Whither e-Democracy?

Today, the Internet has become a tool that transcends national borders and allows free flow of ideas the worldover. It has got immense potential to empower, educate and allow people to share and mobilise opinion. In fact, the Internet has truly become a forum for e-Democracy where people have found voice through personal websites, blogs and discussion groups. Although till date e-Democracy has not been defined fully, it embodies a wider connotation. e-Democracy, so to speak, has more to do with the usage of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) to strengthen and upgrade democratic structures and processes. It is essentially about engaging citizens in public policy-making for ensuring good governance. e-Democracy initiatives include e-Forums, e-Consultations, e-Referenda, e-Voting, and other forms of e-Participation.

The very concept of e-Democracy is yet to take shape. Up till now it has been into transition moving at a snail’s pace — from experimentation to formulation of policies. The record of e-Democracy initiatives and experimentation has not been worthwhile. And, to top it all, the path to e-Democracy is strewn with roadblocks. Recently, Amnesty International launched a campaign to demand freedom of expression over the Internet because of increasing concern over state censorship and control of online communications. Governments around the world are today engaged in stifling the voices of people, particularly online community, and has been forcibly closing down cyber cafes, confiscating home PCs, keeping an eye on chat in discussion forums and censoring or removing blogs. According to 2006 Annual Internet Report by ‘Reporters Without Borders’, countries such as Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya, the Maldives, Nepal, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam have gained notoriety in censoring the Internet now. Cyber dissidents are being arrested at an alarming pace. In 2003, China, Vietnam and the Maldives had imprisoned cyber-dissidents. Moreover, blog messages can now be automatically censored by China, blanking out words such as “democracy” and “human rights.” Since March 2005, a lawyer has been in jail in Tunisia for criticising official corruption in an online newsletter.

As of now, e-Democracy is in a stage of evolution in the overall democratic experiment. It seeks to use new, interactive technologies to give credence to the oft-repeated democratic claim that governments are ‘of, by and for the people’. There is a fundamental and paramount need to remove obstacles such as online censorships by governments to ensure effective citizen engagement in policy-making for good governance. The challenges are nonetheless daunting, and require greater efforts to build confidence, raise awareness and capacity both within governments and among citizens to make the very concept of e-Democracy hugely successful.