Does Democracy Get It?

In a democratic system the majority rules.

The Internet isn’t like that. On the Internet, it’s consensus that rules. Only rules and laws supported by a broad consensus of Internet users can be enforced.

I wonder sometimes about even that. More than 99 in 100 of us know that spam is stupid, but I still get 12 of them per day.

There’s something needed beyond mere consensus to enforce behavioral standards on the Internet, and that’s the extinguishing of passion. People who are passionate about what they’re doing will do it regardless, and enormous efforts must then be made to catch them.

The passion of a handful of child pornographers, for instance, remains a terrible problem and challenge to democratic law enforcement. The passion of a handful of crackers (and their ability to automate what they do) is another big challenge.

The response has been for democratic leaders to request stiffer penalties against cracking and bigger budgets for the cops. Those of us who live online know that will have some effect, but only a limited one. That’s because it’s difficult to believe that everyone who was involved in last week’s hack-attacks against corporate sites will go to jail, while the unpopularity of the corporate “victims” (Amazon, eBay, Time Warner, etc.) will win new recruits to the crackers’ “cause.”

All this puts democracy in a bind. The harder the majority pushes, the harder the minority pushes back. The solutions Sun Chief Scientist Bill Joy has suggested – identify all users, charge for email, charge extra for “first-class” service given the identified rich – may eventually draw majority support. But even he admits they won’t draw the whole market. And if they fail to draw a consensus they’ll be hacked. Last week’s events should be a warning against any top-down solution.

Most Netizens distrust democracy and prefer the market. The market sounds like consensus, but it’s more than that. It would seem that those who did the “hack attack,” for instance, don’t care for the judgments of the financial market.

They might point out that so far the Internet era has seen the rich get richer and the poor kept either completely offline or shackled to censorware. You can go anywhere on the Internet if it’s your computer, your ISP account, and your choice. Otherwise, he who has the gold makes the rules.

But when I think of the market Netizens believe in, I don’t just think of the market that makes Jeff Bezos, Gerald Levin or Pierre Omidyar rich. I think instead of a marketplace of ideas, and my network of friends. I think of the connections behind the computers and behind (yes, even) the money.

I know there are crooks and idiots online. I choose not to deal with them. When the big ISP offends me, I ignore its ads and go to a smaller one. When a Sanford Wallace burns his credibility, it’s for all time. These are heavy penalties. These market judgments seem good and true – better than those offered by democracy.

Whomever we elect, and however our democracy chooses to go this November, the Internet is giving democracy something it hasn’t faced since the fall of Communism. The Internet is giving democracy competition.

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