Democracy and Cyberspace: First Principles

Friday, May 8, 1998

7:30-9:30 pm

Speaker: Ira Magaziner
Respondents: Benjamin Barber and Joshua Cohen
Moderator: Mitchel Resnick


[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]


[The complete text of Ira Magaziner's keynote address is also available.]

Ira Magaziner: The spread of information technology has caused a period of fundamental economic transformation like that which occurred during the Industrial Revolution. Over the next couple of decades, economies are going to be dependent upon information technology for their economic growth. Coping with this will require fundamental changes in our commercial, legal, economic, and political paradigms. Let me suggest a couple of principles that should guide those changes.

ira magaziner


  • The digital economy moves too quickly and requires too much flexibility for the processes of government to be successful in regulating it, so private actors will lead rather than governments.
  • The Internet Economy should be a market-driven because traditional reasons for regulation are unnecessary, at the same time as there will be the huge competition to build out the infrastructure. Since the converged environment of the telecommunications, broadcast and the Internet should be a market-driven environment, we will also have to go through considerable de-regulation.

  • When government does act to create uniform commercial code for the conduct of contracts, the actions ought to be precise, uniform and transparent.
  • Whatever we do needs to take cognizance of the nature of information technology. It changes rapidly, so policy needs to be technology-neutral, or it'll be outmoded before it's enacted. It is also de-centralized, so attempts to centrally control privacy or content are impossible, even if they were desirable. A better model is to empower people to make their own decisions and protect themselves in these areas.
  • This is the first medium and marketplace that is global from the very beginning, so you need a global framework.


Fundamental challenges that remain include addressing the effect of the digital economy on relationships between the rich and poor in this country and around the world. There are also going to be tens of millions of jobs lost and created. But if we don't have a sufficient re-training programs in this society, our people will not be able to take the new jobs.

The final word I'll leave you with is that we have to be very humble because we don't fully understand it. We need to keep a very broad, consultative process going and enough flexibility to keep changing as the technology and the market teaches us things.

[The complete text of Benjamin Barber's response is also available.]

Benjamin Barber: I welcome the opportunity to talk with this interesting group of Republican thinkers who have joined us to talk about the marketplace and its virtues. As in the l9th century Industrial Revolution, those who made that revolution spoke the powerful language of laissez-faire and said that government should not mess up the wonderful new cartel-economy being developed.

Caution is needed, because we don't know what's going to happen. But we shouldn't turn the development of the new technologies over to a marketplace whose effects we do know, and whose objectives we understand well enough. I'm a capitalist, and I have no problem with the motivation of the marketplace being profit. But it is lunacy to think that we are being cautious by turning our precious information, media and communications over to the private marketplace for profit, greed and private shareholders to arbitrate what will happen to them.

benjamin barber


The one word I did not hear in Ira's discussion was "democracy." He talked about "bureaucracy," "government," "them," "it." You wouldn't know that the inefficient and inflexible institutions that we need to get rid of are our democratic institutions, our elected representatives, and the institutions we have for deliberating about how this new technology might be used as a public utility. Consider for a moment how it has come to pass in traditional broadcast media that the public utilities that we owned and licensed to the private sector have to be bought back by us during elections for billions of dollars, bankrupting us and forcing our politicians to cut all sorts of nasty deals to raise the money?

The most dangerous thing in our society is the ideology of privatization. Our political liberty consists of our capacity to join together to make tough choices about the kind of world we want to live in and the kinds of public utilities we want. Consumers make private choices about their private needs, while citizens make choices about the public needs. We have public institutions and government to make the tough choices and deal with the social consequences of private choices. We can't make choices about how the 'Net will be used for cultural, educational, civic and democratic uses unless we make those choices in public as citizens. What we do as consumers on the 'Net is utterly irrelevant to the fundamental questions of what the role of the new media will be in our larger society.

Mitchel Resnick: There's nothing more boring than a respondent who just blandly agrees with everything the speaker said. I really look forward to the discussion between Benjamin Barber and Ira Magaziner.

[The complete text of Joshua Cohen's response is also available.]

Joshua Cohen: I come at this issue as a web-provider and a political theorist who has written on issues of democracy and freedom of expression, and tried to combine egalitarian concerns about fair access with strongly libertarian hostility to content regulation. I come with the question, how can we preserve democratic political culture in this environment?

Like Ira Magaziner, I will state some principles that come out of reflection on the nature of this medium and my commitment to preserving a democratic political culture.

