How do we encourage greater public inclusion in Internet governance debates?

The Internet is neither purely public nor private, but combines public and private networks, platforms, and interests. Given its complexity and global importance, there is clearly a public interest in how it is governed, and role of the public in Internet governance debates is a critical issue for policymaking.

The current dominant mechanism for public inclusion is the multistakeholder approach, i.e. one that includes governments, industry and civil society in governance debates. Despite at times being used as a shorthand for public inclusion, multistakeholder governance is implemented in many different ways and has faced criticism, with some arguing that multistakeholder discussions serve as a cover for the growth of state dominance over the Web, and enables oligarchic domination of discourses that are ostensibly open and democratic.

In her Policy & Internet article “Searching for the Public in Internet Governance: Examining Infrastructures of Participation at NETmundial”, Sarah Myers West examines the role of the public in Internet governance debates, with reference to public inclusion at the 2014 Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETmundial). NETmundial emerged at a point when public legitimacy was a particular concern for the Internet governance community, so finding ways to include the rapidly growing, and increasingly diverse group of stakeholders in the governance debate was especially important for the meeting’s success.

This is particularly significant as the Internet governance community faces problems of increasing complexity and diversity of views. The growth of the Internet has made the public central to Internet governance — but introduces problems around the growing number of stakeholders speaking different languages, with different technical backgrounds, and different perspectives on the future of the Internet.

However, the article suggests that rather than attempting to unify behind a single institution or achieve public consensus through a single, deliberative forum, the NETmundial example suggests that the Internet community may further fragment into multiple publics, further redistributing into a more networked and “agonistic” model. This doesn’t quite reflect the model of the “public sphere” Habermas may have envisioned, but it may ultimately befit the network of networks it is forged around.

We caught up with Sarah to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You say governance debates involve two levels of contestation: firstly in how we define “the Internet community”, and secondly around the actual decision-making process. How do we even start defining what “the public” means?

Sarah: This is a really difficult question, and it’s really the one that drove me throughout my research. I think that observing examples of publics ‘in the wild’ — how they are actually constituted within the Internet governance space — is one entry point. As I found in the article, there are a number of different kinds of publics that have emerged over the history of the internet, some fairly structured and centralized and others more ad hoc and decentralized. There’s also a difference between the way public inclusion is described/structured and the way things work out in practice. But better understanding what kinds of publics actually exist is only the first step to analyzing deeper questions — about the workings of power on and through the Internet.

Ed.: I know Internet governance is important but haven’t the faintest idea who represents me (as a member of “the public”) in these debates. Are my interests represented by the UK Government? Europe? NGOs? Industry? Or by self-proclaimed “public representatives”?

Sarah: All of the above — and also, maybe, none of the above. There are a number of different kinds of stakeholders representing different constituencies on the Internet — at NETmundial, this was separated into Government, Business, Civil Society, Academia and the Technical Community. In reality, there are blurred boundaries around all these categories, and each of these groups could make claims about representing the public, though which aspects of the public interest they represent is worth a closer look.

Many Internet governance fora are constituted in a way that would also allow each of us to represent ourselves: at NETmundial, there was a lot of thought put in to facilitating remote participation and bringing in questions from the Internet. But there are still barriers — it’s not the same as being in the room with decision makers, and the technical language that’s developed around Internet governance certainly makes these discussions hard for newcomers to follow.

Ed.: Is there a tension here between keeping a process fairly closed (and efficient) vs making it totally open and paralysed? And also between being completely democratic vs being run by people (engineers) who actually understand how the Internet works? i.e. what is the point of including “the public” (whatever that means) at a global level, instead of simply being represented by the governments we elect at a national (or European) level?

Sarah: There definitely is a tension there, and I think this is part of the reason why we see such different models of public inclusion in different kinds of forums. For starters, I’m not sure that, at present, there’s a forum that I can think of that is fully democratic. But I think there is still a value in trying to be more democratic, and to placing the public at the centre of these discussions. As we’ve seen in the years following the Snowden revelations, the interests of state actors are not always aligned, and sometimes are completely at odds, with those of the public.

The involvement of civil society, academia and the technical community is really critical to counterbalancing these interests — but, as many civil society members remarked after NETmundial, this can be an uphill battle. Governments and corporations have an easier time in these kinds of forums identifying and advocating for a narrow set of interests and values, whereas civil society doesn’t always come in to these discussions with as clear a consensus. It can be a messy process.

Ed.: You say that “analyzing the infrastructure of public participation makes it possible to examine the functions of Internet governance processes at a deeper level.” Having done so, are you hopeful or cynical about “Internet governance” as it is currently done?

