'But, Tony Blair, I Sent You an Email...'

Politics online does not itself guarantee more accountable, transparent government. But what can the internet achieve politically?


| August 12, 2004


As The Next Big Thing, the Internet has been hailed as a potential solution to many of the world's problems, and the world has fewer high-profile problems than those of the political process. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have opened themselves up to email input, but this hasn't done much to change the democratic process -- the interaction elected officials have with the public is characterized by significant accountability but little interactivity. For example, British Prime Minister Tony Blair must answer to the critical public eye, but only every four or five years. On the other hand, a conversation with a friend or neighbor over politics is intrinsically interactive, but unless such conversations are meticulously recorded, there is little accountability as to what is said. The political process, then, is traditionally characterized by a trade-off between accountability and interactivity, with a number of national and local bodies providing various gradients between the two extremes.

The Internet does nothing to change this -- national politics still sacrifice interactivity for accountability. What the Internet does change, however, is the scalability of political debates. Since conversations on the Internet are not limited by physical constraints, local debates can easily grow into national debates, and large issues can readily be discussed on an intimate scale. Moreover, these discussions can take place in forums that more effectively balance interactivity with accountability, provided moderation while still facilitating free discourse. Official government information can now be discussed as it is released, linking the accountability of transparent government with the intimacy of person-to-person interaction. The Internet is not, nor will it ever be, a panacea for fixing democracy. But it has the potential to expand and unite the many conversations that take place in the process of government.
-- Brendan Themes

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