The World Wide Web as Public Sphere and the Place of Privacy-1

Senior Research Fellow at Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, Prof. Daniel Drache has written widely on web 2.0 and the impact of social media on global publics. In an interview with Aradhana Sharma, he talks about the World Wide Web emerging as the new public sphere and the opportunities it provides to ordinary people despite the challenges and problems of privacy and surveillance.

The Indian Medialogue presents the interview in two parts. Below is the first part.

ARADHANA SHARMA:  How do you visualize the World Wide Web, an anarchic place or one with a set of rules?

DANIEL DRACHE: When people go on the web, four things are really significant:

  • there is no sign-in,
  • you don’t have to give a location,
  • it is point to point communication, and
  • most importantly, it is decentralized.

When you think about these four features, it seems odd that when (Tim) Berners- Lee invented it, in 1990, he did not copyright it; it was for everyone. This is still a puzzle to both, users and researchers. Why was it not copyrighted? Why don’t you pay every time you sign in? Yes, you have to buy services to it, but why is it that largely it is information common.

Tim_Berners-Lee

Berners- Lee, 2005 (Image courtesy: wikimedia.org)

But there are rules: rules against hate speech in Canada and other countries or terrorism or privacy rules for the user. We also see that if people steal things over the net and if caught, they are prosecuted. So there are these encroachments about this public domain, this information domain.

But what makes it unique? In 1993, 10 million people were on the web. In a very short period, today there are 1.4 billion. So, today the internet is a global phenomenon that has a broadcast model that is decentralised, point to point. No sign in. This makes it very different from any other communication platform in history.

ARADHANA: Can we say that today, the public sphere- in the Habermasian sense- has shifted to the web?

DRACHE: It has shifted to the web, of course. What is a public sphere? It is a place where strangers, people who do not know each other, come together for common concerns to redirect the state or put new issues on the public agenda. Historically, this had many venues- coffee shops in the 17th century, the printing press in the 19th century – and led to the emergence of a thing called public opinion. The beliefs, the ideas, and the values of individuals played a role. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in India used mass media very effectively. And certainly, the idea of a newspaper was to be a public domain for ideas and exchange.

Public domain has two parts. First, the discursive domain, where people go online. They talk, they debate, and they converse, and exchange (thoughts). So, this is a perfect public sphere. You do not know these people. Much of the web is used for chatting –nail polish colours, buying jeans, and so on- it hardly matters, right? The domain is for everyone. And it is a kind of signature for the public domain is that it is life without curtains. People have learnt, contrary to what your mother said, to not to talk to strangers – here you want to tell all. It is a very bizarre world… has torn down the wall between the public and the private world… it is all mixed up.

Privacy in a ‘curtains down’ environment

ARADHANA: What place does privacy have in a ‘curtains down’ environment?

DRACHE:  There are different kinds of privacy.

  • One is private information that you have given out and which you do not want corporations to use for profit.
  • The other issue of privacy is surveillance that the state apparatus is involved in. New technology gives the State huge, invasive powers to monitor, survey, map, and track and eavesdrop on users.

Every time people are on the cell phone, the internet, and Facebook, it is recorded. We know that government agencies and particularly dictatorships have used information as a form of social control, so, in that sense, it is the dark passenger of a place of freedom and liberty. So, of course, there is a problem here because it is very difficult to control the controllers. But, internet users have different strategies, some are engaged in copyright breaking like The Pirates Bay where you can get music and books and videos and films through sharing, so that is one strategy.

Drache 1

Prof. Daniel Drache during the interview

Sometimes users do not realise it but their usage of services like Google or Facebook results in firms making vast amounts of money. Paradoxically, firms have to pay attention to what users want. Different initiatives by Google and Facebook, which have met with consumer resistance, have had to be abandoned. But there is attention and it is constantly present, this line between what I call the Foucauldian dark side of network individualism and the Habermasian.

Not only a site of global conversation

ARADHANA: So is the World Wide Web much more than just a site of global conversation?

DRACHE: Yes. We think of the web — the internet, Facebook, Twitter etc. — as part of this conversation, the global conversation. But, this is only half the story. It is the innovative occupation of physical space by the protestors all over the world that has brought down dictatorships, as in the Arab Spring. In the Italian and Israeli elections, the traditional political class was denied victory with new players holding balance of power. So again, the impact of network activism was seen here. A new chapter is emerging – mobilisation through the internet. In India, during the protests that followed the Delhi Bus Rape (16 December 2013) or during the anti-corruption movement, we all of a sudden saw people on the streets.

So that is the big lesson of the last 15 years, in that there are these occupations- physical occupations of squares; of assembly points; large prominent public spaces like the Occupy Wall Street movement – in order to acquire a public voice. There is the intent and the capacity to speak publicly on issues. So this is something new.

In media studies there is this idea, even today, that public opinion is easily led and manipulated by big money and political leaders. I think this is just less so. People are not good followers. They have rage against their leaders and are looking for different outcomes, so they become autonomous actors.

(To be continued)

Prof Drache was in Delhi to present a paper at the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia on February 25-27, 2013.

Professor in Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada, Drache’s latest book Defiant Publics: the Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen (June 2008) examines the decline of authority and the new dynamics of power that has empowered global publics to become in-your-face against-the-grain social actors in a post 9/11 world.

Sharma is a PhD student with CCMG, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

This entry was published on August 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm. It’s filed under Communication Studies, Media Justice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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