6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (VIII). Citizen Participation in the Cloud

Notes from the 6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference: Cloud Computing: Law and Politics in the Cloud, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 7th and 8th, 2010. More notes on this event: idp2010.

Citizen Participation in the Cloud
Chairs: Ismael Peña-López

Citizen participation in the Cloud: risk of storm
Albert Batlle, Open University of Catalonia.

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The situation we are in is a context of crisis of political legitimacy. This means much less political participation in general and, more specifically, protest voting, young people voting less, decreasing levels of affiliation to parties or other civic organizations, etc.

On the other hand, we see the explosion of the Information Society and of the Web 2.0, “participative” by definition. ICTs are adopted by political organizations in the fields of eGovernment — to provide public services for the citizen — and eDemocracy — to enhance and foster participation.

Two different perspectives in the crossroads between political disaffection and the Information Society:

  • Cyberoptimism: ICTs will lead to a mobilization effect. More people will participate because participation costs are lower, there is much more information than before, etc.
  • Cyberpessimism: ICTs will lead to new elites because of the digital divide. The existing differences between the ones that participated and the ones that didn’t are broadened.
  • Realists: we need more empirical studies (and to avoid technological determinism).

We have new technologies for citizen participation but, what tools for what uses? A research for the Barcelona county council.

After a survey within the Barcelona municipalities, we can state:

  • There are different participation activities depending on whether the communication is horizontal or vertical.
  • There are topics more prone to intensively use ICTs: urban planning, youngsters, education and equality, elder people, sustainability.
  • Not organized citizens, resources, transversal coordination are variables that are usually identified as barriers not overcome; while training, innovation, agenda, associations or political agreement are usually identified as goals reached through ICT-enhanced participation.

The study then goes on to analyze tools and applications and how they fit in the participation process:

  • Directionality, qualitative: unidirectional, bidirectional, hybrid
  • Directionality, quantitative: one-to-one, one-to-many, many to many.
  • Competences: basic, advanced, expert.
  • Applications: type of tool, cost, hosting, “mashability”.

Participation moments:

  • Mobilization: information about the participation process and the goals to be achieved.
  • Development: putting into practice the participation project.
  • Closing: stating the decision being made.
  • Follow up: monitoring and assessment of the decision reached.

A first analysis of 19 international cases, we see that most tools have a one-to-many directionality, are bidirectional, and are mainly used in the mobilization moment. User registration and the data they have to provide is an important issue and must be decided in advance, as happens with deciding the goals and functioning of the process, which includes defining and identifying the role of the online facilitator. Free software is usually the option chosen, and accessibility (in a broad sense) is normally taken into account.

We find two different models. Even if models are not “pure”, we can see opposite approaches: Initiatives aimed at community building, characterized by being open, relational, fostering engagement, using free tools and aiming at a networked participation, with a facilitator that engages in a bidirectional conversation. And policy oriented initiatives, characterized by being more formal (or formalized), focussing at decision-taking and representation, using own platforms and more “traditional” participation means, with a facilitator that guides and information that flows asymmetrically and unidirectionally.

Cloud computing is both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, there are legal hazards that need being solved, but that also disclose some interesting spaces. Indeed, the new a-institutional logic is disruptive but also provides new ways of learning, as the public and private spheres intersect one to each other and get confused (want it or not) one with each other. It is a response to the de-legitimation of political institutions, but it is also a reassurance that citizens do care about public affairs: the crisis is in the institutions, not in participation itself.

Bernard Woolley: “Well, yes, Sir…I mean, it [open government] is the Minister’s policy after all.”
Sir Arnold: “My dear boy, it is a contradiction in terms: you can be open or you can have government.”

(from Yes Minister, 1980)

Evgeny Morozov, Georgetown University’s E. A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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Decisions made at the technological level in Western economies/businesses will affect how cyberactivism takes place… all over the world. What Google, Twitter or Facebook decides impacts citizen action everywhere.