Sarah: I’m hopeful about the attentiveness to public inclusion exhibited at NETmundial — it really was a central part of the process and the organizers made a number of investments in ensuring it was as broadly accessible as possible. That said, I’m a bit critical of whether building technological infrastructure for inclusion on its own can overcome the real resource imbalances that effect who can participate in these kinds of forums. It’s probably going to require investments in both — there’s a danger that by focusing on the appearance of being democratic, these discussions can mask the underlying power discrepancies that inhibit deliberation on an even playing field.

Read the full article: West, S.M. (2017) Searching for the Public in Internet Governance: Examining Infrastructures of Participation at NETmundial. Policy & Internet 9 (2). doi:10.1002/poi3.143

Sarah Myers West was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Does crowdsourcing citizen initiatives affect attitudes towards democracy?

Crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. In their Policy and Internet journal article ‘Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland’, Henrik Serup Christensen, Maija Karjalainen and Laura Nurminen explore how involvement in the citizen initiatives affects attitudes towards democracy. They find that crowdsourcing citizen initiatives can potentially strengthen political legitimacy, but both outcomes and procedures matter for the effects.

Crowdsourcing is a recent buzzword that describes efforts to use the Internet to mobilize online communities to achieve specific organizational goals. While crowdsourcing serves several purposes, the most interesting potential from a democratic perspective is the ability to crowdsource legislation. By giving citizens the means to affect the legislative process more directly, crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. Recent years have witnessed a scholarly debate on whether such new forms of participatory governance can help cure democratic deficits such as a declining political legitimacy of the political system in the eyes of the citizenry. However, it is still not clear how taking part in crowdsourcing affects the political attitudes of the participants, and the potential impact of such democratic innovations therefore remain unclear.

In our study, we contribute to this research agenda by exploring how crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives affected political attitudes in Finland. The non-binding Citizens’ Initiative instrument in Finland was introduced in spring 2012 to give citizens the chance to influence the agenda of the political decision making. In particular, we zoom in on people active on the Internet website Avoin Ministeriö (Open Ministry), which is a site based on the idea of crowdsourcing where users can draft citizens’ initiatives and deliberate on their contents. As is frequently the case for studies of crowdsourcing, we find that only a small portion of the users are actively involved in the crowdsourcing process. The option to deliberate on the website was used by about 7% of the users; the rest were only passive readers or supported initiatives made by others. Nevertheless, Avoin Ministeriö has been instrumental in creating support for several of the most successful initiatives during the period, showing that the website has been a key actor during the introductory phase of the Citizens’ initiative in Finland.

We study how developments in political attitudes were affected by outcome satisfaction and process satisfaction. Outcome satisfaction concerns whether the participants get their preferred outcome through their involvement, and this has been emphasized by proponents of direct democracy. Since citizens get involved to achieve a specific outcome, their evaluation of the experience hinges on whether or not they achieve this outcome. Process satisfaction, on the other hand, is more concerned with the perceived quality of decision making. According to this perspective, what matters is that participants find that their concerns are given due consideration. When people find the decision making to be fair and balanced, they may even accept not getting their preferred outcome. The relative importance of these two perspectives remains disputed in the literature.

The research design consisted of two surveys administered to the users of Avoin Ministeriö before and after the decision of the Finnish Parliament on the first citizens’ initiative in concerning a ban on the fur-farming industry in Finland. This allowed us to observe how involvement in the crowdsourcing process shaped developments in central political attitudes among the users of Avoin Ministeriö and what factors determined the developments in subjective political legitimacy. The first survey was conducted in fall 2012, when the initiators were gathering signatures in support of the initiative to ban fur-farming, while the second survey was conducted in summer 2013 when Parliament rejected the initiative. Altogether 421 persons filled in both surveys, and thus comprised the sample for the analyses.

The study yielded a number of interesting findings. First of all, those who were dissatisfied with Parliament rejecting the initiative experienced a significantly more negative development in political trust compared to those who did not explicitly support the initiative. This shows that the crowdsourcing process had a negative impact on political legitimacy among the initiative’s supporters, which is in line with previous contributions emphasizing the importance of outcome legitimacy. It is worth noting that this also affected trust in the Finnish President, even if he has no formal powers in relation to the Citizens’ initiative in Finland. This shows that negative effects on political legitimacy could be more severe than just a temporary dissatisfaction with the political actors responsible for the decision.

Nevertheless, the outcome may not be the most important factor for determining developments in political legitimacy. Our second major finding indicated that those who were dissatisfied with the way Parliament handled the initiative also experienced more negative developments in political legitimacy compared to those who were satisfied. Furthermore, this effect was more pervasive than the effect for outcome satisfaction. This implies that the procedures for handling non-binding initiatives may play a strong role in citizens’ perceptions of representative institutions, which is in line with previous findings emphasising the importance of procedural aspects and evaluations for judging political authorities.

