Cyberdemocracy? Information and communication technologies in civil society consultations for sustainable development.

Author:Senit, Carole-Anne
Position:Case study

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly used to engage civil society in intergovernmental negotiations on sustainable development. They have emerged as a potential remedy to the democratic legitimacy deficit that pervades traditional mechanisms for civil society representation and, ultimately, intergovernmental policymaking. However, many observers have contested the benefits of ICT for democratization on both theoretical and empirical grounds. This article contributes to this debate by evaluating the democratic legitimacy of ICT in civil society consultations in intergovernmental policy, taking the numerous online dialogues of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 conference) as a case study. The article argues that, despite its promise, ICT reinforce rather than reverse embedded participatory inequalities in a global context, and fail to substantially increase transparency and accountability. This prevents, in turn, a meaningful participation of civil society in intergovernmental negotiations, thus indicating the limits of "cyberdemocracy." Keywords: ICT, civil society, sustainable development.


One of the main challenges facing global governance today is the growing democratic deficit of the intergovernmental policymaking system. (1) The lack of responsiveness of intergovernmental norms and policies to collective concerns and preferences as well as the lack of accountability of intergovernmental organizations and institutions are generating a crisis of legitimacy. (2) Resolving this crisis requires, among other things, the development of institutional mechanisms that allow citizens to participate in a meaningful way in the creation and implementation of global norms and policies. (3)

One widely cited example of such novel institutional mechanisms for global participatory governance is the creation of nine overarching categories, (4) called "Major Groups," in the context of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro. Through these new categories, "all concerned citizens" were envisioned to be able to participate in the UN activities in the field of sustainable development. (5) The Major Groups are based on organizing partners who act as facilitators between their constituencies and intergovernmental processes. Twenty years after its in ception, however, the system of Major Groups raises doubts about its capacity to offer all concerned citizens direct access to global norm production. (6)

As a consequence, researchers and practitioners have provided numerous reform proposals for further democratizing intergovernmental policymaking outside the Major Groups system. While some proposals--such as the increasing use of qualified majority voting in the UN (7)--are mainly state centered, others give a stronger institutionalized role to civil society (i.e., the organizations, movements, and citizens who are engaged in negotiations and debates about the character of the rules with governments and international organizations). (8)

In particular, a number of proposals advocate the establishment of separate decisionmaking or consultative bodies in intergovernmental institutions such as an international forum of civil society within the UN, (9) a UN parliamentary assembly, (10) or a deliberative global citizens' assembly. (11) However, it is unlikely that these proposals will materialize in the foreseeable future as they lack support, particularly from most larger countries, at present. (12)

In this context, information and communication technologies (ICT) may offer a promise to overcome these constraints by providing alternative ways of direct participation. The Internet, in particular, appears to be an ideal channel to provide civil society with direct access to intergovernmental policymaking, given its character as a low-cost horizontal means of communication that transcends barriers of space and time.

And yet it remains an open question as to whether the Internet can indeed contribute to improving the democratic character of intergovernmental policymaking through the development of inclusive, transparent, and accountable channels for civil society participation. The existing scholarly work on the use of the Internet at local, national, and regional levels of governance shows a mixed picture. On the one hand, "cyberoptimists" argue that this technology can facilitate and even broaden the public participation that was lacking in twentieth-century representative democracies. Internet-based participation is supposed, in this view, to promote political knowledge, cultivate citizenship, and produce more equitable and impartial policy outcomes, which in turn deepen democracy. (13) On the other hand, "cyberrealists" doubt the relevance of the Internet in these domains, citing two main reasons for why the Internet falls short in realizing its democratic promise. (14) First, cyberrealists argue that the extent to which online participatory processes attract significant new numbers of citizens to policymaking is less than clear. Second, they maintain that these processes are rarely tied in any accountable way to actual intergovernmental policymaking.

What then is the prospect for cyberdemocracy at the global level (defined here as the democratization of decisionmaking processes through the use of ICT)? At a time when global online consultations are proliferating, the debate for cyberdemocracy gains in importance. We contribute in this article to this debate by a detailed empirical study on recent experiences with global online consultations. Consultations through Internet-based discussion and voting platforms are used by governments and international organizations to solicit public input with regard to global norm production.

In this article, we analyze in detail the extent to which the use of the Internet in such civil society consultations in fact addresses the participatory biases that are often found in the analysis of traditional face-to-face participation. (15) Will the increasing use of the Internet in such consultations reduce the democratic legitimacy deficit that pervades global governance, especially in the field of sustainable development? (16) To address this question, we conducted a detailed empirical study of the Rio Dialogues, the series of online consultations that were organized around the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 conference), held in Rio de Janeiro. We introduce these dialogues in more detail in the following section.

The article is organized as follows. First, we present an overview of the Rio Dialogues and our methods of analysis. The sections thereafter delineate in detail the key indicators of democratic legitimacy employed in this article and empirically evaluate them for the Rio Dialogues. Specifically, we examine the inclusiveness of the dialogues, then the issues of effective participation, transparency, and accountability. Finally, we conclude the analysis and reflect on the results.

The Rio Dialogues

The Rio Dialogues were organized in the framework of the Rio+20 conference by the government of Brazil with the support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the office of the executive coordinators of the UN for Rio+20. The Rio+20 conference itself has arguably been the largest-ever global summit on environmental protection and sustainable development; some have even hailed it as a global expression of democracy. (17) The Rio Dialogues, which aimed to foster discussion on ten topics related to sustainable development and to engage civil society in the decisionmaking process related to the conference, consisted of three phases.

First, the dialogues were launched through a digital platform (18) to provide civil society with a space for discussion (Phase 1-16 April to 3 June 2012). After filling out a form, participants could enter this digital space and share their experiences, express opinions, and contribute ideas. A number of academic experts were then tasked with facilitating the online discussions, with the participants having the opportunity to formulate their own recommendations and upload them on the platform. Participants could also express their support of their preferred recommendation(s) on the basis of a "like" feature similar to that available on social media. The academic experts then identified the ten most supported recommendations for each theme. The online discussions resulted in a set of exactly 100 recommendations. These were then transferred to an open website (19) and submitted to the vote of a broader public for ten days (Phase 2-6 to 15 June 2012).

This vote resulted in ten recommendations (the most voted recommendation from each of the ten dialogues). This final top ten was presented by the facilitators of the online discussions to the participants in the onsite dialogues (Phase 3-16 to 19 June 2012). The results of the dialogues were eventually conveyed to governments in the high-level roundtables convening in parallel with the plenary meetings of Rio+20.

Overall, the discussions on the online platform engaged more than 10,000 participants, who submitted over 843 recommendations (Phase 1). Additionally, more than 55,000 people cast their vote to select their preferred recommendations among the initial set of 100 (Phase 2).

As this article aims to evaluate the democratic legitimacy of Internet-based civil society consultations, we concentrate on the online part of the Rio Dialogues (Phases 1 and 2). The parallel off-line part resembled more a traditional conference, consisting of onstage dialogues between ten expert panelists, with some question-and-answer time for an audience of about 1,300 people.

Building on the work of global democracy scholars, we use the dimensions of input and throughput legitimacy in evaluating the democratic legitimacy of the Rio Dialogues. Input legitimacy refers to the inclusiveness and effectiveness of...

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