An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Democracy and New Media

Global Perspectives
Speaker: Adam Powell


Many claims about the democratic potential of digital media assume an American perspective and are often blind to developments in other parts of the world. The Internet looks very different to Asians, Africans, or South Americans than to residents of the United States. What can these perspectives contribute to our understanding of the promise or the dangers of new media? Are there instances in which the digital media have strengthened the power of elites or totalitarian regimes? Are there counter examples of the liberating potential of the Internet in totalitarian cultures?

If our elections were held on-line, a sizable proportion of the population would not be able to vote. If much of our political discourse were to take place on-line, only the computer literate would be able to participate in the conversation. How can we confront the problem of access? What implications do issues of access have for our understanding of the role digital media will play in democratic culture?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Powell: I am going to run through a couple things as bullet points, examples of different kinds of relationships between and within countries through online media and communication. You'll find more on each of them on our Website: ( go to the left nav and click on "technology"). This is from our research and from our reporting (which I distinguish from our research) or our direct experience which is merely anecdotal. Let me pick up on Phil's idea of multiplicity of fora and consider different kinds of relations among fora and among individuals. I will start with a couple of examples in Latin America.

We had a conference in Panama last month which attracted over 400 people. This astounded us. We were going to do some considerations of Internet and democracy and press issues in terms of publication, research, sources. People came from six countries including one of my favorite newspapers in this hemisphere, La Nacion in Costa Rica. It became one of my favorites four years ago, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors sent a team to Costa Rica to teach the people there how to put together an online newspaper. They came back after having taken notes because the people in Costa Rica had invented their own, thank-you-very-much, which was in fact superior to many US online newspapers (you can see it at ). This was in '95-'96, so we are talking about a pretty early experience in terms of newspapers on the Web. As a result, a number of US newspapers started to copy some of the things that La Nacion was doing in Costa Rica -- not exactly the diffusion of innovation model that most of us think about.

A few months earlier, we did a session in Chile where the dominant newspaper in Santiago is the only daily newspaper there. It controls 60% of the advertising revenue of all newspapers and magazines in the country, so that is a level of dominance that we don't usually see. They started a Website mainly to serve Chileans living outside of Chile (you can see that at Then they discovered that a lot of people who were not Chileans were reading material on their site, so they are now designing a new site which will be (because was taken by somebody else). It will have a mirror site in the US and will be going after the Spanish language market and in North American and worldwide -- a kind of conversation among Spanish speakers that is going to be mediated by the editors in Santiago, Chile.

The next week we did a session in Argentina where there is a tabloid newspaper called, "Clareen." It may be one of the most profitable newspapers anywhere in the world. They basically run at the capacity of their presses -- they need higher speed presses. They are the largest selling daily and are incredibly fat with ads. They started a Website which is and also now It may be the most advanced newspaper site anywhere in the world because it does some very untraditional things. Their digital department decided that they should stream 24 hours a day of news and information in all news format. Working with a radio station, they also have a newscast on demand that you can pull up at any time. They also have the BBC Spanish language newscast available if you want it, a news and music stream, and all of this is right along the left side of their newspaper homepage going far beyond anything that the New York Times and the Boston Globe are doing.

But that is not the real innovation. Go down a little further on the left side (you have to scroll down a couple of screens) and you see something called, "Frequencia Web" click on that! The oldest person in their digital department is 21 and he said, "Frequencia Web is for us and our friends." It is for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading the newspaper. That is where they put on clips from concerts of every pop and rock group that comes to Argentina; they put up interviews with artists and interviews with writers. If somebody makes the mistake of banning music they put the clip right up. So this has become very popular as you can imagine and their biggest problem is bandwidth. As you might guess, they are putting a mirror site of up in Washington, DC and are toying with the idea of doing an English language version. So the American Society of Newspaper Editors is going to be suddenly caught by surprise one day when they look at their readership surveys and say, "what's" as som e of their readers start going there.

