2016 APSIG‎ > ‎

2.2 Political Perspective

Class Description (by Jim Foster)
   “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

John Perry Barlow, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

Perry’s declaration of independence for Cyberspace is now 20 years old, but the “mind-set” that influenced it is still very much at the core of statements coming from “civil society”, parts of the business community and even governments.   The ideal of divorcing government (if not politics entirely) from the “governance” of the Internet has been enshrined today in the concept of the “multi-stakeholder” community and derives legitimacy from the Internet Government Forum (IGF) process, which was recently given an extra ten years of life by the UN General Assembly. 

Scholars such as Milton Mueller, Laura DeNardis, Timothy Wu, and Jonathan Zittrain have written extensively about Internet governance, but they and most others are generally members of Communications or Law faculties.  So the question remains open as to what political scientists might say about this effort to eliminate or at least limit the role of “politics” on the Internet. 

This presentation will be organized around the following questions and observations drawn from the political science literature.   The emphasis will be on encouraging new ways of looking and thinking about assertions on Internet governance through introducing concepts and findings from the political science literature that challenge the “common wisdom” that the politics of the Internet is somehow different.  The topics below will not be covered comprehensively or in any fixed order.  They are listed to provide context and a suggestive roadmap for what is intended to be a highly interactive and thought-provoking exchange. 

1)      Legitimacy (respect for rule of law), sovereignty (respect for nation) and authority (respect for leaders) are basic to political science.  What might they mean in the context of the Internet?  Is Barlow right about sovereignty – what about the other elements? 

2)      What is the difference among human rights, civil rights and economic rights; do all democratic governments guarantee these rights for their citizens; how can they be related to Internet governance?


3)      What is the difference between a “constitution” and a “bill of rights”?  Do you need both?  How do we translate this to the digital world?


4)      Internationalism, nationalism, ethnic and religious separatism and economic corporatism are all ways of organizing political society; which is the best model for the Internet?


5)      Generally, national governments fall into two categories:   unitary states like France or China and federal states like the US and Germany; which is a better organizing principle for the digital state?


6)      Aristotle envisioned six types of government:  on the good side (monarchy, aristocracy and polity); on the bad side (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy).  His preference was for aristocracy; where would you place the current form of Internet governance? 

7)      Political theorists: Thomas Hobbes wrote about “civil society” as emerging out fear of anarchy; John Locke spoke about the need for a “social contract” to preserve private property; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man was most free in the state of nature.  Are there echoes of these theories today in discussion of the future of the Internet? 

8)      What can Marxian analysis tell us about the distribution of power on the Internet?  Has the Internet shifted the economic basis of society so greatly that it threatens the integrity and stability of exiting political institutions and the class “superstructure”?  Are there echoes of Marxism in the argument over the ownership of the Internet by private companies? 

9)      Does the ubiquity of the Internet and the emerging “digital economy” equal the “end of ideology” by jumping over national borders and muddying existing social and economic division, e.g the “sharing economy”?  Or is it providing new tools for promoting religious extremism and ethnic nationalism?

10)  How does the debate between modern and classic liberal political thought set the parameters for discussions about Internet regulation?  

11)  Are there elements of the theory of positivism in Facebook’s business model; is Google a test bed for behavioralism; is Confuscian thought the basis for China’s regulation of the Internet; and is modernization theory validated by the failure of the “Arab Spring”?

12)  The importance of “civil society” in supporting social order and democracy was first recognized by conservative political theorist Edmund Burke and political sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville.  The concept was also used by political scientist Robert Dahl to argue against the concept that societies are essentially run by a small group of elites – he saw instead competition among elites as basic to democracy.  Does this analysis have relevance Internet governance?   Who are the elites and on what basis do they compete? 

13)  Political research into “civic culture” found three levels of engagement:  participant, subject and parochial.  Participant culture was found to characterize advanced democratic societies; subject culture helped sustain authoritarian regimes.   Has the advent of the Internet changed this typology in any respects?   Does a parochial culture still exist – what has replaced it?

14)  Political research has found that a person’s identification with politics is mediated principally through family, school, peer groups, the mass media and government.  Is the Internet changing this typology through the ubiquity of social media and mobile applications – and what are the likely consequences of this change?  Does it explain the Trump phenomena in the US?  Is this an issue that needs to be addressed from an Internet governance perspective?

15)  Politics is fundamentally about legitimacy, sovereignty and authority; the story of the last 1000 years has been the emergence of the nation-state based on territory, language and cultural/historical affinity; the Internet with its scale and ubiquity challenges the basic character of the nation-state; does it also have the capacity to transform our politics?

    Jim Foster, APRU Summer Seminar Report – APIDE, 2015.
    Jim Foster, APRU Spring Seminar Report, 2016.
    Jim Foster, Bio, 2016.