Democracy is under attack. This can be seen very clearly from various positions taken in the current debate around whether it is appropriate to state, in an international document, that Internet governance should be democratic. (For another text from the same overall debate and a bit of further background see this earlier blog post.) Below I give a copy of a mailing list posting on the “governance” list of the Civil Society Internet Governance Caucus in which I reply to a posting of Syracuse University professor Milton L. Mueller, who unfortunately is not alone among US professors in attacking democracy. The people who are referred to in Milton’s text by initials are Michael Gurstein (who is referenced as “MG”) and me (referenced as “NB”). “JNC” refers to the Just Net Coalition.
On Mon, 9 Mar 2015 19:34:45 +0000
Milton L Mueller
> Throwing the word “democratic” alongside “multistakeholder” doesn’t
> solve the problem. It is more fundamental.
> I feel like I’ve had this conversation about democracy with Parminder
> a dozen times, if not more. As I have pointed out repeatedly, and
> Jeanette did here also, the very meaning of “democracy,” much less
> its desirability, is completely unclear in a globalized environment.
I strongly disagree.
Whenever a word has a well-established literal meaning, and it is
commonly used in the sense of that meaning, then it has that meaning
everywhere where that literal meaning makes sense, and where it is not
clear from the context that the word is meant in a different sense.
The literal meaning of δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), in modern language
“democracy”, is that “it’s the people who have the power to rule”. This
is since ancient times seen in contrast to “the rule of an elite”, the
ancient Greek term for the latter being ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía).
How democratic governance, in the sense of that literal meaning, is to
be implemented in an increasingly globalized and increasingly ICT-based
world (of which the Internet is nowadays already a rather central
aspect, and it is widely expected that the centrality of the Internet
will continue to grow), that is something that requires discussion and
In my view, this needed discussion and consensus building should be
based on first of all agreeing that governance is needed to some
extent, and that to the extent that governance is needed, it must be
democratic in the sense of the literal meaning of the word
“democracy” as stated above.
> Current conceptions of democracy are based on citizenship in a
> defined and limited territory, and institutions associated with
> territorial states that verify citizenship, assign specific rights to
> them, define an electoral machinery for aggregating the preferences
> of citizen population, and also LIMIT the powers and scope of
> democratic decision making in order to protect individual rights, and
> to maintain checks and balances on the various branches of
That is a very good summary of how democracy is implemented in the
context of a national state.
> None of this has any relevance to the global governance of the
> internet. There is no global state, no global citizenship, no global
> constitution dividing and limiting the powers that might be exercised
> by a global state, etc. There is no machinery for aggregating and
> effectuating the preferences of a global population.
I agree that trying to directly translate “how democracy is implemented
in the context of a national state” to the Internet would not make a lot
of sense, and to the extent that it might partly make sense, it would
not be desirable to do so. The resulting system of “Internet government”
would not in any worthwhile way be a democratic system.
> The territorial
> division of populations into distinct units, even if democratically
> governed, creates its own pathologies: one need only look at the
> increasing popularity of European parties that favor restrictions on
> immigration as one of hundreds of possible examples.
I certainly agree that there is a lot which goes badly in democratic
Already Plato pointed this out in ancient Athens in very impressive
ways, and he suggested the alternative of putting an elite of
philosophers in power.
Since those ancient times, the proponents of democracy have always been
aware of the arguments of Plato and of those who have followed in his
footsteps, consciously rejecting those arguments. In fact it’s the
central premise of democracy that in spite of these problems with
democratic decision-making, putting any kind of elite in power must
nevertheless absolutely be avoided. There are very good reasons for this:
Even though putting an elite in power might lead to more rational
decision making, then that (more rational) decision making capacity would
be exercised primarily according to the interests and according to the
(necessarily limited) knowledge and experiences of the members of the
In fact much of what goes wrong in the governance of national states
which are democratic (or which at least claim to be democratic) can be
blamed on the fact that even in such states (despite all the checks and
balances and other good countermeasures against elites gaining
unreasonable power) there are often still elites which gain a lot of
power and abuse it for their own gain; the resulting anger of the
people is then exploited by populists.
