Democracy on technology's heels?
The confrontation between the Democratic Party candidates for the U.S. presidency, which YouTube and CNN broadcast last month, was an impressive example of the power of technology in the service of direct democracy. It consisted of just the candidates and voters without the intervention of the party's central committee or its communications staff (www.youtube.com/democraticdebate).
In Israel, too, there is no dearth of initiatives to use the Internet to encourage direct and more involved democracy. Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich, for example, very quickly published the draft of the Economic Arrangements Law for 2008 on the net. This was part of an effort to gain the support of the masses in the struggle waged against Treasury officials over the 219 pages of economic edicts, which are generally brought before the government for swift approval and which serve as a tool for circumventing the legislators. Yachimovich's request to transfer the document from its clumsy PDF format to Word drew an immediate response from a number of Internet surfers.
The Knesset2 Web site (www.knesset2.co.il) is another new and highly interesting initiative. The site, which is not owned by the Israeli parliament, is a kind of shadow Knesset where surfers can propose their own bills, and in the spirit of the times, their proposals are evaluated by other surfers. The aim, of course, is to influence the Knesset by flooding the site with proposed legislation that will catch the lawmakers' attention.
"The idea is that everyone can propose bills, discuss them and participate in voting on them - without primaries, without elections and without kissing the babies of central committee members," say the site's operators. They identify themselves as a group of young people "who believe there are plenty of good people in Israel who want to make changes, have an influence and make things better for all of us, but Israel's political system puts them off. Therefore a lot of good ideas are wasted."
The laws on the Web site are arranged according to subject and according to the Knesset's committees. It is also possible to call up proposals by entering the date when they were submitted, according to their popularity, or by entering a variety of labels, as befits a site that prides itself on adding the digit 2 to its name. There are proposals that repeat existing laws, and those that are patently impractical, and there are even laws that were written for the personal benefit of the person who wrote them. But it is clear that most of the proposals, even the superficial ones, stem from good intentions. Among them are a proposal to supervise the prices of apartment rentals, or the "big recycling law."
However, the hope of saving democracy through technological means may prove problematic, explains Dr. Mike Dahan, a lecturer in Communications at the Sapir College in the Negev and Bar-Ilan University, who specializes in relations between technology, society and politics. "It works better in the United States because there the political culture is different and closer to direct democracy," he says. "In Israel, the belief that the Web will strengthen the connection with party leaders is generally dashed because it is not at all certain that most of them actually want this kind of relationship. In addition, it is possible to distinguish the intervention of public relations firms everywhere, even in the talkbacks and on the parties' sites. Technology is hastening the process of commercializing politics."
And is this different in the U.S.?
"Of course, in the U.S., too, the system is exploited, but there they are much more concerned about being caught, because of the price involved. In a country like ours, where there is no commitment to bring matters to the public's attention, the political system does not aim for transparency. The politicians are not interested in such a development and in our cultural system there is no one to spur them on to change their ways."
However, in the U.S., too, one can find examples of limitations to online democracy. A simple YouTube search for the word "debate" will come up with a plethora of films devoted to a relatively marginal Republican politician by the name of Ron Paul. The online interest in him does not stop there. An article in Wired magazine reported that Paul's channel on YouTube has had 1 million viewers, many more than that of Rudy Giuliani. So what makes 71-year-old Paul such a rising star on the Internet? According to the interview in Wired, a small group of vociferous supporters have taken an interest in his platform and are succeeding in turning him into a star by using flooding tactics. Any article about him on sites such as www.digg.com soars to the top of the list. Bloggers who dare to criticize him find themselves under attack by his groupies, and online surveys are incapable of withstanding the supporters of the man who appears to be the [top "American Idol" contestant] Sanjaya of politics.
One of the most recent, salient examples of the problems in using technology to influence democracy is not connected to representation on the Internet but to the electronic voting machines that were put into use in the past few years throughout the U.S. Researchers who examined three companies' voting machines found that there had been serious breaches in each of them. The physical structure of one of the machines, for example, did not require more than loosening a few screws to reach its critical parts. The hardware and software were also not a particularly complicated challenge. The researchers also found that the planners of another company's machine had installed an out-of-date version of Windows Server 2000, and among other things allowed remote access without using a password.
"One must remember that technology and the Internet are merely tools, an infrastructure," says Dahan. "Technology may perhaps be able to help fix some of the problems of representative democracy. But in places where there is no commitment to democracy, one is left with a contraption that works but is devoid of content. One can conduct an interactive conversation, but in actual fact it does not contribute anything to democracy. I am not at all sure that if we try to move toward direct democracy with the aid of the Web, we won't slide into populism that could perhaps even lead to fascism."