We conclude that there is a beneficial impact on political legitimacy if crowdsourced citizens’ initiatives have broad appeal so they can be passed in Parliament. However, it is important to note that positive effects on political legitimacy do not hinge on Parliament approving citizens’ initiatives. If the MPs invest time and resources in the careful, transparent and publicly justified handling of initiatives, possible negative effects of rejecting initiatives can be diminished. Citizens and activists may accept an unfavourable decision if the procedure by which it was reached seems fair and just. Finally, the results give reason to be hopeful about the role of crowdsourcing in restoring political legitimacy, since a majority of our respondents felt that the possibility of crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives clearly improved Finnish democracy.

While all hopes may not have been fulfilled so far, crowdsourcing legislation therefore still has potential to help rebuild political legitimacy.

Read the full article: Christensen, H., Karjalainen, M., and Nurminen, L., (2015) Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland. Policy and Internet 7 (1) 25–45.

Henrik Serup Christensen is Academy Research Fellow at SAMFORSK, Åbo Akademi University.

Maija Karjalainen is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Contemporary History in the University of Turku, Finland.

Laura Nurminen is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at Helsinki University, Finland.

Do Finland’s digitally crowdsourced laws show a way to resolve democracy’s “legitimacy crisis”?

There is much discussion about a perceived “legitimacy crisis” in democracy. In his article The Rise of the Mediating Citizen: Time, Space, and Citizenship in the Crowdsourcing of Finnish Legislation, Taneli Heikka (University of Jyväskylä) discusses the digitally crowdsourced law for same-sex marriage that was passed in Finland in 2014, analysing how the campaign used new digital tools and created practices that affect democratic citizenship and power making.

Ed: There is much discussion about a perceived “legitimacy crisis” in democracy. For example, less than half of the Finnish electorate under 40 choose to vote. In your article you argue that Finland’s 2012 Citizens’ Initiative Act aimed to address this problem by allowing for the crowdsourcing of ideas for new legislation. How common is this idea? (And indeed, how successful?)

Taneli: The idea that digital participation could counter the “legitimacy crisis” is a fairly common one. Digital utopians have nurtured that idea from the early years of the internet, and have often been disappointed. A couple of things stand out in the Finnish experiment that make it worth a closer look.

First, the digital crowdsourcing system with strong digital identification is a reliable and potentially viral campaigning tool. Most civic initiative systems I have encountered rely on manual or otherwise cumbersome, and less reliable, signature collection methods.

Second, in the Finnish model, initiatives that break the threshold of 50,000 names must be treated in the Parliament equally to an initiative from a group of MPs. This gives the initiative constitutional and political weight.

Ed: The Act led to the passage of Finland’s first equal marriage law in 2014. In this case, online platforms were created for collecting signatures as well as drafting legislation. An NGO created a well-used platform, but it subsequently had to shut it down because it couldn’t afford the electronic signature system. Crowds are great, but not a silver bullet if something as prosaic as authentication is impossible. Where should the balance lie between NGOs and centrally funded services, i.e. government?

Taneli: The crucial thing in the success of a civic initiative system is whether it gives the people real power. This question is decided by the legal framework and constitutional basis of the initiative system. So, governments have a very important role in this early stage – designing a law for truly effective citizen initiatives.

When a framework for power-making is in place, service providers will emerge. Should the providers be public, private or third sector entities? I think that is defined by local political culture and history.

In the United States, the civic technology field is heavily funded by philanthropic foundations. There is an urge to make these tools commercially viable, though no one seems to have figured out the business model. In Europe there’s less philanthropic money, and in my experience experiments are more often government funded.

Both models have their pros and cons, but I’d like to see the two continents learning more from each other. American digital civic activists tell me enviously that the radically empowering Finnish model with a government-run service for crowdsourcing for law would be impossible in the US. In Europe, civic technologists say they wish they had the big foundations that Americans have.

Ed: But realistically, how useful is the input of non-lawyers in (technical) legislation drafting? And is there a critical threshold of people necessary to draft legislation?

Taneli: I believe that input is valuable from anyone who cares to invest some time in learning an issue. That said, having lawyers in the campaign team really helps. Writing legislation is a special skill. It’s a pity that the co-creation features in Finland’s Open Ministry website were shut down due to a lack of funding. In that model, help from lawyers could have been made more accessible for all campaign teams.

In terms of numbers, I don’t think the size of the group is an issue either way. A small group of skilled and committed people can do a lot in the drafting phase.

Ed: But can the drafting process become rather burdensome for contributors, given professional legislators will likely heavily rework, or even scrap, the text?

Taneli: Professional legislators will most likely rework the draft, and that is exactly what they are supposed to do. Initiating an idea, working on a draft, and collecting support for it are just phases in a complex process that continues in the parliament after the threshold of 50,000 signatures is reached. A well-written draft will make the legislators’ job easier, but it won’t replace them.

