Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World

Cynthia J. Alexander

Leslie A. Pal

The use of the Internet and new interactive technologies for nurturing and supporting electronic democracy has been both maligned and heralded by politicians, the media, and practitioners. In their edited collection, Cynthia Alexander of Acacia University and Leslie Pal of Carleton University bring together a variety of articles that examine both the positive and the negative implications of electronic democracy for citizens and clients of public services. Their emphasis is on the diverse applications, case studies, and policy implications of electronic democracy within the North American context. The collection should be of interest to academics, policymakers, and NGO groups (environmental, health, and women's) interested in exploring the many facets of electronic democracy.

In their introduction, Alexander & Pal present an overview of issues surrounding electronic democracy, with particular attention paid to citizen access (how to decrease the disparity between the information rich and the information poor--typically women, indigenous, and other underrepresented peoples in Canada), and to economic and political control of the technology (citizen or corporate rule?). They emphasize that, even as the technological infrastructure is rapidly developing, consensus amongst the various stakeholders that comprise the social infrastructure is a constant and evolving process, wherein values and ethics need to be routinely evaluated on a broad citizen-led consultative basis.

Themes woven throughout the collection, then, include use and participation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), "empowerment" of citizens through digital democracy, the tension between the balance of power between individuals and institutions, and the impact of ICTs on social services such as health care.

Ronald Diebert discusses the "hypermedia environment" and how it is altering the political landscape, illustrating this with current changes in transnational production, global finance, civil society networks, and state-security practices. Catherine Alexander discusses how international security is changing because of ICTs, and what sorts of dual-use technologies are being developed (i.e., those with military and commercial applications). She also delves into issues of information warfare. Michael Ogden emphasizes that democratic principles need to be extended to the development of the information infrastructure at both national and global levels. This includes widespread citizen involvement and consultation, and a concomitant resolve by citizens to acquire a "greater civic competence in the conduct of democracy in cyberspace" (p. 81).

Case studies of electronic democracy include an examination of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where extensive pre-conference, on-site, and post-conference electronic activities created a dynamic space for discussing women's equity issues. Dineh Davis monitored the Beijing conference lines, distinguishing various forms of interpersonal communicative tolerance which, despite the many cultural nuances of its users, led to a convivial working atmosphere. Another form of collective use of the Net is analyzed by Leslie Pal in his dissection of the role of citizens and public interest coalitions in the defeat of the U.S. Communications Decency Act in 1996. This non-hierarchical mobilization was characterized by spontaneity, individual action, and efficiency. Bill Cross assesses how Canadian political parties are using ICTs for teledemocracy--the promise is yet to be met, he contends, even though more Canadian citizens want to take a more active and participatory role in policymaking.

Controversial policy issues are also discussed. Julie Thornburn looks at the complex issues surrounding intellectual property, and how confidential information can be protected in the digital environment. Michael Mehta considers the regulation and control of pornography on the Net, in both the technical and social realm. Ann Cavoukian discusses privacy-enhancing technologies such as digital signatures and biometric encryption. Cynthia Alexander & Sue Stafford look at the ethical, legal, and gender issues of ICTs in healthcare, from access to privacy and confidentiality conundrums, to how workplace organization is being altered by the introduction of medical "expert" systems. Finally, James May makes a plea for indigenous communities to become wired so that ethnodiversity and various Native literacies will survive into the next century.

The downside of a collection such as Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World is that the reader will find it easier to simply dip in and out of various articles of interest, rather than read the collection in a linear fashion. This, however, could be one of its major advantages, and, coupled with its lists of extensive on-line resources, allows it to serve well as a supplementary text for diverse courses on the social and policy implication of ICTs.