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Shirky on Internet Democracy

Clay Shirky Date: 05 Feb, 2009

Shirky said he could sum up his book in four words: “Group action just got easier.” Here he commented upon the speed and extent of the internet: people can get together quicker and much more easily on the internet than they could before.

Take, for example, as Shirky mentioned – the recent decision by HSBC to renege its offer of penalty free checking to holders of student accounts. HSBC took this decision, Shirky argues, because they betted on students not being coordinated enough to challenge the withdrawal and lack of knowledge on the part of students about how to transfer their accounts to another bank.

But no longer are the days of cumbersome coordination on the part of consumers. Within hours a Facebook site was created by students documenting how to withdraw accounts from HSBC and put them into another bank. The main press picked this up and there were rumours of a protest outside HSBC’s city HQs organised by the students signed up to the Facebook site. HSBC called off the penalty.

Thus the internet empowers the consumer in the face of corporations? This is a question which was not directly addressed by Shirky but he did comment that the tools of the internet lent itself in some ways to opposition.

Shirky then went on to illustrate the power of group action on the internet in holding even the most autocratic regimes to account. He used the example of the 7.9 Richter scale 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Because of people taking pictures of the quake and posting them on Flickr the Chinese government did not have the liberty of choosing whether to report the quake as it would have done in the old days before the web. In the 1970s it took the government 3 months to announce there had been a devastating earthquake.

But if group action on the internet can hold both governments and multi-nationals accountable why can’t it be institutionalized into the democratic process? Here Shirky cast doubt on the technology. He said there needed to be a debate over how group action on the internet could be incorporated into the system of “checks and balances” that is democracy. 2009, Shirky said, “is the year for decisions over checks and balances.”

To read Charlie Beckett's report on the event click here

By Matthias Lomas