Ed: Do you think there’s a danger that crowdsourcing legislation might just end up reflecting the societal concerns of the web-savvy – or of campaigning and lobbying groups

Taneli: That’s certainly a risk, but so far there is little evidence of it happening. The only initiative passed so far in Finland – the Equal Marriage Act – was supported by the majority of Finns and by the majority of political parties, too. The initiative system was used to bypass a political gridlock. The handful of initiatives that have reached the 50,000 signatures threshold and entered parliamentary proceedings represent a healthy variety of issues in the fields of education, crime and punishment, and health care. Most initiatives seem to echo the viewpoint of the ‘ordinary people’ instead of lobbies or traditional political and business interest groups.

Ed: You state in your article that the real-time nature of digital crowdsourcing appeals to a generation that likes and dislikes quickly; a generation that inhabits “the space of flows”. Is this a potential source of instability or chaos? And how can this rapid turnover of attention be harnessed efficiently so as to usefully contribute to a stable and democratic society?

Taneli: The Citizens’ Initiative Act in Finland is one fairly successful model to look at in terms of balancing stability and disruptive change. It is a radical law in its potential to empower the individual and affect real power-making. But it is by no means a shortcut to ‘legislation by a digital mob’, or anything of that sort. While the digital campaigning phase can be an explosive expression of the power of the people in the ‘time and space of flows’, the elected representatives retain the final say. Passing a law is still a tedious process, and often for good reasons.

Ed: You also write about the emergence of the “mediating citizen” – what do you mean by this?

Taneli: The starting point for developing the idea of the mediating citizen is Lance Bennett’s AC/DC theory, i.e. the dichotomy of the actualising and the dutiful citizen. The dutiful citizen is the traditional form of democratic citizenship – it values voting, following the mass media, and political parties. The actualising citizen, on the other hand, finds voting and parties less appealing, and prefers more flexible and individualised forms of political action, such as ad hoc campaigns and the use of interactive technology.

I find these models accurate but was not able to place in this duality the emerging typologies of civic action I observed in the Finnish case. What we see is understanding and respect for parliamentary institutions and their power, but also strong faith in one’s skills and capability to improve the system in creative, technologically savvy ways. I used the concept of the mediating citizen to describe an actor who is able to move between the previous typologies, mediating between them. In the Finnish example, creative tools were developed to feed initiatives in the traditional power-making system of the parliament.

Ed: Do you think Finland’s Citizens Initiative Act is a model for other governments to follow when addressing concerns about “democratic legitimacy”?

Taneli: It is an interesting model to look at. But unfortunately the ‘legitimacy crisis’ is probably too complex a problem to be solved by a single participation tool. What I’d really like to see is a wave of experimentation, both on-line and off-line, as well as cross-border learning from each other. And is that not what happened when the representative model spread, too?

Read the full article: Heikka, T., (2015) The Rise of the Mediating Citizen: Time, Space, and Citizenship in the Crowdsourcing of Finnish Legislation. Policy and Internet 7 (3) 268–291.

Taneli Heikka is a journalist, author, entrepreneur, and PhD student based in Washington.

Taneli Heikka was talking to Blog Editor Pamina Smith.

Can text mining help handle the data deluge in public policy analysis?

Policy makers today must contend with two inescapable phenomena. On the one hand, there has been a major shift in the policies of governments concerning participatory governance – that is, engaged, collaborative, and community-focused public policy. At the same time, a significant proportion of government activities have now moved online, bringing about “a change to the whole information environment within which government operates” (Margetts 2009, 6).

Indeed, the Internet has become the main medium of interaction between government and citizens, and numerous websites offer opportunities for online democratic participation. The Hansard Society, for instance, regularly runs e-consultations on behalf of UK parliamentary select committees. For examples, e-consultations have been run on the Climate Change Bill (2007), the Human Tissue and Embryo Bill (2007), and on domestic violence and forced marriage (2008). Councils and boroughs also regularly invite citizens to take part in online consultations on issues affecting their area. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, recently asked its residents for thier views on Sex Entertainment Venues and Sex Establishment Licensing policy.

However, citizen participation poses certain challenges for the design and analysis of public policy. In particular, governments and organizations must demonstrate that all opinions expressed through participatory exercises have been duly considered and carefully weighted before decisions are reached. One method for partly automating the interpretation of large quantities of online content typically produced by public consultations is text mining. Software products currently available range from those primarily used in qualitative research (integrating functions like tagging, indexing, and classification), to those integrating more quantitative and statistical tools, such as word frequency and cluster analysis (more information on text mining tools can be found at the National Centre for Text Mining).

While these methods have certainly attracted criticism and skepticism in terms of the interpretability of the output, they offer four important advantages for the analyst: namely categorization, data reduction, visualization, and speed.

1. Categorization. When analyzing the results of consultation exercises, analysts and policymakers must make sense of the high volume of disparate responses they receive; text mining supports the structuring of large amounts of this qualitative, discursive data into predefined or naturally occurring categories by storage and retrieval of sentence segments, indexing, and cross-referencing. Analysis of sentence segments from respondents with similar demographics (eg age) or opinions can itself be valuable, for example in the construction of descriptive typologies of respondents.

