Ethical Dilemmas in Connection with On-line Forums in Local Government

Agneta Ranerup


One important issue in Information Society is if Internet will be used only for commercial purposes, or if it can be used to actually improve democracy. This paper provides concrete experiences of how the Internet is used with the aim of improving democracy. Also, some ethical dilemmas in relation to these experiences are also being discussed. More particularly, experiences will be presented of how on-line discussion forums are used in a local government context in two Swedish cities. This research is clearly connected to experiences of US Community networks. However, due to the particularities of the context (Swedish local government politics) there are many ethical issues and dilemmas that are of interest in themselves, as well as in relation to a US context. The main issue is if the debate has been sufficient as to attain the ideal of deliberative democracy. According to this ideal there should be a lively debate before political decisions are made. There should also be politicians who can be held responsible for the decisions. A second issue is how different factors have influenced the amount of debate, and how this influence can be characterized. Three factors will be discussed 1) The first is the initiators of the forums (local government or others), as well as how potential user groups have been involved in the implementation process i.e. Participatory Design aspects. The ethical dimension here has to do with how a democratic tool as an on-line forum actually is created, and who is allowed to take part in this process. 2) The second factor is if there have been any activities with the aim of increasing access to the technology. According to literature, a necessary prerequisite for if Internet will improve democracy is that access must be high. If this is not the case the technology will not have democratic effects. On the other hand, increasing access costs money, which is quite a problem in a local government context. Also, there is the problem of providing citizens with technology, as opposed to politicians. Thus, this aspect provides several examples of ethical dilemmas. 3) The third factor is the functional and organizational aspects of the on-line forums. The existence of moderators, censorship, and limited options for choosing issues to discuss are aspects with a clear ethical dimension. Lastly, three strategies are suggested of how to increase the amount of debate in the forums. One strategy could be to import some qualities from the US Community networks by engaging various citizen groups in the debate. An ethical dilemma here is if this is in accordance with the ideal of deliberative democracy. Also, the citizen group may risk being colonized or being “bought off” by local government. A second strategy could be to open up a 100% open discussion without any limitations regarding the issues that could be discussed. This is good for the freedom of speech, but can result in a debate that is favorable to e.g. racism. Thirdly, the politicians might be stimulated to contribute to the debate, for example by suggesting issues for discussion. This would probably make them more interested, but will it result in issues in the debate that are of interest to citizens?