The Internet, Democracy, and the Public Sphere’s Evolution

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A free and neutral internet is now a necessary precondition for democracy. To recognize and appreciate the responsibility we’ve entrusted to a continuously evolving global network we look closely at how has fused with with our social, economic, and political institutions. Jürgen Habermas concept of the public sphere gives us the opportunity to untangle why a free and neutral internet is essential component of guaranteeing civil rights, liberties, and a successful democracy.

Although the term “public sphere” can be further subdivided into increasingly specific definitions, I will focus on its broader meaning when applying it to the internet and why it’s crucial not only to sustaining our current way of life from an operational standpoint but in particular how governments, in particular democracies, require an internet where confidentiality, authenticity, and integrity can be assured in order to thrive.

“… the public sphere, made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” 1Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 176.

Applying this definition of the public sphere to the internet may be straightforward, however, to appreciate its significance we need to look back on how European societies articulated their needs before the public sphere as we currently experience it, came into existence.

In France prior to the mid 17th century the term “public” referred to those who consumed, discussed, and critiqued art and literature. For the most part  this group consisted of of the royal court in addition to “the urban nobility along with a thing bourgeois upper stratum whose members occupied the loges of Parisian theaters”.2Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 31. As for who could influence political action, unsurprisingly that power was isolated within the royal family and those close to them. It was only during the reign of Philip of Orleans who moved France’s royal residence back to Paris did the existing “public sphere begin its slow transformation towards how we know it today” as the proximity and mixing of aristocracy with intellectuals and a wealthy business class would transform the public.3Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 31.

In England and throughout Europe a similar shift was occurring, in large part due to the growing popularity of tea, chocolate, and coffee. These establishments quickly became popular not only with prominent artists, writers, and intellectuals but eventually also grew to include a middle class which included craftsmen and shopkeepers.4Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 33.

Whether it was a coffee shop or a salon, these establishments enabled aristocratic society and bourgeois intellectuals to establish a rapport with one another. Finding each other equals in terms of education their discussions often turned to literary and artistic works, and eventually to political issues woven deeply into the cultural products they discussed. The role of an individual’s status in legitimizing their position was slowly eroding while being replaced with the “authority of the better argument” which resisted the established social hierarchy and also nurtured the idea of a “common humanity”.5Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 33.

What was defined as a “common concern” for a “common humanity” was no longer the exclusive purview of church and state who previously had dictated what works of philosophy, literature, and art were of concern to the commons.

What was defined as a “common concern” for a “common humanity” was no longer the exclusive purview of church and state who previously dictated what works of philosophy, literature, and art were of concern to the commons. Instead, what was important to the bourgeoisie and increasingly the lower classes of society became part of discussions, the “issues discussed became “general” not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate”.6Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 37.

These groups who discussed and debated literature, art, and politics did not consider themselves to be “the public” but instead began to think of themselves as a form of bourgeois representatives, “conscious of being part of a larger public” who were for the most part illiterate and too poor to acquire the literary and artistic works necessary to participate.7Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 37. This shift, where bourgeois intellectuals and wealthier individuals began to think and act as representatives of their community signaled the creation of a new social category which depended on the ability to freely exchange ideas which in the process subverted traditional social hierarchies who had held a monopoly on what was to be considered important.

So how does this relate to what’s happening today? We can compare the internet to the salons and coffee shops of the 17th century which enabled a growing and increasingly diverse group of individuals to discuss and debate not only existing cultural products but issues that were excluded from “common concern” giving a voice to those who previously had none. Today, the internet is a significant part of our public sphere and its ability to enable relatively free and safe discussions and debate on cultural, economic, and political issues allows an unprecedented number to take an active role in shaping their lives and communities. However, for the public sphere to function as an instrument which allows individuals to contribute to the shaping of society, it must remain a neutral space where no one group can impose their will. This responsibility lies not only with the individual but businesses, internet service providers, software developers, and governments to name a few as when these groups begin to shape how the internet can be used for their benefit, the integrity of the internet and the public sphere is jeopardized. Compromising the ability to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of online interactions simultaneously compromises civil rights, liberties, and consequently the democratic process.

 

Compromising the ability to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of online interactions simultaneously compromises civil rights, liberties, and consequently the democratic process.

 



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