This article is a part of a series in which classical philosophers and political thinkers are hypothetically faced with the magnum opus of the Information Age, The Almighty Internet. The transnational digital network might not have been developed during the times of these influential figures, yet since there seems to be a growing consensus towards the idea that our online identity is a mere reflection of our real-life “offline” selves, then the philosophical ideas may answer to contemporary questions – and thus provide a foundation for international treaties or national legislation that might be enacted in the future.
The first author whose political thinking can be paralelled to the internet stakeholders is the Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period, Polybius. Upon being deported to Rome as a result of his father’s political opposition to the Roman control over Macedonia, he has had the chance of observing the Latin-speaking republic’s power relations – thus grasping a very accurate understanding of the checks and balances system. His most notable work, “The Histories”, reflects exactly the impressive extent to which Polybius had understood the Roman political system, as it covers the 264-146 BC time frame with a staggering clarity and accuracy, and lays the foundation for 17th and 18th century scholars like John Locke and Montesquieu to write on the separation of powers.
However, before making a direct link to Polybius’ checks and balances, one has to present the main internet stakeholders. Entangled into a very intertwined triangular-shaped relationship, governments, internet companies and regular users race for the enactment of their interests and continuously advocate for their causes. The governments, as legitimate bodies of coercion, engage into universal surveillance activities through security-oriented arguments, but also seek to tax businesses or block them if they infringe national law or threaten the polity. Conversely, internet companies want to collect data from the users for considerations concerning the provision of their services, while simultateously seeking new ways of escaping censorship and excessive taxation. Internet users are stuck in the middle of this debate, but have interests of their own: they seek privacy (not being under permanent surveillance) and autonomy (being able to manipulate their virtual alter-ego in every way they want), while also expecting the governments to protect them against threats and internet businesses to provide to them the best services possible.
Through a parallel, one may easily identify a striking resemblance (both in terms of the triangular relationship, but also in the leverages that one party has over the other) between the above-described model and Polybius’ account of the Roman separation of powers from the 264-146 BC era. “It was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic, or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one‟s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy”.
The consuls of Ancient Rome can be regarded as today’s governments that try to regulate the internet: they are elected by the people and draw their legitimacy from their consent, and have control over the budget and the military power. Moreover, the judicial power is amongst their prerogatives.
Conversely, the senate bears a certain resemblance to the internet companies: in relation to the governments they have a certain financial leverage (as their tax money and contributions depend on the governments’ policies) and they also have to be “elected” very often by the end-users’ choices – which means that they have to remain competitive and provide the best services in order to maintain their position; also, they can write agreements with the users and the governments when it comes to delivering their services, but during the process might become “corrupt” and resort to practices that were not a part of the agreement that was made during the previous “elections” – in such a situation they can receive sanctions from the executive and/or lose support from amongst the masses, which can easily lead to the election of a new “senator”; they are aristocratic in the sense that only the best survive on the market (“are elected”), so it is their effort that fuels the engine and keeps the triangular relation in a functional state. Their efforts are also the ones that bring about the most developments and push the republics into new directions, thus fulfilling well the prerogatives of a legislative body.
Last but not least, the masses are the ones that interact with both the “internet consuls” and the “internet senators” and their choices are the ones that influence the extent in which the steps are taken – as the executive tends to be overly conservative and finds it hard to keep up, and the legislative comes up with new and attractive “drafts” and proposals with an amazing speed. Moreover, the masses influence the decisions of the consuls both indirectly through their vote, and directly via drafting proposals and lobbying. Just like in the times of the Roman Republic, the internet users are represented by “tribunes” – lobby groups and NGOs that make the voices of their supporters heard. However, the major difference is that these non-governmental assemblies are not given veto power – and nor are their representatives completely protected from persecution.
A major issue that arises in this inquiry is that of the existence of a general will of the users/masses that can be transferred into the loudspeakers of the lobby groups/tribunes. Do all users think the same and have the same interests? If it were so, then one group of lobbyists would suffice and the unidimensional point of view was clear and obvious in the eyes of both the governments/consuls and businesses/senators. Yet, from another point of view, this general will may be perverted and divided by those who are amongst the other parties and possess different interests. Therefore, should these diverting interests be encouraged to exist for the sake of giving way to a middle ground that is the sum of all stakeholders’ perspectives?
In order to answer these questions, the next article from the series will present the political thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Madison.
Polybius, “The Histories, Books 5-8”, Translated by W.R. Patton, Book VI, “V. On the Roman Constitution at its Prime”, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, p. 328-331