Official Syllabus

From Internet, Law & Politics 2007
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Course Overview

The Internet has at once a disruptive and a constructive effect on democracies around the world. Information and communications technologies (ICTs), of which the Internet is a primary component, have been changing the way that democracies work, the way activists and candidates run campaigns, and the manner in which citizens communicate with one another and interact with their states.

Just as in business, the Internet does not change everything when it comes to politics. But the Internet has, in a few instances – such as South Korea in a recent presidential election cycle, in the Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” and here in the United States – made a notable difference in terms of how campaigns are conducted and how people engage in civic life. The Internet enables connections among people geographically disparate from one another and whose only link is a common interest in an idea. The Internet makes possible a series of models that place power at the edges, rather than vest most power in a centralized hub. At the same time, more political activity on the Internet is not necessarily a good thing. New online technologies enable states to carry out intrusive means of surveillance and control over the communications of their citizens.

The puzzle of this course is to pull apart what is real from what is hype and to examine closely what effects, if any, these technologies are having on the way that democracies work around the world. This course will consider some of the most intriguing of the political and legal issues to which the advent of the Internet gives rise. The course will seek to frame these questions in the context of political theory. Students will be encouraged to take on active projects in lieu of writing a traditional term paper.

Themes of the Course

The core themes that we will explore include:

  • Internet & Democracies: This course is geared toward examining the ways in which the Internet is having an impact on politics and, in turn, strengthening democracies in states near and far. How will we know if and when we are making progress in this regard, or even know if things are going well or going badly? Are consumers of information online really becoming “creators” in large (or meaningful) numbers? Will that shift result in a more active populace? Most scholars have taken the view that we have enough data to know that something is going on in terms of Internet and democracy, but no one yet understands the phenomenon with any degree of clarity. This course will delve into the traditional political theory question of what sort of a democracy we are seeking and, along these lines, into the problem of whether the Internet is helping to strengthen democratic institutions or not.
  • Internet, Campaigns, and Elections: Many political campaigns, whether for an issue or a candidate, adopt an “Internet strategy” of one sort or another. From online fundraising that smashed previous records in the past cycle, to bloggers who broke stories of international importance or just covered the local PTA meeting, to citizen-journalism efforts that moved elections, to the luring of new voters into the political fray, the election cycles in the last few years in the United States and elsewhere around the world have given rise to headlines and head-spinning about the power of the internet to transform politics. The reality may be, however, that the Internet just allows campaigners to be more productive in the way they carry out traditional tasks, like raising money and organizing volunteer activity.
  • Internet & Citizenship: The Internet allows people to express themselves and to interact with large, powerful institutions – through means that were not possible before. The nature of citizenship, some argue, is changing rapidly. People are developing identities through their online participation that links them to other people in other cultures around the world, strengthening diaspora communities and increasing cross-cultural understanding. Some observers worry that the advent of electronic voting and other forms of e-government may make us lazier than we have ever been before when it comes to political participation. Others fear that we will surround ourselves not with new and challenging views, but rather use new technologies to create massive echo chambers for ourselves where we listen only to like-minded speakers.
  • The Emergence of New Technologies: The course will also integrate discussion of emerging Internet-based technologies of relevance to the political sphere, such as blogging, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), podcasting, and social software. These tools enable power to be leveraged at the edges of the network, on a model that makes intuitive sense in the political arena in particular. These effects are reminiscent of the ways that eBay, Google, Amazon, digital music, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have substantially changed large industries in the commercial arena. The flip-side is the emergence of Internet filtering technologies used by states to limit or block political speech, among other things, online.

Mode of the Class

The course is based on a theory-and-practice model. Students are encouraged to participate extensively throughout the course, both in terms of discussion in the classroom and in active projects in lieu of traditional paper-writing. The course will also involve out of class online discussion, using a variety of new software tools. The course has no prerequisites, other than a willingness to experiment with new technologies.

Each student will be graded on the basis of class participation (1/3), the group project (a choice of one of four debates) (1/3), and a short written piece, roughly 10 pages in length based upon the debate topic (1/3), which is due by e-mail (please send to John Palfrey, Seth Young, and Rob Kent) by May 11, 2007. The core assignment for the term is to participate in one of four student debates throughout the term. Please choose which of the debates (noted in the syllabus) you would like to take part in. Your job is to prepare an argument that is published someplace in cyberspace at least 48 hours in advance of the class. The format of your online argument is up to you and your team-mates. You will then take part in a debate during class, either for or against the resolution, with roughly two or three students on each side of each topic. There will also be short written assignment due at the end of the term by each student individually, which ought to be grounded in some aspect of your debate topic.


There are readings for each week of the course. These readings vary in length, mode and sophistication. The required readings include sections of eight books, none of which is assigned in its entirety:

Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks (Yale University Press, 2006), online at

Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson, and Geert Lovink, Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society (Routledge, 2006), online at

Ronald Deibert, John Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain, Access Denied, (forthcoming, MIT Press, 2007).

