12 May 2014

Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies

Vili LehdonvirtaWhat kind of research does the journal Policy & Internet publish? Editor Vili Lehdonvirta approaches the question from two angles; first, by examining the question empirically, through a brief thematic analysis of the articles published since its launch in 2009; second, by considering what kind of research the journal is likely to publish in the future, both in terms of what kind of trends can be seen emerging in policy and Internet research, as well as in terms of what challenges outlined in the journal’s original vision that continue to be pertinent today. Read the full editorial.

We can’t understand, analyze or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet. Image from the (post-PRISM) “Stop Watching Us” Berlin Demonstration (2013) by mw238.

In the journal’s inaugural issue, founding Editor-in-Chief Helen Margetts outlined what are essentially two central premises behind Policy & Internet’s launch. The first is that “we cannot understand, analyze or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet” (Margetts 2009, 1). It is simply not possible to consider public policy today without some regard for the intertwining of information technologies with everyday life and society. The second premise is that the rise of the Internet is associated with shifts in how policy itself is made. In particular, she proposed that impacts of Internet adoption would be felt in the tools through which policies are effected, and the values that policy processes embody.

The purpose of the Policy and Internet journal was to take up these two challenges: the public policy implications of Internet-related social change, and Internet-related changes in policy processes themselves. In recognition of the inherently multi-disciplinary nature of policy research, the journal is designed to act as a meeting place for all kinds of disciplinary and methodological approaches. Helen predicted that methodological approaches based on large-scale transactional data, network analysis, and experimentation would turn out to be particularly important for policy and Internet studies. Driving the advancement of these methods was therefore the journal’s third purpose. Today, the journal has reached a significant milestone: over one hundred high-quality peer-reviewed articles published. This seems an opportune moment to take stock of what kind of research we have published in practice, and see how it stacks up against the original vision.

At the most general level, the journal’s articles fall into three broad categories: the Internet and public policy (48 articles), the Internet and policy processes (51 articles), and discussion of novel methodologies (10 articles). The first of these categories, “the Internet and public policy,” can be further broken down into a number of subcategories. One of the most prominent of these streams is fundamental rights in a mediated society (11 articles), which focuses particularly on privacy and freedom of expression. Related streams are children and child protection (six articles), copyright and piracy (five articles), and general e-commerce regulation (six articles), including taxation. A recently emerged stream in the journal is hate speech and cybersecurity (four articles). Of course, an enduring research stream is Internet governance, or the regulation of technical infrastructures and economic institutions that constitute the material basis of the Internet (seven articles). In recent years, the research agenda in this stream has been influenced by national policy debates around broadband market competition and network neutrality (Hahn and Singer 2013). Another enduring stream deals with the Internet and public health (eight articles).

Looking specifically at “the Internet and policy processes” category, the largest stream is e-participation, or the role of the Internet in engaging citizens in national and local government policy processes, through methods such as online deliberation, petition platforms, and voting advice applications (18 articles). Two other streams are e-government, or the use of Internet technologies for government service provision (seven articles), and e-politics, or the use of the Internet in mainstream politics, such as election campaigning and communications of the political elite (nine articles). Another stream that has gained pace during recent years, is online collective action, or the role of the Internet in activism, ‘clicktivism,’ and protest campaigns (16 articles). Last year the journal published a special issue on online collective action (Calderaro and Kavada 2013), and the next forthcoming issue includes an invited article on digital civics by Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, with commentary from prominent scholars of Internet activism. A trajectory discernible in this stream over the years is a movement from discussing mere potentials towards analyzing real impacts—including critical analyses of the sometimes inflated expectations and “democracy bubbles” created by digital media (Shulman 2009; Karpf 2012; Bryer 2012).

The final category, discussion of novel methodologies, consists of articles that develop, analyze, and reflect critically on methodological innovations in policy and Internet studies. Empirical articles published in the journal have made use of a wide range of conventional and novel research methods, from interviews and surveys to automated content analysis and advanced network analysis methods. But of those articles where methodology is the topic rather than merely the tool, the majority deal with so-called “big data,” or the use of large-scale transactional data sources in research, commerce, and evidence-based public policy (nine articles). The journal recently devoted a special issue to the potentials and pitfalls of big data for public policy (Margetts and Sutcliffe 2013), based on selected contributions to the journal’s 2012 big data conference: Big Data, Big Challenges? In general, the notion of data science and public policy is a growing research theme.

This brief analysis suggests that research published in the journal over the last five years has indeed followed the broad contours of the original vision. The two challenges, namely policy implications of Internet-related social change and Internet-related changes in policy processes, have both been addressed. In particular, research has addressed the implications of the Internet’s increasing role in social and political life. The journal has also furthered the development of new methodologies, especially the use of online network analysis techniques and large-scale transactional data sources (aka ‘big data’).

As expected, authors from a wide range of disciplines have contributed their perspectives to the journal, and engaged with other disciplines, while retaining the rigor of their own specialisms. The geographic scope of the contributions has been truly global, with authors and research contexts from six continents. I am also pleased to note that a characteristic common to all the published articles is polish; this is no doubt in part due to the high level of editorial support that the journal is able to afford to authors, including copyediting. The justifications for the journal’s establishment five years ago have clearly been borne out, so that the journal now performs an important function in fostering and bringing together research on the public policy implications of an increasingly Internet-mediated society.

And what of my own research interests as an editor? In the inaugural editorial, Helen Margetts highlighted work, finance, exchange, and economic themes in general as being among the prominent areas of Internet-related social change that are likely to have significant future policy implications. I think for the most part, these implications remain to be addressed, and this is an area that the journal can encourage authors to tackle better. As an editor, I will work to direct attention to this opportunity, and welcome manuscript submissions on all aspects of Internet-enabled economic change and its policy implications. This work will be kickstarted by the journal’s 2014 conference (26-27 September), which this year focuses on crowdsourcing and online labor.

Our published articles will continue to be highlighted here in the journal’s blog. Launched last year, we believe this blog will help to expand the reach and impact of research published in Policy and Internet to the wider academic and practitioner communities, promote discussion, and increase authors’ citations. After all, publication is only the start of an article’s public life: we want people reading, debating, citing, and offering responses to the research that we, and our excellent reviewers, feel is important, and worth publishing.

Read the full editorial:  Lehdonvirta, V. (2014) Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies. Policy & Internet 6(2): 109-114.


Bryer, T.A. (2011) Online Public Engagement in the Obama Administration: Building a Democracy Bubble? Policy & Internet 3 (4).

Calderaro, A. and Kavada, A. (2013) Challenges and Opportunities of Online Collective Action for Policy Change. Policy & Internet (5) 1.

Hahn, R. and Singer, H. (2013) Is the U.S. Government’s Internet Policy Broken? Policy & Internet 5 (3) 340-363.

Karpf, D. (2012) Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism. Policy & Internet 2 (4) 7-41.

Margetts, H. (2009) The Internet and Public Policy. Policy and Internet 1 (1).

Margetts, H. and Sutcliffe, D. (2013) Addressing the Policy Challenges and Opportunities of ‘Big Data.’ Policy & Internet 5 (2) 139-146.

Shulman, S.W. (2009) The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking. Policy & Internet 1 (1) 23-53.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.