Jake Gordon

Does the Internet provide the basis for a public sphere that approximates to Habermas' vision?

Introductory Note: This essay is available online, and this is the preferred medium for its reading. However, the URL of the essay has not been included due to university regulations which require essays to be submitted anonymously and on paper. Whilst I fully understand the reasoning behind this choice, I strongly encourage the university to review this issue. Should the reader wish to enact criticism and control vis-a-vis the ruling class (in this case, the university) in order to bypass this regulation, they may view this essay online by searching Google for 'sociology essays nottingham'. The contents of this essay may be considered of general interest, and so by not providing this introductory note I would be implicating that the discussion herewith is purely academic.

Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary social theorist, born near Cologne in Germany in 1929, a member of the 'Frankfurt School' (Institute of Social Research), and still alive and active today in 2004 (see recent news about Habermas at news.google.com/news?q=habermas, for example his recent letter pleading for a South Korean dissident professor's release). One of his most important concepts is that of the 'public sphere':

"By the 'public sphere' we mean first of all the realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed... Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted frashion - that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions - about matters of general interest... The expression 'public opinion' refers to the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally practices... vis-a-vis a ruling class." (Habermas, 1964 quoted in Pusey, 1987: 89)

Habermas' public sphere should be seen as a Waberian ideal type. Specifically it is based upon his research into the bourgious class of the 18th Century in Great Britain, France and Germany. During this period he saw that normal people, rather than experts, engaged in rational critical debate about matters of public concern. There was an embryonic public sphere, with conditions which made ideal speech and public interests a possibility. This public sphere began to form first in Great Britain at the end of the 17th Century - the Licensing Act of 1695, which allowed newspapers to print without the Queen's censorship (although there were strict libel laws), is seen as a crucial enabler. In 'The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an inquiry into a category of Bourgious society' (1962, trans. 1989), Habermas writes at length about 18th Century bourgiouse life, describing in great detail the characteristics of his ideal type, the public sphere.

But in the 19th Century the characteristics of bourgious life changed, and so the public sphere declined. There was a refeudalization in which media became commercialized, the state took control of the private world (for example, children in education) and experts formed bureaucracies, cutting out normal people from public decision-making. In more recent years, it is argued, the public sphere has declined yet further with the aid of one-to-many mass media, such as television and tabloid newspapers. The result is a bourgeoise which leaves matters of public concern to 'experts' such as politicians.

Often, new technologies have brought discussion of their mobilizing power. The 18th Century bourgeiose were aided by newspapers which required movable type, invented by Gutenberg in 1438, together with incremental developments to reduce the cost of production. The electric telegraph invented by Morse in 1837 and the telephone by Bell in 1876 enabled people to talk at long distance, again accompanied by incremental developments such as automatic switch boards to decrease costs and improve quality. The radio, invented by Marconi in 1895, perhaps brought with it the most speculation of its democratizing power. A technology which enabled anyone to broadcast a signal to anyone else. But, in Britain, the Sound Broadcasting Act of 1972 put to rest any hopes of radio as an emancipating many-to-many medium by licensing the radio spectrum to commercial bodies such as the BBC, and criminalizing the production of 'pirate' radio stations. Baird's television of 1923 followed similar lines as the radio, requiring expensive licenses to transmit broadcasts legally. (information from thewayitworks.co.uk/timeline.html)

Of course radio and television spectrums are not infinite, and so an authority to control their use is a non-brainer - without one, different producers would broadcast at the same wavelengths and hence the signals would interfere with each other. Enter the Internet, not confined by a physical constant such as frequency bandwidth, but by an arbitrary addressing system which we are free to modify and expand to infinite length.

Habermas' ideal type of the public sphere is characterized by an ideal speech situation. Robert Alexy developed rules for the ideal speech discourse based upon Habermas' work, of which the third rule states:

3.1 Every subject capable of speech and action may take part in discourses
3.2 (a) Everyone may challenge any assertion
3.2 (b) Everyone may introduce any assertion into the discourse
3.2 (c) Everyone may express his/her attitudes, wishes and needs
3.3 No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his/her rights under 3.1 and 3.2
(Diskursethik, 1983: 99, quoted from openpolitics.com)

The physically limited bandwidth used by radio and television signals means that ideal speech and a public sphere is impossible using those mediums alone as there is not enough bandwidth to 'allow every subject capable of speech and action to take part in discussion'. Medium such as radio and television are known as 'one-to-many' or 'few-to-many' - meaning that there is only one (or few) transmitters, and many receivers of each transmission. Because the Internet's bandwidth is not limited by a physical constants such as frequencies and wavelength, the Internet has the capacity to be a many-to-many medium - there is technically room for everyone to be a producer.