William W. Fisher, III, Promises to Keep (Stanford, 2004), online at

Dan Gillmor, We the Media (O’Reilly, 2005), online at and

Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World (Oxford, 2006).

Lawrence Lessig, Code 2.0 (Basic Books, 2006), online at:

Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation (2005), online at:

Many of these books are available entirely online for free as downloads, though of course you can buy or borrow the book from the library. Copies of each one should be on reserve at the HLS library.

Syllabus Introduction: Politics of the Internet, Politics on the Internet

Class 1 (Jan. 30, 2007)

Topic: In the first class, we’ll examine the quandary facing United States technology companies in regimes, like China, where access to the Internet is restricted. The introduction by Google of its self-censored service in early 2006 puts this issue into relief.

Check out: and

Read the Global Online Freedom Act,

Read the news release:

The readings for this first day are very light. The background reading I’d suggest (if you are so inclined prior to the first class; please read over the course of the term in any event) is Lawrence Lessig, Code 2.0 (Basic Books, 2006). Lessig’s Code is the best articulation of the many interrelated struggles for control online and how a series of disparate forces effect that control.

This introductory class takes up the problem that Google faced when they went into China in January, 2006. Google, not alone among United States firms, has agreed to limit the search results that it renders for those who visit A comparison of the Google search terms in the .com and .cn domains is accessible here:

The key tension to which this first class is meant to draw our attention is the relationship between two problems:

  • Is there a distinctive practice of politics online? And does that mean anything for democracy, in the United States and abroad?
  • What are the contours of the political struggle to control the Internet that stems in part from a sense that the online space may be a zone in which politics can be effected?

The challenge of the course is to understand how these two struggles relate to one another.

Module 1, Participatory Democracy

Campaigning in a Digital Age

Class 2 (Feb. 6, 2007)

Topic: The individual, autonomy, and collective action in American politics.

Is the Dean Campaign of 2004 a good example of the Internet strengthening democracies, or was it just a whole lot of hype? Consider, during the same cycle, the effectiveness of Blogs for Bush and how Republicans used the Internet in the general election. In 2008, what can we learn by looking at the Presidential campaign web sites of announced candidates for President of the United States?

Required Reading:

Optional Reading:

Class 3 (Feb. 13, 2007)

Topic: Skeptical responses to the premise that use of Internet technologies can transform politics and strengthen democracies.

Many scholarly observers adopt a skeptical view of the Internet and its impact on traditional politics. This third class will take up and evaluate a few of the key lines of argument that respond to the assertion that the Internet can lead to greater participation in democratic processes. By the end of this class, we should have an emerging sense of the most compelling, competing arguments.

Required Reading:

  • Dean, Anderson, and Lovink: “Introduction: The Postdemocratic Governmentality of Networked Societies,” from Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society (2006).
  • Ned Rossiter, “Organized Networks and Nonrepresentative Democracy,” Chapter 2 in Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society (2006).
  • Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Web logs, and Inequality,” at
  • Cass Sunstein, “The Daily We,” at

Class 4 / Debate #1 (Feb. 20, 2007)

Debate #1: “Resolved: The Internet enables citizens to have a greater voice in politics and is, on balance, already a tremendous force for strengthening participatory democracies around the world.” The students on both sides of this debate should use one or more explicit examples of the use of Internet in a campaign (issue or candidacy) to buttress their argument.

Case study: Global Voices.

As we look outside the United States, the impact of the Internet on politics may be more transformative than it is here. The Global Voices project offers a window into this possibility in dozens of states around the world that are not extensively covered by the mainstream media. What can we learn by broadening the frame to a global viewpoint, incorporating the experiences we observe in the developing world?

Required Reading (light reading week):

Governing in a Digital Age

Class 5 / Debate #2 (Mar. 6, 2007)

Debate #2: “Resolved: E-Government is a lot like Al Gore’s ‘reinventing government’ initiative when he was Vice-President: sounds like something that governments should obviously do, but no one much cares and the impact on society, after lots of effort, is negligible. There’s no special magic to governing in a digital age.”

Topic: Citizenship and Governance in a Wired World.

Dan Gillmor and Yochai Benkler have each written compelling books that bear on what it means to be a citizen in a digital age. Consider this puzzle from another vantage point. What does is mean to govern in a digital age? Are there any examples that make a compelling case for the imperative that those in power ought to use Internet as a key tool in how they govern (consider what new governor Deval Patrick or new attorney general Martha Coakley are up to locally, in Massachusetts)? Or examples where citizens are using the Internet to improve how those in power govern (like the work of the Sunlight Foundation and those it supports)?

Required Reading:

  • Dan Gillmor, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (pp. 1 – 43, 136 – 157).
  • Yochai Benkler, Wealth of Networks, pp. 176 – 272.

Optional Readings on e-Government (the topic that the debate is on):

Class 6 (Mar. 13, 2007)

Topic: Access Provided: Municipal Wifi and the Role of Government in Internet Service Provision.