The way to improve political systems in order to reduce this kind of
phenomenon is not to give up on the ideal of democracy, but to
implement it more effectively, so that there will be less abuse of
power by elites, and therefore less public anger, and therefore less
opportunity for populists who will try to exploit such anger whenever
they get the chance.
I believe that a very promising opportunity for implementing democracy
more effectively is available through the Internet and through the
logic tree methods of Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, ideally
with some adaptations of the latter to make them even more suitable
for supporting public political discourse being conducted via the
Internet: I see great opportunities for improving the quality and depth
and inclusiveness of public discourse, which will do a lot to make
various structures of governance, including formal state-based
structures of democracy, more democratic in the sense of reducing the
degree to which governance is driven and controlled by elites.
> Hence, the appropriation of the term “democratic” by JNC
Where is any “appropriation of the term ‘democratic’ by JNC”???
Using a word in the sense of its well-established literal meaning is
simply using the word.
Just like many others are also using the word.
While it is true that we are pro-democracy, there are many other
people and groups who are also pro-democracy.
Even here on this list, where there is a lot of hostility towards
pro-democracy ideas and towards the more active advocates of
pro-democracy ideas, it is not only JNC members who argue in favor of
> can mean any of these things:
> A) It is a purely rhetorical ploy that trades on the fact that
> “democracy” is like “motherhood” and “God” and no one can claim to be
> against it. Decmoratic = good, and whatever is politically good is
> democratic. This of course ignores all the pathologies of pure
> B) It is a cover word for the reassertion of the authority of
> existing states over internet governance, which means not only
> “democracy” in the classical 20th century nation-state sense but also
> the bastardized UN usage which means one country, one vote, even if
> 2/3 of the nations voting are not internally democratic
> C) It represents a kind of naïve belief that the democratic
> institutions of the nation-state can be translated easily into a
> globalized framework. But if so, why do we hear so little about what
> form these new institutions will take, how they will be designed, how
> they will avoid abuses of power? When MG or NB talk about
> “democratic” regulation of Internet businesses (and of the rest of
> us, inevitably), what regulators are they talking about and what law
> do they operate under and to which courts are they accountable?
Curiously, the literal meaning of the word is not even included in
this, obviously highly politically motivated, list of possible
meanings. That in spite of my repeated insistence over the past few
days, here on this very mailing list, that we mean the word in its
literal sense and not as code for something else.
> I suspect that their thinking is a confused mosh of all three of
> these, but the immediate effect of their ‘democratic’ advocacy is
> basically represented by B.
I assure you that our thinking is not “a confused mosh”, and I would
expect the above discussion to make this abundantly clear.
If the concern of possible misinterpretation of our “‘democratic’
advocacy” to the effect of your point “B” is a real concern (as opposed
to mere populistic scaremongering), please propose words to express the
literal meaning of “democratic” in a way that will avoid that risk of
misinterpretation which you claim exists on the basis of using the
There is unavoidably always the risk that some people will misinterpret
words, for example because they were misinformed about the perspective
and intentions of those who use the words, or because they act in bad
faith with an intention of distorting the words of political opponents.
This risk can be minimized by using words which are as clear as
possible, but it can never be completely avoided.
On the other hand, some choices of words are simply not clear enough
even in the context of well-informed good-faith dialogue in which each
side makes a reasonable and honest effort at trying to understand what
the other side is saying, and responses are given on the basis of that.
I don’t think that the current wave of claims about the meaning of the
word “democratic” not being clear enough is justified, but to the extent
that such claims might be justified, that should be a simple enough
problem to solve: I will be happy to start using any word or phrase
which expresses the literal meaning of the word “democratic” more
clearly than the word “democratic” itself does.