There is much effort on building social capital online, uploading content, gathering people in a group, and this effort relies on a potential arbitrary decision by the owner of the online platform, who serves who knows whose will. Groups in social networking sites disappear every day without previous notice and most times without an explicit and clear reason for it.

But regulating these corporations is often seen as a barrier to democratize more quickly less democratic countries. You don’t want to “spoil” a Web 2.0 application if it is seldom used to raise protests against non-democratic regimes, or used on human emergencies, etc.

But outside of Western countries, most applications are owned and run by local companies that have less freedom of choice than in other places of the World. If the Chinese or Russian or Iranian governments ask for user personal data to these companies, they have little chances not to deliver them. This makes datamining by governments very easy and very effective to locate and identify dissidents.

Besides direct extortion to companies, governments can directly monitor and put up several kinds of citizen surveillance, including entering an individual’s computer because the government infiltrated the computer with a trojan or any other kind of spy-software. Of all, the major problem is not even being aware of that manipulation. Same applies to web servers, of course.

On the legal side, governments or several lobbies have the power to manipulate content online, by crowding out conversations. If this is a trivial debate, then the influence of the strong part has no major impact. But if that is a pre-election debate, it can lead to indirect tampering and not-really-legitimate democratic participation.

And doing all that is not very difficult: custom police can (actually do) google people and see what comes up in the search results, scan their Facebook profiles, see who a specific person is related to and, according to that, decide to decline a visa request.

Besides governments, authors that we would not consider very “democratic” (e.g. fascist movements) are doing impressive things online in social networking sites, mashups, etc. So, Web 2.0 and cloud computing tools are double-edged swords and both serve noble and evil purposes and goals, like e.g. mapping where ethnics minorities are mashing up rich public data with map applications either to avoid or to attack them.

There is a dynamic that the Internet brings and that might makes us stop and think whether we like it or not: is a shift towards full openness a good thing? is a shift towards direct democracy a good thing too?


Ana Sofía Cardenal: can you provide more information about the survey you talked about? Batlle: the survey was made in 112 cities (more than 10,000h less Barcelona). 81% answered the survey explaining use of ICT in participation initiatives.

Ana Sofía Cardenal: why nationalist movements are more present online than liberal ones? Morozov: the short answer is that hate travels more faster than hope online. But it might be more about phobia rather than nationalism. On the other hand, the Internet has no borders and allows for birds of the same flock to cluster around online spaces rather than having to stick to their artificial national myths.

Ismael Peña-López: data havens yes or no? protection or impunity? Morozov: One the one hand, governments should not support law circumvention tools (like TOR), basically because they are massively used by criminals, or by people whose purpose is not very clear and its justification varies depends on your approach. Regarding Wikileaks, the problem is that once a hot file is out, it is difficult to block, and the more you try to block it, the more it is disseminated (the Streisand effect). Something should be done, yes, but it is not clear what.

Ronald Leenes: It is also true that governments also use tools that activists use for security reasons, so they should at least allow for these tools to develop and even be funded. Morozov: right, but you cannot be pushing for the rule of law and with the other hand allowing the proliferation of tools that are clearly used to break the rule of law. Leenes: this apply to many technologies!

Jordi Vilanova: We’re talking about social networking sites as being run by corporations, but it is likely that in the future we find SNS being ruled by foundations or non-governmental organizations. So, there still is some room for Web 2.0 applications being “safely” used by individuals. A second comment is that we are looking at non-democratic regimes but, in the meanwhile, so-called liberal democracies are trimming citizen rights with the excuse of security and so. So we should be more concerned about these hypocrite countries. Morozov: it is true that foundations can run their own SNS, but the thing is that most times is not about the tool, but about audience and critical mass, and this audience is in private corporations’ platforms, and this will be difficult to change. And regarding transparency, transparency has to come with footnotes to avoid misleads.

See also

6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2010)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “6th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (VIII). Citizen Participation in the Cloud” In ICTlogy, #82, July 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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