Politics Session

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Introduction The impact of the Internet on democracy and politics is one area of inquiry which is still largely unsettled, constantly evolving, and in need of thoughtful and skeptical analysis. During the Internet and Politics session of the Berkman@10 conference, John Palfrey will lead the group—drawing heavily on the expertise of conference participants—through three themes that draw out some of the most important arguments, best examples, and debatable hypotheses about the lasting impact of the Internet on free speech, individual autonomy, and organization.

Argument 1

The Internet allows more free speech from more people than ever before, but states are finding ways to filter and limit that speech.


  • According to the theory of the networked public sphere, the old media model has been inverted thanks to the Internet. Instead of the old hub and spoke information and communications architecture of the past, the Internet’s peer-to-peer architecture allows us to hear more voices, from more places, and about more issues than ever before.
  • This new information architecture also means that costs are high for regimes that want to try to control Internet speech; it is no longer as simple as shutting down a TV or radio station.
  • Free speech online is more valuable, and the need for regimes to control it more critical.

Argument 2

There is greater autonomy of the individual because of the Internet.


  • The Internet and the emergence of the networked public sphere have the potential to increase individual autonomy. It increases the range and diversity of things that individuals can do for and by themselves and places the tools necessary for effective action in the hands of individuals, instead of corporations or government. Further, we are no longer passive consumers of information—we are active producers and propagators of ideas, culture, news, and policy.
  • Questions around how a society produces information and allow access to it go to the heart of the meaning of freedom. Those questions determine what is understood to be open for debate, what possible goals for collective action are, and what the paths for that action are.
  • The theory of semiotic democracy is also instructive: We no longer rely on institutions or corporations to create culture and meaning for us. Instead, the Internet allows us to create, manipulate, mash up and make our own meaning from cultural and political icons and images. This means we are less reliant on political parties, corporations, or political consultants to tell us what we think of a political candidate or policy issue; we can now decide for ourselves and share it virally.

Argument 3

The Internet enables new types of groups to form around interests and causes. The formation of online groups will alter the form and function of existing organizations and institutions with unknown impacts on democracy and governance.


  • The networked public sphere increases the ability of individuals to form loose groups with more individuals and to be part of more causes than ever before. We now have the freedom and tools to collaborate more effectively with others.
  • Online collaboration is lighter, more issue specific, and more time-bound than the previous generation of offline organizations.
  • It is not clear how online groups will influence existing organizations and whether they will strengthen and complement, weaken, or replace them
  • Money may become less important to a cause’s success with light collaboration by a large number of individuals with a common purpose and clear vision of ‘success.’

Comments? Responses? Countervailing Theories?

Is this open to just attendees at the conference?

doesn't look that way...