To find a radio station, a radio receiver must be tuned into the correct frequency. To find an Internet address (such as a website or email address) is more complicated, and controlled by arbitrary protocols. Your computer, the client, must know where to find the host computer. The host computer itself does not broadcast a signal for you to tune into. The Domain Name System (DNS) does the finding for you and makes the connection. The address you provide, for example www.website.com, is sent from your computer to a DNS server. That DNS server knows that you're looking for the service 'www' on the 'website' part of the 'com' top-level-domain. It aks around to a few other computers to find out what the Internet Protocal (IP) address of that computer is. When it knows this, it finds out who registered that IP address and then it asks another computer where exactly that IP address is. Finally, your computer knows which host computer to talk to and the host computer sends you the website you requested. The system works extremely well at present.

But IP addresses are limited to 4 billion using the current system, meaning that there can be a maximum of 4 billion computers with 'outside world' (as in publicly accessible, rather than accessible through an internal network) addresses. This may not sound like much of a problem now, but in the future it is quite likely that each individual will have one or more IP addresses, not just for desktop computers but for gadgets such as mobile phones, wrist watches, cars and a host of other items. Further, large organisations tend to horde IP addresses, making them scarce and more expensive for individuals to obtain. But, because the system is man-made, it can easily be changed to accommodate for more IP addresses - indeed, a new version of the IP protocol is currently being proposed to enable billions of times more IP addresses than the current system allows. It will also hopefully make IP addresses extremely cheap.

The domain and IP system currently employed relies on a single authority for controling the root (that is, the very top level of the naming and numbering system). This authority is not-for-profit ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (icann.org. They assumed authority from the US Government in 1998 so as to create an independent entity, consisting of a coalition of Internet's business, technical, commerical and academic communities. Their names and numbers databases - scattered throughout the world so as to provide a redundancy-enabled system - tell computers which IP addresses belong to which entities, and who controls each domain. By creating zones, they delegate tasks to other organisations - for example, the .com and .net domains are under the sole control of a company called Verisgn (verisign.com), and UK domains that end .uk ar under the control of Nominet (nic.uk).

So what have these technicalities got to do with Habermas' public sphere then?! Actually, they're extremely important for a number of reasons. Importantly, for Habermas' public sphere to be approxmiated, the Internet should provide a many-to-many medium which is accessible to all 'normal' people so that they can discuss matters of public concern in an "unrestricted fashion", with "guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions" (Habermas, 1964 quoted in Pusey, 1987: 89)

For the domain name system to work, details are held on each domain owner in a database known as the WHOIS, a requirement made by ICANN. Anyone can query this database (for example at sunny.nic.com/cgi-bin/whois). On October 28 2003, over 50 NGOs wrote an open letter to ICANN voicing their concerns:

"...[F]or domain name registrars to compel registrants to disclose personal information, even information related to domain registration, poses dangers to freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet. Many domain name registrants--and particularly noncommercial users--do not wish to make public the information that they furnished to registrars. Some of them may have legitimate reasons to conceal their actual identities or to register domain names anonymously. For example, there are political, cultural, religious groups, media organizations, non-profit and public interest groups around the world that rely on anonymous access to the Internet to publish their messages. Anonymity may be critical to them in order to avoid persecution..." (http://www.thepublicvoice.org/news/whoisletter.html)

There are also privacy and freedom concerns based upon the topology of the Internet, which are partly a consequence of the naming and numbering system used by ICANN. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 "broadly expands law enforcement's surveillance and investigative powers and represents one of the most significant threats to civil liberties, privacy and democratic traditions" (EFF - eff.org/Privacy/Surveillance/Terrorism/PATRIOT/). The law effectively allows the US Government and agencies to spy on all Internet users, regardless of whether or not they're a suspedted terrorist. Similar laws give organisations such as the Recording Industry Association of Americ (RIAA) similar powers in order to combat copyright violation. In countries such as China and Cuba, the governments restrict their citizens' Internet access - blocking various websites and services. Users connect to the Internet through service providers (ISPs) which forward your traffic to the correct location using DNS. It is through this intermediary, the ISP, that organisations are most able to spy, often through subpoenaing files or, in the case of governments, installing 'sniffing' devices. Fig 1.1 shows how the current Internet topology works.

Fortunately, the Internet can theoretically be changed to remove, or at least reduce the powers of, ICANN and ISPs. The Internet is simply "an interconnected system of networks that connects computers around the world via the TCP/IP protocol" (dictionary.com definition by the American Heritage Dictionary). There is no rule that says the Internet must meet the above topology or use DNS, as governed by ICANN, in its current form. Indeed, emerging technologies bring hope of a more decentralised Internet which will enable computers to connect more easily to each other without the ISPs as intermediaries.

Wireless connections, combined with a bleeding-edge technology called 'mesh networking', enables a new network topology in which each individual 'node' (e.g. a computer), finds other nodes within its wireless range and talks to them directly, rather than through an ISP (Fig 1.2). In theory, this could make Internet connection charges non-existent and severely hinder any attempts at censoring or snooping on Internet traffic. The Wireless Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (WIANA - wiana.org is at the forefront of developing a DNS to work on this parasitic/symbiotic topology, whilst LocustWorld (locustworld.net is pioneering with low-cost hardware, particularly to enable communities to connect together using mesh. Indeed, there are many technical obstacles to overcome, but progress thus far is promising. It is highly likely that within five years these mesh networks will co-exist alongside the current Internet - the mesh networks providing local websites and services, whilst the larger Internet providing connections outside of the locality.

