being expanded to include urban centres with populations over 50,000.
CAP matching funds of up to $17,000 per site are available to eligible applicants such as educational institutions, public libraries, community organizations, and municipal and territorial governments. The community funds can include cash or "in kind" contributions such as facilities, equipment and staffing of public access sites.
This is a good model to be followed not only by national governments but international organizations. If we are to handle the digital divide between those who have the opportunities to be online and the vast numbers of people who cannot necessarily afford the costs of going online, it is going to be essential to level the playing field. In any populist democracy it is important that initiatives embrace all the people. At the moment it is estimated there are only between 150 and 200 million people online. These are small numbers where our world population has exceeded 6 billion people.
International organizations could also provide programs to educate people on usage of the Internet. Education then leads to individual usage. It will, naturally, vary from individual but through knowledge of how to use the Internet people can be participants in this new trend in democracy as they see fit. Such programs can embrace many peoples around the world and ensure that the users who most benefit are not just those in the affluent, industrialized countries.
National Government should seek ways to engage their citizenry in the process of government. They can do this in many ways such as:
making more information available online from government itself to ensure there is an informed citizenry;
providing web sites that seek input from people on all manner of government programs and issues;
developing listservs and discussion groups on important national issues and other means to engage the citizenry;
providing grants to organizations seeking online democratic activities;
developing local community projects that embrace all levels of society from the academic world, to businesses, large and small, to non-profit and volunteer organizations; this can encompass governments in developing countries;
develop web sites that allow citizens easy access to web sites;
ensure information on web sites is easily attainable, in a form understood by the citizen and can easily be downloaded;
provide search engines and hot links to ensure the citizen gets what he or she wants in the right format from the right agency;
in developing countries where access to the Internet is limited work to develop information policies that encompass all the citizens in the countries;
develop programs to teach local leaders in the communities to become information facilitators;
UNESCO to form a working group to develop a set of best Information Practices, that can be applied and used in developing countries.
As indicated above, the Internet is a medium that has allowed people to involve themselves in the democratic process in new and unique ways. Governments at all levels and international organizations will increasingly be impacted by these changes. Thus, there is also a need for awareness building within governments and international organizations of the changes that are occurring. This can be accomplished through educational and training programs.