Another example is from India, where an editor told me about six months ago that he is going to take his newsroom in New Delhi which turns out a national daily paper in English and use that editorial staff to produce a weekly newspaper for Northern California. They will email made-up pages from New Delhi to San Rafael, CA where they have a contract with a printer to run them and he has a couple of stringers and a photographer to go head-on against the Marin County local paper. He said, "Now you can imagine what our costs of production are going to be versus the costs of doing it in Marin." And somebody said, "Oh yes there are a lot of people from South Asia who live in Marin County." And he said, "No, no, I am not going after the curry market. I am going after the rich, white market." Again, a kind of competition that we are not used to

And now a couple of examples from Africa, which are my favorite sets of examples because we think of Africa as a place without much connectivity, except that it is becoming very, very broad, far broader than the legendary purple map would suggest. In a session that we did in Johannesburg on September 3rd, we met one of the editors of the Mail & Guardian, which is somewhat famous as the last of the surviving alternative newspapers that openly crusaded against apartheid in the 80s and early 90s and was always being banned or closed by the government. The Mail & Guardian, a weekly, decided 3 or 4 years ago that they should put an online edition out for all their readers out in Europe, Canada and the US -- They then made the correct decision not to be a weekly but to update their content every day, and they quickly became by far, the largest circulation online newspaper in all of Africa and they still are. We are talking about 2 million page views a month -- which is surprisingly heavy since they pay a fraction of what other newspapers do on their online edition. They also find the geographical distribution surprising: three quarters of it is South African since they focus on domestic news, 14% is Europe and North America, 9 to 10% is other African countries including those which, in theory, do not have Internet service. They are getting readers there,, so we are looking into some of those and have documented some examples of people using very creative ways of getting online. In Somalia, there is no central government to speak of, but they do have a good cell phone network and now they have some level of Internet service. It is incredibly expensive, $120 to sign on and $30/month fee and $.05/minute and there are still people who are willing and able to spend that kind of money. As the price comes down, clearly there is a hunger there which will manifest itself. But of course all those people logging on in Somalia can send email to the Mail & Guardian as letters to the editor and stringer articles so that suddenly the Mail & Guardian is hearing more from Somalia than they ever did. It is not as if we get a lot of Somali news from the Associated Press.

In the Eastern Congo, there are some locations that are now going online as text only by means of short-wave radio -- which is why it is text only, it would take forever to send even the simplest graphic. But it is good enough for text transmissions and for email. The Eastern Congo example as far as we know is anecdotal. We don't have any exact measurements of how many people are on there -- we think that is an opportunity for further investigation.

We started doing some work this year in Mali and we are going to go back to do more work next year. According to the UN. Mali is the third poorest country in the world. When I was there it took up to 40 minutes to get a phone call out of the country to either Paris, where the old colonial phone network goes, or beyond that to the US. However, when I took my laptop and plugged it into a US-styled phone jack, I discovered that they had high-speed Internet access. And in fact when I stumbled down to the lobby of the Grand Hotel and asked "What is this?" They told me, "C'est America Online." AOL? Yes in fact AOL has backbone in Bamako courtesy of USA ID. But the Mali government, the president, is keeping it inexpensive and the cost in the hotel per hour was about the same as making one local telephone call. I simply stopped making local telephone calls.

So these are all interesting anecdotes, but consider some of the effects. We did a session in Cairo last fall with editors from around the Arabic-speaking world. And they had just discovered in the previous year that they could email each other. One of the editors from Lebanon said, "If I want to know what is going on in Damascus, I wouldn't dream of picking up the newspaper or even going to their Website because that has been censored, instead I'll go to this Website we have set up where we send the dispatches before they have been censored, it is And if, by any chance, there is not an article there on the subject I am interested in I'll email the editor and say, "Please send me the uncensored dispatch and he will."

