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Abstract

In recent times much has been said about the possibility that the two-way, decentralized communications of cyberspace can provide sites of rational-critical discourse autonomous from state and economic interests and thus extending the public sphere at large. In this paper the extent to which the Internet does in fact enhance the public sphere is evaluated. Online deliberative practices are compared with a normative model of the public sphere developed from the work of Jürgen Habermas. The evaluation proceeds at a general level, drawing upon more specific Internet research to provide a broad understanding of the democratic possibilities and limitations of the present Internet. The analysis shows that vibrant exchange of positions and rational critique does take place within many online fora. However, there are a number of factors limiting the expansion of the public sphere online. These factors include the increasing colonization of cyberspace by state and corporate interests, a deficit of reflexivity, a lack of respectful listening to others, the difficulty of verifying identity claims and information put forward, the exclusion of many from online political fora, and the domination of discourse by certain individuals and groups. The article concludes by calling for more focused Internet-democracy research to address these problems further, research for which the present paper provides a starting point.