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Information and communication technologies

There are both challenges and opportunities that information and communication technologies offer democracies. Information Technology (IT), also known as Information and Communication Technology (ICT), is concerned with the use of technology in managing and processing information, especially in large organisations.

ICT deals with the use of electronic computers and computer software to convert, store, protect, process, transmit and retrieve information. New computing and communications technologies are starting to make an impact on the democratic processes and participation in Australia and around the world. The past 20 years have seen the acceleration of the use of computers and other communications technologies. There have been significant impacts on the economic and social life of Australians and there have been considerable implications for political participation and democracy.

Types of technology

The obvious technologies that are having, and will continue to have, an impact on democracies include personal computers, the internet, the World Wide Web, electronic mail (email), telephone systems, mobile phones, pagers and fax machines. Computer technology is also being used more and more in political and government institutions and organisations. The computer's ability to store large amounts of information, and then to quickly retrieve this information makes it particularly useful. The information that is stored in computer databases is causing concern about the privacy of individuals.

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Debate over use of ICT in democracies

There is much public debate over the use and impact of ICTs in democracies. There are arguments that these tools increase access to information at low cost, but the technologies reflect the people and politics that create them which may create bias.

Any new technology can affect a democracy and the way it functions. Information and communication technologies can support, undermine, or restructure the work of policy makers such as party officials, members of parliament and other bureaucrats. Television, for example, changed the way parliament operated and greatly increased the influence of the media in politics.

Information and communication technologies have the potential to change the way people vote, how politicians campaign, the information kept on voters, access to information by voters and the production and distribution of knowledge.

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Challenges that ICT presents

The impacts of information and communications tools on democratic cultures can be both positive and negative. The challenges that ICT presents to democracies are many.

From the perspective of political equality, new ICTs offer the opportunity for more people to become involved in politics. Information is power, and the internet can act as a democratising and equalising force as it provides individuals with easy access to a vast array of alternative information sources. The internet offers a forum for those who might previously have been unable or unwilling to engage in debate on issues of concern to them. The challenge is to make sure that everyone has equal access to the new technologies and is able to use them efficiently.

Online information

Information and communication technologies increase the amount of information available. One challenge is to determine the reliability of the information found online. Citizens may concentrate on one area of information and overlook other issues or points of view. There may be a lack of local content as the international media has significant advantages over local media. There will also be different levels of access to the new technologies as people with lower economic means, with disabilities, and the aged may not be able to fully use the new technology.

Privacy and rights of individuals

A challenge that people in a democracy face with regard to ICTs is the issue of losing their privacy. While overall the internet has been seen as allowing more freedom of speech, it should be remembered that the technology is not entirely democratic. Cyberspace opens up new possibilities for surveillance and monitoring of individuals' behaviour. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), hackers and other external entities can keep track of people's web habits and private correspondence.

Citizen identification

One major problem which needs to be overcome is that of citizen identification. If secure elections, voting and other secure citizen-to-government transactions are going to happen online, citizens must have some form of identification that preserves their privacy and protects against identity theft, information overload and vandalism.

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Websites and discussion boards

The new ICTs provide the possibility for citizens to see more clearly the workings of the government and for governments to engage in more extensive forms of consultation with citizens. The challenges here are to design websites and forums to meet community needs in terms of easily accessible information and the storage of digital records. Current websites rarely provide detailed information about how an organisation works and there are now often greater barriers to accessing online information.

The internet does not always provide reliable information. Particularly in emotional debates, the views expressed may lead to negative reactions. Abusive verbal exchanges online have become a well-known problem for discussion forums and internet chat rooms. Some political parties for example, have had to shut down their discussion boards due to fears of legal action and negative media coverage.


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