Like every major technological innovation that has come before it, the Internet has been characterized as the best opportunity for societies to do better for their marginalized populations, and for governments to improve their performance. More recently, e-governance has come into its own, and is hyped as a panacea for increasing productivity, transparency and accountability. Today, the Internet's fast growing presence as an enabling communication medium is an established reality in government, business, education and the social sector.
Still, the nation's problems are not about to go away. The Indian flavor of the digital divide witnesses massive inequalities on the one hand and the stifling legacy of sarkari socialism and pervasive corruption on the other. Equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth remains a distant dream in the absence of other democratizing realignments in a fractured society. Against this backdrop, what are the prevailing views about the promises of the Internet? There are those who see the Internet as a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Others are not so cynical; they view the Internet as the catalyst of institutional and process leapfrogging, particularly in governance. The social sector has not lagged behind. With massive participation from a West based diaspora for whom Internet service has become a ubiquitous utility, the last five years have witnessed the rapid emergence of scores of websites for Non Government Organizations, campaigns, pressure groups, and think-thanks.
Despite this, the Internet has not shaken the fundamentals for democratic change making. Democracies allow the possibility of self-governance, and yet representation alone won't do. Self-governance requires people's participation, but participation is not meaningful without information. Information alone won't do, either; whereas governance information has to be understandable and taken out of the obscurity that it is often sheathed in, this must be accompanied by attitudinal changes as well. There remains a fairly wide chasm between the real opportunities of the Internet and the fulfillment of its promises.
The Internet Opportunity
This matters to citizens, for critical reasons.
Take a look at your everyday print newspaper operation. Most news reporting today is driven by events, controversy or by virtue of some immediate utility that readers might derive from it. This is not enough. Citizens are almost never able to witness the follow-through of discourse and decision-making on matters of public interest, be it local, regional or national. Follow-through is continuous coverage of public processes that allows citizens to not just know what the issues are, but to be informed enough to balance governmental decisions against various democratic, legal and policy alternatives and constraints.
That citizens may not demand this today is no excuse for not offering it. They are not demanding event driven coverage either. Such packaging is best understood only when it is actually felt. Its ultimate value is that it educates society about the balance of priorities that governance faces, and more importantly, it presents the case that citizens can know, understand, question and engage with their governments, as opposed to being passive observers of government decisions, a.k.a. 'being ruled'.
A variety of factors affects the inability of the national, regional and local print and TV media to dedicate some space to achieve this. Online newspapers in India run by a print house typically mirror their print publication with little exploitation of the Internet's real content management and packaging opportunities. This happens because the same publishing processes of the print houses produce content for the online versions as well. Having said that, significant changes in the coverage paradigm will be a revolution of sorts, and is welcome.
It is here that public affairs and social-sector websites have the greatest value addition possible. Most citizens may not be researchers who mine the web for information, but the mere fact that information may be available on a whole host of issues, categorized by regions, topics, content-types, services, grassroots activities, events and partisan drives is an invitation for a critical mass of citizens groups to take shape. Also, citizens can pick and choose issues and local affairs they want to be informed about in environments that promise outcomes determined at some level by themselves.
Equally importantly, public institutions and quasi-institutions ranging from government departments to people's movements can use public domain content to organize their own information and develop electronic interfaces for their respective target audiences. This allows for speedy assessment of information and evolution of strategies, the key elements of any business process, even if the business is a people's campaign. In fact campaigning groups, NGOs and citizens groups are as much benefited for their own information needs by setting up websites or forking their content off to public affairs websites. Productivity matters in every enterprise, including in the public interest.
The primary information bottleneck of the Internet is that ultimately, people must come to websites. Even if you subscribe to a web publication, you must go to it, it won't land up at your doorstep. Assuming you have internet access, how you get to know about information sources depends on both the marketing and outreach strategies of its promoters as well as the inherent networking among its readers. Social-sector publications have often the least financial resources and they often rely on the quality of their content, even its partisan value, and reader networking. Breaking the reader self-selection barrier is at some level one of the outreach challenges of social entrepreneurship in this arena.
The operational challenge in India for any Internet based public-information enterprise is the tiny (but rapidly growing) base of computer users and relatively high telecommunications costs. Not surprisingly, this skew of access to computing is a reflection of the same inequalities that we hope responsible and just governance will address. Even today, the majority of readers of almost any major internet newspaper are the Indian diaspora, predominantly based in the developed world. For all the talk of the Internet's opportunity for empowered citizenship, there is no escaping the fact that the startup investment for owning a computer remains beyond the median purchasing power in the country.
The 'neutrality' culture that pervades most mainstream journalistic enterprises does not make it any easier. Being turned off by the advocacy of issue websites, many skeptical citizens often resign themselves to picking up their information from the major mass media.
Any reading of recent developmental history will suggest that smart individuals and community based activities in India have their own way of spreading technology in beneficial ways to places one would never expect. As prices continue to fall, the social and educational sectors will have more opportunities to make the benefits of computing and the Internet accessible to the majority, with the government and the private sector necessarily having to play a catalyzing role. And while up until now, high telephone bills have been and continue to be a frustrating disincentive in most regions, the emergence of less expensive broadband connections in most major cities is a silver lining. Nonetheless, even in a relatively free society the Internet has no inherent magic to allow scaling the partisanship dynamics that are already at play amongst vastly unequal and sometimes polarized users. This will have to be done by the concerned players themselves, just as every responsible policy maker or public-interest campaign has to do to tilt the balance away from the vested interests.
The Internet will not democratize our society automatically. Information based citizen organizing must exist on its own, on the ground. Communities must continue coming together, sharing concerns, and acting collectively in their enlightened-self interest for better governance in their own lives. The Internet remains the best, the most flexible information dissemination medium that was ever invented, and the opportunity to use it for the betterment of all still remains with us.