Coming back to our definition of the Internet, it is crucial to understand that the Internet is not a synonym for the world wide web. The web is only one service available. Instant messaging and peer-to-peer file sharing are two new recent uses of the Internet, and email lies at its foundations. One of the first Internet services available was Usenet, an archived discussion forum system which has been made more accessible through the Google Groups interface (groups.google.com). Although some group are censored, many are entirely free from authority, allowing true freedom of speech. For example, on the group aus.culture.true-blue, 'Tristan' wrote on the subejct of Habermas' public sphere:

"...The claim that the Internet can lead to a greater democratization of society is founded on tenets of unlimited access to information and equal participation in cultural discourse. But will this inundation of texts and voices lead to anarchic, rather than democratic, forms of communication?..." (2002, search google.groups for 'Internet Habermas public sphere')

Tristan's message (only a snippet above) was followed by 29 responses (so far - anyone can stll add one), ranging from "live with it, you arrogant neo-fascist" to well-structured arguments discussing free speech and Habermasian theory. Similarly, web-based discussion boards such as ninten.com bring together a community of people throughout the world to discuss issues ranging from 'strangest place u masturbated' (ninten.com/f/showthread.php?t=300) to 'freedom of speech' ( ninten.com/f/showthread.php?t=307).

Voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) is yet another Internet service which is an alternative to telephone calls over Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTNs). The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC, epic.org) is lobbying (epic.org/privacy/voip) to enable this specific technology to form part of the basis for a public sphere. VoIP enables free or cheap phone calls to anywhere in the world, and also allows for conferences calls with multiple people talking at the same time on the same 'line'. Also, and perhaps most importantly for the public sphere, because the voice is transmitted as digital packets of information, these packages can be encryped unlike traditional analogue phones, so as to severely disable the ability to snoop on calls. In the near future, video-over-internet-protocol will also explode, enabling video calls. These technologies should not be confused with video and sound streaming, which already enable thousands of Internet 'radio' and 'television' stations without the need to license expensive wavelengths.

What has been discussed is the technology behind the Internet and how this enables the public sphere through creating the conditions for ideal speech. However, no little space has been afforded to the liklihood of people actually using the Internet for this reason - rather than, for example, private interests. But for this discussion that issue is largely irrelevant - the question is simply if the Internet provides the basis for a public sphere, not whether it has or will actually create one.

Current technology powering the Internet enable it to be fairly decentralised and open, free from censorship and with the ability of anonymity. But new technologies can help create an even more decentralised, cheaper, anonymous and uncensored Internet. It is through these characteristics that the Internet can, indeed, at least provide the basis for a public sphere that approximates to Habermas' vision.

[2,985 words, written January 2004]

Bibliography & References

Calhoum, Craig ed. (1992) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge (US): MIT Press
Habermas, Jürgen (1962, trans. 1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois soiety, Cambridge: Polity
Pusey, Michael (1987) Jürgen Habermas: key sociologists, London: Routledge

Web resources:
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - http://www.eff.org/
10 wireless technologies worth watching - http://telephonyonline.com/ar/telecom_wireless_wireless_technologies/index.htm
Become a wireless ISP - http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/59/28972.html
Community wireless - http://www.communitywireless.org/
Dyke to open up BBC archives online - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/tv_and_radio/3177479.stm
Institut für Sozialforschung (Frankfurt School) - http://www.ifs.uni-frankfurt.de
Intel's Research - http://news.zdnet.co.uk/hardware/chips/0,39020354,2130825,00.htm
Internet usage per service - http://www.bigblueball.com/news2/article.asp?id=463
IPv4 and IPv6 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3211035.stm
Irish Internet use and the Public Sphere - http://www.models-research.ie/publications/art/01-5d.html
Knightsbridge community mesh network - http://www.kingsbridgelink.co.uk/
Letter to ICANN re. WHOIS (28 October 2003) - http://www.thepublicvoice.org/news/whoisletter.html
Mesh AP Hardware - http://www.locustworld.net/
Mesh standards are thin on the grounds - http://insight.zdnet.co.uk/communications/networks/0,39020427,2131750,00.htm
Openpolitics.com - http://www.openpolitics.com/
Rebel networks (mesh) - http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/newscientist/week06/article04.shtml
The Internet as a Public Sphere - http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/internet4.html
The Jürgen Habermas Web Resource (Michigan State University) - http://www.msu.edu/user/robins11/habermas/
Timeline of Inventions - http://www.thewayitworks.co.uk/timeline.html
WIANA.org - http://www.wiana.org/

Numerous individuals on the following usenet discussion groups: aus.culture.true-blue, aus.politics, misc.activism.progressive, alt.culture.usenet, talk.politics.theory, alt.cyberspace, alt.internet, soc.culture.german, talk.politics.misc, alt.politics.british, alt.politics.europe
by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved