If there was one aim that unified the hundreds of journalists, grass-roots activists and campaigners that took part in Netroots UK a fortnight ago, it was the project to fully realise the democratic potentials of the internet. The talks, debates, discussions and workshops covered a huge range of subjects, from the state of the blogosphere to how best to use twitter. Yet, throughout the day-long event, we kept returning to the web’s capacity to revolutionse the way we organize politically.
Many of us at the event had turned to the web as a natural outlet for our frustration with top-down governance and the prevailing attitude across the political classes of ‘the party knows best’ or, as bad, the media does. ‘Politics 2.0’ provides an antidote – a pluralist platform where individuals can make their voices heard that is not controlled by the political class.
But the web not only provides us with the tools to organize outside of party structures; it allows us to question the need for 'representation' as such. As we move closer to the twin ideals of the internet age – universal access to information and unfettered, instantaneous communication – a working, direct democracy becomes increasingly realisable.
This is a utopian vision, granted, but one that it is worth working towards: in a practical way, step-by-step it can inspire us. At Netroots UK, we touched upon many of the problems that must be overcome before its realisation: How do we organise horizontally? Is it possible for a movement with a hierarchy of leaders to decide upon strategy and aims? How do networks protect themselves from malicious infiltration? What do we get from physical meetings that is missing from virtual interaction?
Yet I was aware of a reluctance to engage with one of the fundamental issues at stake: the problem of online access. In Britain, over nine million adults have never been online. Members of this group are not spread equally across society, but are more likely to fall into certain demographics.
Gender and age are significant factors. The 2010 First Triennial Review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that women and over-65s were less likely to use the web regularly. While these figures should concern us, more worrying still is the disproportionate exclusion from the internet of the most disadvantaged groups in the UK.
A survey conducted last summer by the Office of National Statistics found that people who had never been online were significantly more likely to have low levels of wealth and education. While almost all (98 per cent) of those earning over £41,600 had used the web, only 69 per cent of adults with an income of less than £10,399 had been online. Regarding education, only 45 per cent of adults without any formal qualifications had used the internet, compared with nearly all degree-holders (97 per cent).
This is not about poorer or less educated people lacking interest in the internet. In the same survey, owners gave reasons for their homes lacking online access, (only eight per cent said they had access elsewhere). 39 per cent of those asked said they didn’t need the web, 20 per cent said they didn’t want it, and 4 per cent cited privacy concerns. That leaves a high percentage deterred by costs (33%) and lack of skills (21%) while 2 per cent gave physical disability as their reason.
This situation looks set to worsen in some way if the Coalition proceeds as it seems intent on doing. Under New Labour, local libraries were equipped with computers so that those without home access could get online. Already, the Coalition’s cuts to local government funding have caused over four hundred libraries to be threatened with closure; the final number could be as many as eight hundred, a fifth of all British libraries. Those who lose access to the internet as a consequence will be compelled to choose between prohibitively expensive internet cafes or simple exclusion from the web. Meanwhile, 500,000 adult learners – many of whom receive training in basic computer skills – now risk losing their courses, due to the government's new priorities for post-16 education.
Those with lower levels of income and education, already less able to make themselves heard by society, are disproportionately cut off from the world’s most powerful communication system along with its avenues for democratic engagement. While campaign groups and networks such as UK Uncut and False Economy are using the web to fight against the Coalition’s austerity programme, those with no internet access are caught in a disabling spiral, restricted in their ability to protest against the very cuts that are working to further constrain them.
Confronted with this injustice, it seems natural to call for greater representation of those groups with a weaker web presence – women, the poor, the older generation. But this would be to turn our back on the web’s potential to host directly participative networks. Start talking of the need to ‘represent the poor’ and you beg the question of who will take that role. Representative structures undermine the logic of networks built on collaboration and consensus between individuals operating under their own agency. In so doing, they impose the old categories of class, geography, age and gender, counteracting the web’s natural impulse towards equality and the dissolving of boundaries.
Those of us who believe in the web as able to engender a radical democracy should be wary of such a compromise. The solution to the problem of access cannot be increased representation; it must be universal internet access for all.
At Netroots UK, I heard dozens of activists enthusing about campaigns, but none talking about the call for the recognition of internet access as a basic human right. The United Nations has been working towards such a recognition since the turn of the century, when it began to push for universal access to important and basic information and communication services. In 2009, France recognized the right in law, when the Conseil Constitutionel ruled that the actions of the Committee for the Protection of Copyright in cutting people’s web connections ran counter to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. While we have laws in Britain concerning web accessibility for the disabled, we are yet to address the legal relationship between access to the internet and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression.
The recognition of access to the internet as a human right is the first step towards a democracy that is anti-hierarchical, radically participative, truly of the people. Those leading the debate on the web’s democratic potentials, many of whom were at Netroots UK, should be at the forefront of this campaign.