Public Spaces, Private Places: Preserving Community Participation on the World Wide Web


by Stephen Downes
February 16, 2000

Douglas Rushkoff warns, "The Internet's original promise as a medium for communication is fast giving way to an electronic strip mall that will trade the technology's potential as a cultural catalyst for a controlled and monitored marketplace."

Yesterday's announcement that the non-profit Democracy Network (http://www.dnet.org) is being acquired by venture-backed Grassroots.com (http://www.grassroots.com) raises similar questions about the nature and scope of online political discourse.

The Democracy Network was founded by the League of Women Voters and the Center for Governmental Studies as a non-profit and non-partisan organization dedicated to providing voters with a broad range of information and opportunities for online discussion.

Grassroots is a private venture-backed company founded in 1999. Their focus is to provide "a website containing rich media and everyday communication-collaboration tools - a community environment that will enable citizens and their representatives to affect positive, democratic change."

On the same day it acquired the Democracy Network, Grassroots also announced $30 million in additional funding from a variety of private sources, most prominent among them being Knight-Ridder newspapers.

Knight-Ridder is a major American publisher with 31 daily newspapers throughout the United States, including the San Jose Mercury News, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, and the Kansas City Star. Knight-Ridder is also behind a number of internet developments including Real Cities, a network of regional hubs on the World Wide Web providing local information services in 31 U.S. markets.

In essence, then, the political information, resource and discussion site is now largely influenced, if not completely controlled, by a privately held newspaper chain. So - do we want our political information coming from newspapers?

And the quick and easy answer is: well, yes, of course! That's what newspapers do and have been doing for decades and more.

But the deeper question is: do we want our political discourse run by newspapers? Or - for that matter - by America Online, which itself is working in partnership with the Democracy Network?

That's a tougher question.

Political discourse - which the Democracy Network provides - is quite different from political news, which Knight-Ridder provides. And like any aspect of community involvement, the distinction between information and exchange is important.

Newspapers are very good at providing information, though critics from the left and the right criticize the publications for placing their own slant on events. Online newspapers are also good at providing information, though the same criticisms apply, perhaps because the online information is the same as the print information.

Newspapers are less good at providing interaction. In a typical day a newspaper will publish a page or two of carefully selected and sometimes edited letters to the editor. It's hard to gauge public opinion from the letters section, partially because the editors like to balance the letters and partially because organizations orchestrate coordinated letter campaigns.

But in democratic societies we have generally been happy to allow newspaper to fulfill their traditional function of reporting the news, while the more important activities of political discourse and display have taken place in more public forums.

Long an icon in American rural literature, the public square is the classic public meeting place. Parades, concerts, political rallies, demonstrations - all these have at one time or another graced the white gazebo and bandstand.

Canadian towns and cities place less emphasis on the town square for obvious climactic reasons. It's a little hard to stage a political rally in three feet of snow. But public places are equally important to the Canadian body politic: in the winter we cram into the community centre and in the summer we spread out in community parks.

But even in our quiet communities, the public landscape is changing. As Kowinski pointed out in The Malling of America, and as Naomi Klein argues more recently in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, our public spaces are shifting into private places. Our town squares are being replaced with indoor malls.

Klein writes, "We live in a time when expectations for building real-world commons and monuments with pooled public resources - schools, say, or libraries or parks - are consistently having to be scaled back or excised completely. In this context, these private branded worlds are aesthetically and creatively thrilling in a way that is foreign to anyone who missed the post-war boom."

Malls are excellent (and enticing) places to shop and hang out (at least, legions of teens would say so). Climate controlled, sparkling and clean, they offer shopping, food, entertainment, and so much more they are almost irresistible to patron and politician alike.

It is a common scene on a Saturday afternoon to see table on table of displays by community groups, Girl Scouts, service clubs and more. Much more than shopping takes place in a typical mall.

But what you won't see is what defines the essence of political discourse. You won't see pamphleteering or demonstrations of a controversial nature. Indeed, the booths and displays will be of a decidedly non-political nature. Nor will you see - or ever be allowed to see - any printing or poster critical of mall administration or its tenants.

This, again, is to be expected. Malls are, after all, privately owned and managed. They are not, for all their popularity, public spaces. They are private property, and if a mall owner wishes to restrict discourse, he is as free to do so just as you are free to change the channel on your television at home.

So long as there are public streets and telephone poles (of the non-decorative variety), so long as there are public parks and community centres, it is reasonable to give the mall owners their due. But care must be taken - and generally is taken - by community leaders to ensure that there remains some public space for citizens to meet, interact and even protest.

But when we turn our gaze once again to the internet, the availability of public place is not so clear. And it is for this reason that events such as the Democracy Network takeover raise concerns.