This is very elite, peer-to-peer kind of conversation. but think of the diffusion out of that into the newspapers throughout the Arabic speaking world. Suddenly they have uncensored looks at the rest of their world. They also have some interesting looks at the United States. The international editor of Al-haram said that he was really embracing email because he could get coverage of the under-represented United States, coverage of the Islamic US, coverage of Arabs living in the US which he couldn't get from AP and Reuters. He even has a regular column which is filled with contributions via email of people in the United States who are on death row -- something that he said he could not do via postal mail or fax at any price and now, I am not sure how the mechanism works in this country, but somehow he is able to get inmates on death row to contribute to his column in Al-haram. This is a fascinating view of the US which is a different kind of model than we think of when we think of how the net functions.

Now let me back out of that and talk about voting here because I think we are going to see some similarly unforeseen effects. There is always going to be unanticipated consequences of new technologies. It has happened over and over again. The technology in this case is not just an incremental change, but also a qualitative change because of the interactivity so we are going to see some fascinating effects. The equity debate is probably not phrased correctly, if you go across the tracks to Forrester they have a huge broad sample survey which shows, contrary to the New York Times, that race is not a predictor of whether you are online or not, that is the least important factor of all the factors they have seen. If you talk to Donna Hoffman at Vanderbilt, she will say that if you tease it out in terms of access rather than PC-ownership which is what the commerce department study was about then it is true that Black, White and Hispanic access is about the same. That's a very different take on the information rich vs. the information poor in terms of participation in civil society, just as we no longer talk about the television rich and the television poor. But in terms of this debate, which is that the online user base reaches its saturation, whatever that's going to be, whether it's the saturation level of telephony or VCRs or whatever, what are we going to do about those who choose not to log on? Those who log off and drop out? If the online ballot becomes a prevalent or even widely used form of voting does it extend voting or convert it into a ritual which is something very different requiring different behaviors and patterns. Sherry Turkle said, we shape media and the media shape us. If instead of the Village Square and the Town Meeting we have online debate and voting then perhaps the Village Square and Town Meeting will be replaced by something smaller with a 4 x 3 aspect ratio or maybe if you have more money, 16 x 9.

Audience Member: I am a student of government and my interest is the international effects of Internet policies. I was wondering if anyone could enlighten me about how it is that the United States is putting pressure on other countries like Singapore and China with regard to copyright policies or Internet policies at this point? Is there is any good news about this?

Powell: I don't know about US pressure on China. Amazingly, Hong Kong seems to not have changed very much in the last couple of years. I am not aware of any overt pressure there. There is strong economic self interest in letting data (including financial data) flow rather freely.

Agre: Governments have subordinated their foreign policy to promote the trade interests of their dominate private interests for hundreds of years. The United States is not alone in this and has always been a keen competitor in that area. Right now the action in the intellectual property sector is violent on all fronts. The United States is the most aggressive combatant, but far from the only one.

The international treaty organizations that I mentioned earlier include things like the World Intellectual Property Organization which are instruments in some cases of extraordinary pressure. The United States has threatened severe trade wars against at least a few countries in the last year over intellectual property, so it is most certainly a front burner issue. What that actually means on the ground? It has yet to meet the ground in several countries, but it is an area where the United States is choosing to expend a great deal of the leverage that it does have. It obviously has more leverage over the Philippines than over China, but it can be expected to expend a lot more leverage.

The only good news that I see is that the most recent intellectual property action has been much more in the nature of rational compromises than the kind of psycho legislation and legal developments that mark 199. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is bizarre -- it's just from another planet. There are amazing mutations in American patent law which have not been publicized at all -- you can patent business models! This is weird stuff where it is not even clear what it means. Right now in Congress the issue of database copyright is happening -- there are two competing bills. HR 1585 is actually a rational compromise bill and seems to be the one most likely to pass.

Democracy and New Media
Phil Agre, Growing a Democratic Culture
Elaine Kamarck, Citizenship and the Internet
Paul Starr, Internet Democracy: American Prospects
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