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Internet access has played a key role in transitional countries by providing access to constitutions, judicial decisions, and laws and regulations, thereby promoting the rule of law. This access has empowered civil society organizations to more fully and effectively engage with governments in both promoting and contesting all aspects of the uses of law. This benefit of the internet in transitional countries, however, is not without challenges. Both the resistance of governments to expanding the information which is available, and the significant inequalities in capacity among civil society organizations, seriously reduce the positive impact of this growing access on the rule of law.
Traditionally all governments have been cautious about making public information about their activities, but this is especially true with governments in transitional countries, where transparency and democracy are relatively recent concepts. In these countries, while making public constitutions and statutes is accepted practice, regulations, executive orders, and administrative decisions are often not widely available in any form. The internet has made it much easier for these governments to provide all of this information, but there remains a continued resistance to providing such information. Most governments, even in transitional states, have adopted access to information laws that require the proactive dissemination of information through both print and electronic media. The scope of these laws in transitional states, and their effective implementation and enforcement, continue to raise significant questions.
Thus, the first challenge for improving the rule of law through the use of the internet to access legal information is to overcome the suspicion, or indeed hostility, of transitional governments to sharing information broadly with civil society and the citizenry. Addressing this challenge requires pressure from the local media, civil society organizations, political opposition, as well as international influence through requirements of international agreements and participation in multinational organizations.
There is a significant disparity within transitional countries among civil society organizations. Long-established groups of educated elites, often supported by foreign funding, operate at a far higher level of sophistication and engagement than smaller indigenous organizations with less experience and funding. This imbalance can lead to emphasis on rule of law issues that neglect concerns of those marginalized organizations or populations. Equalizing access to information among these organizations can help to equalize their influence.
Therefore the second challenge for improving the rule of law through the use of the internet to access legal information is find ways to promote internet availability throughout the more remote regions and isolated groups within transitional states. This will facilitate the ability of these less established groups to become aware of and address the issues important to their constituents.
The proposed paper will address these issues in greater detail by exploring more fully the challenges and opportunities of the internet to support the rule of law in transitional states. It will draw upon the successes of more established democracies and ongoing efforts by the international donor community expand the use of the internet to disseminate legal information.
Authors: Howard Fenton, Brian Anderson