2. Data Reduction. Data reduction techniques include stemming (reduction of a word to its root form), combining of synonyms, and removal of non-informative “tool” or stop words. Hierarchical classifications, cluster analysis, and correspondence analysis methods allow the further reduction of texts to their structural components, highlighting the distinctive points of view associated with particular groups of respondents.

3. Visualization. Important points and interrelationships are easy to miss when read by eye, and rapid generation of visual overviews of responses (eg dendrograms, 3D scatter plots, heat maps, etc.) make large and complex datasets easier to comprehend in terms of identifying the main points of view and dimensions of a public debate.

4. Speed. Speed depends on whether a special dictionary or vocabulary needs to be compiled for the analysis, and on the amount of coding required. Coding is usually relatively fast and straightforward, and the succinct overview of responses provided by these methods can reduce the time for consultation responses.

Despite the above advantages of automated approaches to consultation analysis, text mining methods present several limitations. Automatic classification of responses runs the risk of missing or miscategorising distinctive or marginal points of view if sentence segments are too short, or if they rely on a rare vocabulary. Stemming can also generate problems if important semantic variations are overlooked (eg lumping together ‘ill+ness’, ‘ill+defined’, and ‘ill+ustration’). Other issues applicable to public e-consultation analysis include the danger that analysts distance themselves from the data, especially when converting words to numbers. This is quite apart from the issues of inter-coder reliability and data preparation, missing data, and insensitivity to figurative language, meaning and context, which can also result in misclassification when not human-verified.

However, when responding to criticisms of specific tools, we need to remember that different text mining methods are complementary, not mutually exclusive. A single solution to the analysis of qualitative or quantitative data would be very unlikely; and at the very least, exploratory techniques provide a useful first step that could be followed by a theory-testing model, or by triangulation exercises to confirm results obtained by other methods.

Apart from these technical issues, policy makers and analysts employing text mining methods for e-consultation analysis must also consider certain ethical issues in addition to those of informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality. First (of relevance to academics), respondents may not expect to end up as research subjects. They may simply be expecting to participate in a general consultation exercise, interacting exclusively with public officials and not indirectly with an analyst post hoc; much less ending up as a specific, traceable data point.

This has been a particularly delicate issue for healthcare professionals. Sharf (1999, 247) describes various negative experiences of following up online postings: one woman, on being contacted by a researcher seeking consent to gain insights from breast cancer patients about their personal experiences, accused the researcher of behaving voyeuristically and “taking advantage of people in distress.” Statistical interpretation of responses also presents its own issues, particularly if analyses are to be returned or made accessible to respondents.

Respondents might also be confused about or disagree with text mining as a method applied to their answers; indeed, it could be perceived as dehumanizing – reducing personal opinions and arguments to statistical data points. In a public consultation, respondents might feel somewhat betrayed that their views and opinions eventually result in just a dot on a correspondence analysis with no immediate, apparent meaning or import, at least in lay terms. Obviously the consultation organizer needs to outline clearly and precisely how qualitative responses can be collated into a quantifiable account of a sample population’s views.

This is an important point; in order to reduce both technical and ethical risks, researchers should ensure that their methodology combines both qualitative and quantitative analyses. While many text mining techniques provide useful statistical output, the UK Government’s prescribed Code of Practice on public consultation is quite explicit on the topic: “The focus should be on the evidence given by consultees to back up their arguments. Analyzing consultation responses is primarily a qualitative rather than a quantitative exercise” (2008, 12). This suggests that the perennial debate between quantitative and qualitative methodologists needs to be updated and better resolved.


Margetts, H. 2009. “The Internet and Public Policy.” Policy & Internet 1 (1).

Sharf, B. 1999. “Beyond Netiquette: The Ethics of Doing Naturalistic Discourse Research on the Internet.” In Doing Internet Research, ed. S. Jones, London: Sage.

Read the full paper: Bicquelet, A., and Weale, A. (2011) Coping with the Cornucopia: Can Text Mining Help Handle the Data Deluge in Public Policy Analysis? Policy & Internet 3 (4).

Dr Aude Bicquelet is a Fellow in LSE’s Department of Methodology. Her main research interests include computer-assisted analysis, Text Mining methods, comparative politics and public policy. She has published a number of journal articles in these areas and is the author of a forthcoming book, “Textual Analysis” (Sage Benchmarks in Social Research Methods, in press).

Who represents the Arab world online?

Editors from all over the world have played some part in writing about Egypt; in fact, only 13% of all edits actually originate in the country (38% are from the US). More: Who edits Wikipedia? by Mark Graham.

Ed: In basic terms, what patterns of ‘information geography’ are you seeing in the region?