The Philadelphia wireless Internet access policy is held up as a possible model for municipalities around the world. Cities as similar as San Francisco and Boston have explored a municipal wifi strategy, yet run into substantial resistance. Cities elsewhere in the world – like Tallinn, Estonia – have already had early successes in the deployment of municipal wifi. What is the appropriate role for governments in providing access to the Internet, as well as other support to citizens, in a digital age?

Required Reading (light reading week):

  • Case from Kennedy School of Government entitled Wireless Philadelphia (plus sequel), linked online (e-mail sent by Seth Young to the class list; please let us know if you did not receive it!).

Class 7 (Mar. 20, 2007)

Topic: Access Denied: The Politics and Technologies of Internet Filtering and Surveillance.

While some municipalities seek to enable more people to connect to the Internet, other states are seeking to limit Internet access to their citizens. The denial of access might be near-total – in the case of Burma and North Korea, for instance – or it might be very slight – as in Singapore. This denial of access sometimes involve limiting the ability to view or to publish materials, and varies based upon the type of content blocked, the type of services blocked, the time access is sought, the place in the network from which access is sought, and so forth.

Required Reading:

Module 2, Economic Democracy: The Politics of Digital Business

Class 8 / Debate #3 (Apr. 3, 2007)

Debate #3: "Resolved: United States technology companies should stay out of regimes that force them to sacrifice the civil liberties of citizens as the cost of doing business in those states."

Required Reading:

  • John Palfrey & Robert Rogoyski, A Move to the Middle: The Enduring Threat of “Harmful” Speech to the End-to-End Principle (2006), at
  • John Palfrey & Jonathan Zittrain, “Reluctant Gatekeepers,” chapter in Access Denied, (forthcoming, MIT Press, 2007).

Optional Reading:

  • Testimony at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, February 1, 2006, at

Class 9 (Apr. 10, 2007)

Topic: The Democratization of Innovation and Production.

One might surmise that the primary reason why some states don’t limit access to the Internet more aggressively than they do is that Internet is a powerful economic force in the hands of the right entrepreneurs and capital providers. Forget the boom, though some pure-play Internet businesses may have long-term importance themselves; the most dramatic, lasting impact of the Internet may be in terms of transforming the economics of production in traditional industries. Both Benkler and his fellow traveler, Eric von Hippel, argue that models like the open source movement and user-centric innovation are updating the way products and wealth are created in a globally-connected economy. A related argument: the big importance of the Internet is in the creation of an empowered middle class of digital entrepreneurs who in turn push for the rule of law, stable environments of capital investment, and so forth in developing economies. In this session, we will explore the relationship between changes in economic factors are changing politics and economies.

Required Reading:

  • Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation (2005), pp. 1 – 131. (If you are downloading rather than reading the hard-copy, that’s the intro through chapter 9).

Module 3, Semiotic Democracy: The Politics of Digital Culture

Class 10 / Debate #4 (Apr. 17, 2007)

Debate #4: “Resolved: The outcome of the digital intellectual property crisis is crucial to whether or not the use of the Internet ultimately has a positive impact in terms of strengthening democracies.”

Topic: Semiotic Democracy, the Entertainment Industry’s Digital Struggles, and Free Culture

Semiotic democracy is the third vantage point from which we’ll assess whether there’s a discernable impact of Internet on politics and democracies. The hardest to nail down of the three concepts, semiotic democracy may well be the most profound. How does it relate to the citizen journalist concept that Gillmor and Benkler take up? And how real is it: do enough people participate in the creation of meaning through digital technologies in fact to affect cultures and politics?

One angle on this issue is through the perspective of the Free Culture movement. The connection between the politics of the Internet and politics on the Internet might lie in the movements – the human networks – that are fueled by digital culture. The non-profit Creative Commons, with its forty-some international organizations around the world, has established one such network; Global Voices represents another. A new movement, called Free Culture, is growing up close to home, on Harvard’s campus, among others. Is cyber-activism the new environmentalism?

Required Reading:

Recommended Reading:

  • William W. Fisher, Promises to Keep: Technology, Law and the Future of Entertainment (for its discussion of semiotic democracy and the relationship of intellectual property law and politics on the Internet), Introduction and chapter 6. Both selections are freely available online at

Conclusion: A Rolling Constitutional Moment for Cyberspace?

Class 11 (Apr. 24, 2007)

Early cyber-theorists posited that the Internet was having its “constitutional moment” back in the 1990s. The idea had resonance back then; the only problem is that the moment seems to be continuing. The battle over the institutional ecology of the Internet (or cyberspace?) is far from over. In this final class, as a means of tying together the strands of the course, we’ll take up the question of whether the Internet is having its Constitutional moment – only on a rolling basis.

After reading Benkler’s and Goldsmith/Wu’s conclusions, please think through the nature of the “battle” that they describe. Are they describing the same battle? Are the solutions that they are proposing as a way out of the current battle conceivably worse than the problems they are seeking to solve? Will the meaning of “democracy” be affected?

  • David Post, Cyberspace’s Constitutional Moment, accessible online at: (very short).
  • Timothy Wu and Jack Goldsmith, Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World, chapters 10 and 11.
  • Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 11: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment, pp. 383 – 459.