Democracy and cyberspace

Democracy and cyberspace

You have often argued that the implementation of the White Paper ‘Open Source Vision – Nurturing the Proliferation of Open Source Software’, authored by the Malta Information Technology Agency, could be as important for the future of Malta and its role in the increasingly globalised world as independence or joining the EU. But you have almost always insisted on the economic significance of the proposal, while the best-known international advocates of the Open Source Movement lay just as much emphasis on its political significance from the point of view of democratic development. What weight do you give to this political aspect in the Maltese context in relation to the rapidly and radically changing Mediterranean setting?

There has not been any hullaballoo of voices either agreeing or disputing my contention. In fact, the hollow drum response to the path-breaking government policy document makes me suspect that there may not even be any widespread grasp of the significance of the Open Source Movement as such.

Indeed, it is perhaps even better known by another name: The Free Software Movement. I prefer the other name because as Richard Stallman put it: “free software is not like free beer”. The word ‘free’ before ‘software’ does not mean so much that you get it at no cost.

It rather refers to the right of users to manipulate and change the programmes on offer. In other words, anybody can use the supplied material in a personal, hopefully creative way.

The originators of the material are only concerned about ensuring that people further downstream can continue to use it similarly. A basic tenant of the movement is that the source code that allows one to understand and alter the software remains freely available to others as opposed to what usually happens with commercial packages.

This continued availability is ensured by different sorts of licensing agreements, such as GNU – acronym for ‘Gnu’s Not UNIX’. Such licenses are sometimes spoken of as ‘copyleft’ as opposed to ‘copyright’.

Therefore ‘free’ in this context means that a user can make the digital goods he juggles with his own, either by inputting into them elements originating from his own mind, or by participating in their production in a community effort.

It is easy to see why this mode of production deserves to be called in a special way ‘democratic’. The way is special because it is unlike the usual way of characterising democracy in liberal theory by focusing on citizenship within a territorial framework.

Instead, the highlight is on active personal participation. This shift in what is regarded as essential is perhaps a salient mark that emerges when one starts thinking of democracy in relation to cyberspace.

How deeply do you think that technology conditions political possibilities?

The use of a particular technology can never to be seen as merely utilitarian. It affects human values and moral norms. Perhaps the most famous example of this truth is that given by Verbeek.

He has shown that the use of ultrasound technology tends to alter people’s perception of the nature of the unborn in the maternal womb and even of the moral attitude adopted with regard to its rights.

Information and communication technologies that put into practice the basic principles of participatory democracy in the way in which Open Source software and similar digital goods do are almost certainly the most efficient educators for democratic life outside cyberspace as well as within it.

In reality, there are deep analogies between cyberspace and such other extra-territorial spaces as outer space, ocean space and the icy space of Antarctica, all of which have been deemed to be Common Heritage of Humankind.

Cyberspace has less similarities with the land territories, the boundaries between which have been conventionally used for the definitions of sovereignty and citizenship. Its democratic governance should be inspired more by the international law applicable to the extra-territorial than to the territorial spaces.

Elizabeth Mann Borgese used to argue that the regime Malta had proposed for Ocean Space was likely to serve as a laboratory-model for later application on land. Modes of governance can be established in rational fashion for cyberspace more easily – it is still largely a legal vacuum – than elsewhere, where vested interests abound.

Hopefully Malta, the island that produced the legal minds who were able to develop the concepts of the Common Heritage of Humankind, should be able to contribute to the transformation of the concept of intellectual property.

This change is necessary for the Open Source Movement to prevail over the late capitalists’ economic monsters who will otherwise dominate and negate the splendid prospects otherwise offered by the Electronic Revolution.

Can you specify more concretely in what ways we should be using ICT to enhance democracy and whether it could be possible to use these ways to facilitate the adoption of genuine democracy in countries that may be just acceding to it?

A first example would be using technology modeled on that used by Wikipedia (by which articles get progressively improved by the additions/modifications of users) to enable the public to follow and participate in the drafting of legislation.

Secondly, the voting system used by Wikipedia, which is the so-called Schulze method, would yield fairer results if adapted for our political elections. There is no reason why such technologies should not be used by even the most infant of democracies.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.

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