Mark: The first pattern that we see is that the Middle East and North Africa are relatively under-represented in Wikipedia. Even after accounting for factors like population, Internet access, and literacy, we still see less contact than would be expected. Second, of the content that exists, a lot of it is in European and French rather than in Arabic (or Farsi or Hebrew). In other words, there is even less in local languages.

And finally, if we look at contributions (or edits), not only do we also see a relatively small number of edits originating in the region, but many of those edits are being used to write about other parts of the word rather than their own region. What this broadly seems to suggest is that the participatory potentials of Wikipedia aren’t yet being harnessed in order to even out the differences between the world’s informational cores and peripheries.

Ed: How closely do these online patterns in representation correlate with regional (offline) patterns in income, education, language, access to technology (etc.) Can you map one to the other?

Mark: Population and broadband availability alone explain a lot of the variance that we see. Other factors like income and education also play a role, but it is population and broadband that have the greatest explanatory power here. Interestingly, it is most countries in the MENA region that fail to fit well to those predictors.

Ed: How much do you think these patterns result from the systematic imposition of a particular view point – such as official editorial policies – as opposed to the (emergent) outcome of lots of users and editors acting independently?

Mark: Particular modes of governance in Wikipedia likely do play a factor here. The Arabic Wikipedia, for instance, to combat vandalism has a feature whereby changes to articles need to be reviewed before being made public. This alone seems to put off some potential contributors. Guidelines around sourcing in places where there are few secondary sources also likely play a role.

Ed: How much discussion (in the region) is there around this issue? Is this even acknowledged as a fact or problem?

Mark: I think it certainly is recognised as an issue now. But there are few viable alternatives to Wikipedia. Our goal is hopefully to identify problems that lead to solutions, rather than simply discouraging people from even using the platform.

Ed: This work has been covered by the Guardian, Wired, the Huffington Post (etc.) How much interest has there been from the non-Western press or bloggers in the region?

Mark: There has been a lot of coverage from the non-Western press, particularly in Latin America and Asia. However, I haven’t actually seen that much coverage from the MENA region.

Ed: As an academic, do you feel at all personally invested in this, or do you see your role to be simply about the objective documentation and analysis of these patterns?

Mark: I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘objective documentation.’ All research has particular effects in and on the world, and I think it is important to be aware of the debates, processes, and practices surrounding any research project. Personally, I think Wikipedia is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. No previous single platform or repository of knowledge has ever even come close to Wikipedia in terms of its scale or reach. However, that is all the more reason to critically investigate what exactly is, and isn’t, contained within this fantastic resource. By revealing some of the biases and imbalances in Wikipedia, I hope that we’re doing our bit to improving it.

Ed: What factors do you think would lead to greater representation in the region? For example: is this a matter of voices being actively (or indirectly) excluded, or are they maybe just not all that bothered?

Mark: This is certainly a complicated question. I think the most important step would be to encourage participation from the region, rather than just representation of the region. Some of this involves increasing some of the enabling factors that are the prerequisites for participation; factors like: increasing broadband access, increasing literacy, encouraging more participation from women and minority groups.

Some of it is then changing perceptions around Wikipedia. For instance, many people that we spoke to in the region framed Wikipedia as an American our outside project rather than something that is locally created. Unfortunately we seem to be currently stuck in a vicious cycle in which few people from the region participate, therefore fulfilling the very reason why some people think that they shouldn’t participate. There is also the issue of sources. Not only does Wikipedia require all assertions to be properly sourced, but secondary sources themselves can be a great source of raw informational material for Wikipedia articles. However, if few sources about a place exist, then it adds an additional burden to creating content about that place. Again, a vicious cycle of geographic representation.

My hope is that by both working on some of the necessary conditions to participation, and engaging in a diverse range of initiatives to encourage content generation, we can start to break out of some of these vicious cycles.

Ed: The final moonshot question: How would you like to extend this work; time and money being no object?

Mark: Ideally, I’d like us to better understand the geographies of representation and participation outside of just the MENA region. This would involve mixed-methods (large scale big data approaches combined with in-depth qualitative studies) work focusing on multiple parts of the world. More broadly, I’m trying to build a research program that maintains a focus on a wide range of Internet and information geographies. The goal here is to understand participation and representation through a diverse range of online and offline platforms and practices and to share that work through a range of publicly accessible media: for instance the ‘Atlas of the Internet’ that we’re putting together.

Mark Graham was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Mark Graham is a Senior Research Fellow at the OII. His research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development.

Chinese Internet users share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts

Free Internet in Shanghai airport
There are now over half a billion Internet users in China, part of a shift in the centre of gravity of Internet use away from the US and Europe. Image of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai, by ToGa Wanderings.

Ed: You recently presented your results at the OII’s China and the New Internet World ICA preconference. What were people most interested in?