My first principle is "don't regulate content." Although speech can be injurious and harmful, open expression is essential to democracy. As Brandeis pointed out, the best way to combat the harms of speech is with more speech. We should draw a distinction between restricting speech on grounds of its content, or fostering speech on important issues because of its essential role in democracy. We also shouldn't condemn content regulation by government and then welcome all the proliferating schemes of private regulation; the best way to substitute for the Communication Decency Act is not with a bunch of software filters produced by private producers.

If you condemn content regulation because of Brandeis' principle that the best way of combating the harms of speech is with more speech, then you need to ensure that there is more speech out there to combat those harms of speech, and there's no guarantee that the market provides that, including this particular market.

Joshua Cohen

This brings me to a second principle, which is "ensure fair access." Citizens have two roles in a democracy. They need to be both informed audiences and active participants. When we think about enabling access, we should think more about the participant-role. It's important to provide access to the resources that people need to create content, such as equipment, training and support staffs for things like community networks. You give fair access to people to become participants, and you don't have to worry about the diversity of ideas on the 'Net. The people will combat the harms of speech with more speech.

I end up in exactly the same way as Ira Magaziner, on a cautionary note of "be careful and attentive." Whatever we do, be careful. This medium is changing incredibly fast, so restrictive regulations are likely to be irrelevant quickly or even extremely damaging.

picture of Ira Magaziner

[The complete text of Magaziner's reply to Barber and Cohen is also available.]

Ira Magaziner (Reply to Respondents): The fundamental question that Mr. Barber raised is correct. I wouldn't want to be construed as saying that governments are not there to play important democratic roles. I think that the distinction that he makes between the civic and consumer role is good, and both are important. I agree that there are civic roles where we should act collectively through the democratic institutions of government. Certainly.

I also favor the public use of the airwaves for election campaigns, because it would take a very high percentage of the money out of politics and allow communications to take place in a way that would be healthier. The influence of money in politics, both in the campaign and lobbying processes, is probably the greatest threat we have to our democratic institution right now. In any campaign, commercial advertising or political, when one side can outspend the other 50 to 1, it makes an uneven fight in trying to reach public opinion.

Finally, free and fair-access is absolutely crucial, and I should have put more emphasis on it in my remarks. The Internet provides a tremendous opportunity for increasing access, and that's one of the real strengths that can contribute to the democracy.

[The complete text of the disussion is also available.]

Discussion Highlights

Andre Schwartz: Regarding the supposedly-libertarian culture on the 'Net, there's the issue that any policy about the 'Net has to deal with free speech and privacy. This means that it's very difficult not to be a libertarian, since the moment we advocate a decency act or regulations on cryptography, you leave the realm of acceptable politics. Now, when you've been told that you agree with libertarians, first comes denial, then rage, then bargaining, and then acceptance.

Joshua Cohen: How do you achieve fair access in an environment in which there is this kind of hostility to any kind of public regulation? The market is not going to provide fair access by itself, so what are the policy measures that we need? I don't think we can take fair-access seriously and say, "No, don't regulate it." I think that there's a fundamental tension between saying de-regulation and saying fair access. It's a very hard to figure out how you ensure fair access to people, both as audience and as speaker, without regulating content and without doing things that, given the rapidity of the changes in the technology, are just stupid. But the fair access is more than just a legitimate public policy value. It's a fundamental, constitutive element of democracy. If we don't have a solution to the problem, then we're in real trouble. I don't think anybody does have a solution yet.



Benjamin Barber: The cost of access is also a lot more than just computers. One of the problems I have is that people think hardware and hard-wiring will solve access problems. Access to a computer requires life-long literacy, life-long education, a capacity to use the language, and it depends on the quality of our educational system. I also worry about having space and money for local service. Money counts, and there are people with money who are creating programming that squeezes out other programs. It's about merchandising and marketing. It's about the way in which the private economy is currently dominated by giants who have, through vertical integration, connected merchandising, the fabrication of needs, the development of entertainment and news, and the blurring of knowledge and information. We need to deal with those issues in the private sector, and to realize that believing that a local cable show is going to provide an adequate answer to the Disney corporation is naiveté that could lead to the loss of our liberty and democracy.

Ira Magaziner: We don't say that government should have no responsibility whatsoever, and I think the fair access issue is one where we have some responsibility. But it's a fair criticism to say that we don't have it figured out and haven't done it well enough. There are government roles that need to be played. The free part of the Internet and the educational part of the Internet can co-exist with the commercial part and grow very rapidly. You're not going to have to pay to see most of your Internet access. And I think the community bulletin-board types of things will become widespread. It won't just be your geographic community. You will form communities based around your interests, with people from around the world that have common interests.


Compiled by Mary Hopper

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