E-democracy, Information and Contestation

Jeroen van den Hoven (The Netherlands)


There are many optimistic views on the way the Internet may revitalize our democracies. Many experiments are under way. The first reports from around the globe give some reasons for concern. It has been observed that 1) there are inequities with respect to access to information and services, 2) people who would most benefit from being involved in the political process are likely to be excluded, 3) factors that limit political engagement in general are also the ones responsible for limiting forms of electronic engagement and 4) that the evidence to show that ICT will stimulate the interest in public affairs and enhance the political quality of communication, is bleak.

The experiments and scenarios with E-democracy are inspired and informed by different conceptions of democracy. It is important to investigate and articulate the basic conceptions underlying new forms of democratic politics and technologically supported democratic institutions, because it may be the case that we are trying very hard to implement inadequate conceptions of democracy.

According to the classical liberal view of the political process democracy is a technology of representation and aggregation of individual preferences. On the classical republican view of politics democracy is constitutive of a meaningful form of life and collective self-discovery. The liberal and the republican conceptions of the citizen and community also differ accordingly. The liberal citizen is characterized primarily in terms of individual rights and negative freedom, pursuing private interests, the republican citizen is characterized in terms of positive liberties, such as rights to expression, participation and communication, which serve the collective search for the common good.

Several alternatives have been articulated for both classical liberalism and classical republicanism in the theory of democracy. The deliberative conception of democracy is the most prominent alternative and has received a great deal of attention. It has recently been advocated because it is supposed to be congenial to the opportunities the new information and communication technologies offer. Another alternative conception of democracy has emerged -from different sources- which could also be said to be congenial to E-democracy. I have referred to it as the Epistemic Conception of Democracy. Ill argue that both the classical liberal and republican , and the deliberative and epistemic conceptions have problems of their own when thinking about E-democracy.

I will propose to investigate another conception of Democracy, suggested by Philip Pettit: Contestatory Democracy. I claim that in the context of E-Democracy it does not have the vices of other conceptions and has many of the virtues that E-citizens would expect a conception of democracy to have in the age of the Internet.