Gillian: A lot of people were interested in our finding that China was such a big online shopping market compared to other countries, with 60% of our survey respondents reporting that they make an online purchase at least weekly. That’s twice the world’s average. A lot of people who study the Chinese Internet talk about governance issues rather than commerce, but the fact that there is this massive investment in ecommerce in China and a rapid transition to a middle class lifestyle for such a large number of Chinese means that Chinese consumer behaviours will have a significant impact on global issues such as resource scarcity, global warming, and the global economy.

Others were interested in our findings concerning Internet use in ’emerging’ Internet countries like China. The Internet’s development in Western Europe and the US was driven by people who saw the technology as a platform for freedom of expression and peer-to-peer applications. In China, you see this optimism but you also see that a lot of people coming online move straight to smart phones and other locked-down technologies like the iPad, which you can only interact with in a certain way. Eighty-six percent of our Chinese respondents reported that they owned a smart phone, which was the highest percentage of all of the 24 countries we examined individually. A lot of these people are using those devices to play games and watch movies, which is a very different initial exposure to the Internet than we saw in early adopting Western countries.

Ed: So, a lot of significant differences between usages in emerging versus established Internet nations. Any similarities?

Gillian: In general, we find that uses are different but values are similar. People in emerging nations share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts. These are values that were embedded in the Internet’s creation and that have spread with it to other countries, regardless of national policy rhetorics. Many people – even in China – see the Internet as a tool for free speech and as a place where you can expect a certain degree of privacy and anonymity.

Ed: But isn’t there a disconnect between the fact that people are using more closed technologies as they are coming online and yet are sharing the same values of freedom associated with the Internet?

Gillian: There’s a difference between uses and values. People in emerging countries produce more content, they’re more sociable online, they listen to more music. But the way that people express their values doesn’t always match what they actually do. There is no correlation between whether someone approves of government censorship and their concern of being personally censored. There’s also no correlation in China between the frequency with which people post political opinions online and a worry that their online comments will be censored.

Ed: It seems that there are a few really interesting results in your study that run counter to accepted wisdom about the Internet. Were you surprised by any of the results?

Gillian: I was, particularly, surprised by the high levels of political commentary in emerging nations. We know that levels of online political expression in the West are very low (around 15%). But 40% of respondents in the emerging nations we surveyed reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly. That’s a huge difference. Even China, which we expected to have lower levels of political expression than the general average, followed a similar pattern. We didn’t see any chilling effect – i.e. any reduction of the frequency of posting of political opinions among Chinese users.

This matches other studies of the Chinese Internet that have concluded that there is very little censorship of people expressing themselves online – that censorship only really happens when people start to organise others. However, I was surprised by the extent of the difference: 18% of users in the US and UK reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly, 13 percent in France, and 3 percent in Japan; but 32% of Chinese, 51% of Brazilians, 50% of Indians, and 64% of Egyptians reported posting online at least weekly. This shows that these conclusions we have drawn about low levels of online political participation based on studies of Western Internet users are likely not applicable to users in other countries.

Of course, we have to remember that this is an online survey and so our results only reflect what Internet users report their activities and attitudes to be. However, the incentive to over-report activities is probably about the same for the US and for China. The thing that may be different in different countries is what people interpret as a political comment. Many more types of comments in China might be seen as political since the government controls so much more. A comment about the price of food might be seen as political speech in China, for example, since the government controls food prices, whereas a similar comment may not be seen as political by US respondents.

Ed: This research is interesting because it calls into question some fundamental assumptions about the Internet. What did you take away from the project?

Gillian: A lot of scholarship on the Internet is presented as applicable to the whole world, but isn’t actually applicable everywhere. The best example here is the very low percentage of people participating in the political process in the West, which needs to be re-evaluated with these findings. It shows that we need to be much more specific in Internet research about the unit of analysis, and what it applies to. However, we also found that Internet values are similar across the world. I think this shows that discourses about the Internet as a place for free expression and privacy are distributed hand-in-hand with the technology. Although Western users are declining as an overall percentage of the world’s Internet population, these founding rhetorics remain powerfully associated with the technology.

Read the full paper: Bolsover, G., Dutton, W.H., Law, G. and Dutta, S. (2013) Social Foundations of the Internet in China and the New Internet World: A Cross-National Comparative Perspective. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

Gillian was talking to blog editor Heather Ford.

Online crowd-sourcing of scientific data could document the worldwide loss of glaciers to climate change

Ed: Project Pressure has created a platform for crowdsourcing glacier imagery, often photographs taken by climbers and trekkers. Why are scientists interested in these images? And what’s the scientific value of the data set that’s being gathered by the platform?

Klaus: Comparative photography using historical photography allows year-on-year comparisons to document glacier change. The platform aims to create long-lasting scientific value with minimal technical entry barriers — it is valuable to have a global resource that combines photographs generated by Project Pressure in less documented areas, with crowdsourced images taken by for example by climbers and trekkers, combined with archival pictures. The platform is future focused and will hopefully allow an up-to-date view on glaciers across the planet.

