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Op-Ed: Democracy and the Digital Divide

Democracy and the Digital Divide

When leaders of the G-8 countries gather in Genoa next week they will be reviewing pledges made in the 'Okinawa Charter' issued at last July's G-8 summit. Among these was the setting up of a 'Digital Opportunity Task Force' (DOT Force) to lead international efforts to assist developing nations in gaining greater access to the benefits of the information and commu-nication technology (ICT) revolution.

As many have pointed out, globally the most critical issue to address is the huge disparity in access to ICT - the 'digital divide' - between developed and developing nations. Moreover, while making a few bows in the direction of the need for a broader policy framework to guide efforts to overcome the digital divide, both the Okinawa Charter and a DOT Force Report issued ahead of the Genoa Summit have tantalisingly little to say about one of any such framework's most vital components - the democracy dimension.

In this respect, two key pillars of democracy deserve the G-8 leader's special attention: po-litical participation and the conduct of elections. In addition, the use of ICT in promoting the spread of democracy merits particular focus.

In tandem with a gradual and steady decline in voter turnout, support for traditional party politics continues to decrease sharply in most countries. In this context the Internet can foster increased interest in political life and broader citizen participation in the political proc-ess, not least by opening up the possibility of direct two-way interaction between citizens and parties. And it is one way in which the prevailing disinterest in traditional party politics among social groups such as young people can be countered, the UK Labour Party's 'RU UP4 IT?' e-initiative targeted at first-time voters prior to the recent General Election being a good example in this respect.

Moreover, it can also help foster political debate in more closed societies such as Zimbabwe, where the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) successfully used the Internet to circumvent official restrictions and get their message across to the public during the June 2000 election campaign.

E-voting remains a minor element of the global electoral equation, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. More critical issues revolve around the appropriate and sustain-able application of technology to the overall electoral process.

On the minus side, elections due to be held in East Timor under UN auspices this autumn - the first since independence from Indonesia - are in danger of being delayed as a result not of domestic political instability, but more prosaic technical factors. Expensive lap-top com-puters provided by Western governments to help compile a Timorese voter registry are proving to be a technological liability in the tropical local weather conditions. The computers overheat or break down constantly, leaving long lines of villagers standing waiting to be reg-istered, and the timing of these politically sensitive elections in the balance.

On the plus side ICT is proving a useful - if still expensive - tool for helping to improve the quality and accuracy of voter registries in many developing world democracies. India and Brazil are notable examples of countries that are applying technology more thoughtfully - and appropriately - to their electoral processes.

The new technologies are widely viewed as harbingers of doom for dictatorships and authoritarian states, and a powerful new tool in the hands of democracy movements working for change in countries from Cuba and China to Iran and Burma. It is certainly true that ICTs have provided a platform for the co-ordination of grassroots protest movements, as well as allowing them to spread their message at a lower entry cost. And there is little doubt about the vital role of, for example, Internet-based media in the campaign of opposition to Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic that culminated in his downfall last autumn.

At the same time, there is a need to be as alert to the repressive potential applications of the Internet - at home as well as abroad, it might be added - as its beneficial political uses. Countries such as China and Burma have worked actively to limit public access to the Inter-net by a variety of means, from compelling citizens to use state-controlled Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and censoring individual web sites and bulletin boards, to direct punitive actions against individual users. In this respect the private sector, no less than government, has an obligation to act responsibly. In particular, ICT companies doing business with authoritarian regimes should be strongly encouraged to refrain from providing them with the technological means to track and suppress the electronic behaviour of their citizens.

It is relatively easy to note the potential uses of ICT in promoting 'good governance'. The problem is that politically speaking the application of ICT can cut both ways. For every de-mocracy providing dynamic and innovative official information web sites - the UK and South Africa being two good examples - there is a Burma or China using the same technical resources to promote their own diametrically opposed versions of 'good governance'.

The G-8 needs to be seen as exercising leadership on key political and economic issues. By developing a global regulatory framework for ICT that embeds basic democratic values, the Genoa summiteers would be seizing a unique opportunity to do precisely this - and thereby helping ensure that the ICT revolution serves to bridge, rather than widen, the global digital divide.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) -

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International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden