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The Impact of Internet Technology on Democratic Legitimacy. Working Paper by Beth Simone Noveck

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Political Institutions must adapt themselves on technological progress to maintain democracy and legitimacy; Additionally, societal institutions and politicians must create space in the Internet - not only for consumers, but first of all for Citizens.

01.03.2001 · Research Group on the Global Future


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Introduction: Legitimacy and Technology

If elected, not by the majority of those who vote, but confirmed by a constitutionally mandated process, can a candidate be the legitimate winner? If a contender wins a race run according to rules set down by an independent judiciary that nonetheless invalidates votes fairly cast, is his victory legitimate? Does the failure of the U.S. Supreme Court to televise argument over the Florida ballot recount during the recent election or to sign its opinion in the case de-legitimize the Court’s authority because it refuses to expose itself to public scrutiny? Alternatively, does the secrecy enhance the legitimacy of the Court by imbuing it with an air of mysterious power?

By „legitimate" we are inquiring about the acceptance of an institution’s authority and its potential effectiveness . Without legitimacy, a political leader will not be able to push his vision through in the policymaking process and might as well not have been elected (if he ever was). None of this, however, would have been an issue in the recent U.S. election, if the „technology" used for voting - the dimpled, hanging and pregnant „chads" - were reliable.

Furthermore, if the newer technologies, television and the Internet, had not called a Gore victory at 8:03 pm on Election Night, voters might not have left the polling booth lines and would have cast decisive ballots, instead. Critical is the legal battle over whether hand-counting ballots is the appropriate technology to elect a president in the twenty-first century. In the end, as protests over the disenfranchising of voters, the inconsistency between the popular and the Electoral College votes and bipartisan corruption grow fainter, the repeatedly televised image of George W. Bush cloaks him with the mantle of authority and legitimacy. „Indecision 2000" in the United States, as it has come to be known, unmistakably highlights the impact of technology on the perception of political legitimacy and the legitimizing of specific forms of democratic political culture.

Two extreme opinions - one that the Internet is a boon to democracy and the other that it is destructive of democracy - have beco-me commonplace rhetoric today. In attempting to debunk both the cyber-utopian and the neo-Luddite view, this essay argues that neither of these are wholly true because what we actually perceive is the process of political delegitimation caused by the spread of the Internet. Because technology defines the range of possibilities for how government communicates with its citizens and how they communicate with each other, when those possibilities change, the perception of the democratic quality of our institutions changes, too. The new communications technologies, whose impact outstrips that of prior innovations, act as a mirror, exposing the inadequacy of our current political institutions that pre-suppose a now-outdated technological reality. As such, many perceive them as a threat to democratic life and legitimacy.

This is for three reasons: First, global network technologies respect no legal boundaries and therefore undermine the legitimacy and enforcement of national law, whose rule undergirds and defines the essence of democracy. Second, the Internet, because it is largely dominated by English-language content and web sites from the United States, is seen as eroding cultural difference and localism and giving preference to a new set of global commercial and consumerist values that thrive on the Net. Third, the private and privatizing environment of the Internet is perceived to be destroying public democracy and public space. I will argue that the changing technological landscape is undermining the perceived legitimacy of our democratic institutions and is a portent for change. But it is as yet unclear whether that change will be for the better or worse. If technology’s democratic potential (instead of its destructive potential) is to be fulfilled, it requires a proactive policy designed expressly to further democratic and civic goals.


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