The other ways for scientists to monitor glaciers takes a lot of time and effort; direct measurements of snow fall is a complicated, resource intensive and time-consuming process. And while glacier outlines can be traced from satellite imagery, this still needs to be done manually. Also, you can’t measure the thickness, images can be obscured by debris and cloud cover, and some areas just don’t have very many satellite fly-bys.

Continue reading “Online crowd-sourcing of scientific data could document the worldwide loss of glaciers to climate change”

Last 2010 issue of Policy and Internet just published (2,4)

The last 2010 issue of Policy and Internet has just been published! We are pleased to present seven articles, all of which focus on a substantive public policy issue arising from widespread use of the Internet: online political advocacy and petitioning, nationalism and borders online, unintended consequences of the introduction of file-sharing legislation, and the implications of Internet voting and voting advice applications for democracy and political participation.

Links to the articles are included below. Happy reading!

Helen Margetts: Editorial

David Karpf: Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism

Elisabeth A. Jones and Joseph W. Janes: Anonymity in a World of Digital Books: Google Books, Privacy, and the Freedom to Read

Stefan Larsson and Måns Svensson: Compliance or Obscurity? Online Anonymity as a Consequence of Fighting Unauthorised File-sharing

Irina Shklovski and David M. Struthers: Of States and Borders on the Internet: The Role of Domain Name Extensions in Expressions of Nationalism Online in Kazakhstan

Andreas Jungherr and Pascal Jürgens: The Political Click: Political Participation through E-Petitions in Germany

Jan Fivaz and Giorgio Nadig: Impact of Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) on Voter Turnout and Their Potential Use for Civic Education

Anne-Marie Oostveen: Outsourcing Democracy: Losing Control of e-Voting in the Netherlands

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Campaigning in the 2010 UK General Election

The first day of the conference found an end in style with a well-received reception at Oxford’s fine Divinity Schools.

Day Two of the conference kicked off with panels on “Mobilisation and Agenda Setting”,“Virtual Goods” and “Comparative Campaigning”.  ICTlogy has been busy summarising some of the panels at the conference including this morning one’s with some interesting contributions on comparative campaigning.

The second round of panels included a number of scientific approaches to the role of the Internet for the recent UK election:

Gibson, Cantijoch and Ward in their analysis of the UK Elections drew attention to the fact that the 2010 UK General Election was dominated not by the Internet but by a very traditional media instead, namely the TV debates of party leaders. Importantly, they suggest to treat eParticipation as a multi-dimensional concept, ie. distinguish different forms of eParticipation with differing degrees of involvement, in fact in much the same way as we have come to treat traditional forms of participation.

Anstead and Jensen aimed to trace distinctions in election campaigning between the national and the local level. They have found evidence that online campaigns are both decentralized (little mention of national campaigns) and localised (emphasizing horizontal links with the community).

Lilleker and Jackson looked at how much party websites did encourage participation. They found that first and foremost, parties are about promoting their personnel and are rather cautious in engaging in any interactive communication. Most efforts were aimed at the campaign and not about getting input into policy. Even though there were more Web 2.0 features in use than in previous years, participation was low.

Sudulich and Wall were interested in the uptake of online campaigning (campaign website, Facebook profile) by election candidates. They take into account a range of factors including bookmakers odds for candidates but found little explanatory effects overall.

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Political Participation and Petitioning

This panel was one of three in the first round of panels and has been focusing on ePetitions. Two contributions from Germany and two contributions from the UK brought a useful comparative perspective to the debate. ePetitions are an interesting research object because not only is petitioning a rather popular political participation activity offline but also online. It is also one of the few eParticipation activities quite a number of governments have been implemented by now, namely the UK, Germany and Scotland.

Andreas Jungherr was providing a largely quantitative analysis of co-signature dynamics on the ePetitions website of the German Bundestag, providing some background on how many petitions attract a lot of signatures (only a few) and how many petitions a user signs (usually only one).

This provided a background for the summary of a comprehensive study on ePetitioning in the German parliament by Ralf Linder. He offered a somewhat downbeat assessment in that the online system has failed to engage traditionally underrepresented groups of society to petitioning even though it has had impacted on the public debate.

Giovanni Navarria was much harsher in his criticism of ePetitioning on the Downing Street sitebased on his analysis of the petition against the road tax. He concluded that the government was actually wrong in putting such a service onto its website as it had created unrealistic expectations a representative government could not meet.

In contrast Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos in his evaluation of local ePetitioning in the Royal Borough of Kingston made a case for petitions on the local level to have the potential to really enhance local government democracy. This is a finding that is particularly important in the light of the UK government mandating online petitioning for all local authorities in the UK.