Just as mall proprietors restrict discourse in their malls and other places, so also private online space providers restrict discourse in their communities. America Online, for example, is well known for restricting dialogue in its discussion areas, much to the chagrin of the AOL Writers' Club.

In addition to restricting bulletin board content - which at least is on public display - America Online also restricts members' email. While in the first instance this is to restrict unwanted advertising, America Online also restricts email which is critical of America Online.

America Online is of course not alone in its practices. A host of online services, including free bulletin boards, online community generators, service providers and more have similar terms of service in their contracts. They do this not because they want to play moral guardian, but because it is more profitable to ensure a safe and inoffensive environment.

And it is their right, their service, and completely legal for them to do so, and we should indeed worry were they to be told by a governing authority what they can and cannot disallow on their sites.

But...

What happens when private online services become the hosts and guardians of online political discourse?

Well, for one thing, it is difficult to get them to provide any room for discourse at all. A survey of Alberta's online news publications, for example, reveals that almost none of them provide any discussion board or public area at all.

This finding is represented on a wider scale. In a detailed study of interactivity in online newspapers, Kenney, Gorlik and Mwangi write, "Previous research studies and the professional literature have indicated that online newspapers have low levels of interactivity, and this study supports that finding. In fact, little has changed in 25 years. Videotex wanted to electronically push news into people's homes, and so do today's online papers."

And if the trade papers are any indication, online content providers are becoming even more reluctant to provide interactivity. In this week's issue of A List Apart, a trade publication for site designers, author Joe Clark (no, not that Joe Clark) writes, "once the hallmark of a real Web site, user-contributed content may have outlived its usefulness in E-commerce. Is it time to cut the cheese?"

Why are online content providers so reluctant to open their pages to the public?

For one thing, it's expensive. A moderately popular site like Slashdot can generate hundreds of comments in a few hours. Archiving and displaying those comments requires massive disk space and powerful servers.

For another thing, it's risky. As Compuserv discovered in Germany a few years back, service providers may be liable for the comments of their readers. Today's service providers are worried about a wide range of potential lawsuits stemming from racist and hate-filled comments, the unauthorized posting of copyrighted material, pirated software and viruses, and more.

And finally, for these reasons and more, it might not be profitable. What characterizes user-contributed comments most of all that they are chaotic, ill-informed and sometimes downright nasty. They make it hard to find good information and they may drive users away from the site.

If political discourse is to move online, therefore, we need to treat at least some online content as we treat public places, and not private spaces.

This is the heart of a proposal advanced by Andrew L. Shapiro in The Control Revolution - to build a network of public commons or 'PublicNet' which would be non-partisan and publicly owned, a place where users can express their political views - popular or not - in a free and fair online exchange.

This, though, solves only part of the problem, as for some people their messages and posts may be filtered by their service provider, while for others access to the site will be limited by proprietary browsers and internet access points, especially if they use custom wireless services.

It is possible - and today, common - for 'public commons' type sites to languish unvisited and unremarked. Online discussions hosted by Industry Canada, for example, are sparsely populated despite a potential user base of 30 million. Perhaps they would be more popular if they were easier to find - but such forums are never going to show up on the front page of Yahoo.

Shapiro proposes that individual opinions gathered from such sites ought to be able to "intrude" on web users, much the way a sidewalk protester intrudes, however briefly, on a pedestrian's attention. But citizens are not likely to want their computers to tell them what they should read or hear.

Another part of the problem is that citizens can be - and often are - critical of their governments. This is a good thing, as it allows for the formulation of new ideas and policies, and for the correction of mistakes and misdeeds.

But if a publicly run online bulletin board is placed on a city or government web site for all to read, the temptation will be almost irresistible on the part of government to rein in these unwelcome comments. It is largely for this reason that if you send a message to the Prime Minister or the Premier your comments are swallowed by an online form, never again to see the light of day.

And indeed, a community's interests can be seriously threatened by a non-judicious online post. Many community websites are dedicated toward attracting tourists and business opportunities; a complaint about the quality of the town water supply can have a direct economic impact.

We need to decide as a community and as a nation how we are to approach the question of online participatory democracy. We need on the one hand to resist the streaming and filtering of opinion which is common of news sites and many online discussion boards. We need to ensure that online discussions are not marginalized or hidden in obscurity. Yet we must also seek to implement such a system in such a way as to ensure that people and communities are not hurt in the process.

We still need, I think, a public square - a place which is central in an online community, which is actually a part of the online community, and yet which does not answer directly to corporations, governments, or any other particular interest. We need to open such squares to the public at large, to display them in public places, and to encourage people to sing, dance, demonstrate or remonstrate.

With such devices, we have the opportunity to transform the nature of public participation in government. Without them, we face the danger of cutting the people out of government altogether.


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