Internet, a force for Democracy?
Has the global spread of the internet aided democratisation, increased freedom and reduced human rights abuses, or is it at best ineffective and at worst a weapon in the hands of repressive governments?
Please cast your vote after you've read the arguments.
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It is true that in much of the world diseases such as Cholera and HIV are the major killers, but the...
It is true that in much of the world diseases such as Cholera and HIV are the major killers, but these are not the crunch points in a debate about the role of the internet. The key countries are those on the fringe of democratisation where governments keep power by satisfying citizens who know no better and where levels of active repression are tacit and relatively low. In these countries, substantial development in the internet infrastructure leaves the government unable to keep up until they eventually realise that they are fighting a losing battle and stop censoring online material. Some of the top cyber-criminals in the world are turning their attention from breaking the codes which copy-protect DVDs to undermining the Great Firewall of China instead.\
Similarly, the One Laptop Per Child program promises to create wireless networks which will allow children in different areas to interact, broadening understanding, but also taking education beyond the limitations of old textbooks. The internet is a key facilitator of education in these countries and it is the creation of an educated middle class which is seen as the key to an inevitable transition to democracy.
The world’s attention seems to now be focussed on the internet as an agent of democratisation. This has resulted in the dangerous mis-allocation of resources. Does the developing world really need another 100,000 Geocities homepages hosting the Dancing Hamster or Youtube videos of cats flushing toilets? Ten countries are set to invest funds running into millions of USD in buying $100 laptops for schoolchildren and setting up an internet backbone. Countries like Rwanda, Libya and Cambodia could instead be spending this money on post-conflict resolution to create a stable base for democracy, or on increasing education levels which could create a middle-class to support democracy.\
The other side of the misallocation is that the spread of the internet and of censorship is that it is no longer judges which make censorship decisions, but rather technicians on the ground. Indirectly, the effect of the internet and its inevitable regulation is to take power away from the judiciaries which form the only check on anti-democratic governments, and put it into the hands of technicians at the low levels of the apparatus.
The internet widens the array of tools available to those who seek to subvert oppressive regimes. T...
The internet widens the array of tools available to those who seek to subvert oppressive regimes. The Burmese PDP have used the internet extensively outside Burma to provide information informing non-Burmese about the military junta and to coordinate actions of activists. Internally, whilst once dissidents were reduced to scrawling graffiti on walls or publishing pamphlets in underground print shops, now entire sets of documents can be made available online to a much wider audience at the touch of a button. The internet has also decreased the cost of being such a dissident, leading to a younger, wider group of people in Taiwan being involved in illegal link-ups with teenagers on the Chinese mainland over the web. Any individual with a mobile phone or access to an internet connection can simply evade filtering controls put in place, using tools like ‘Siphon’, unblocked proxies or mirror sites which guarantee unfettered access. The sheer number of dissidents and the fact that they leave few electronic traces makes them harder to trace and spreads dissidence from the hardened few to the many, a key step in the process of democratization.
Not only is the internet not a force for democracy, it can also be used as a tool to repress democracy by anti-democratic states. The internet makes it much easier for states to target and locate dissidents, as shown by the large number of bloggers from Egypt and Syria who have been arrested over the past two years, located by their IP addresses or records kept by internet cafes. Before the internet, dissidents were able to escape the surveillance of the state, but now as soon as they log on they can be tracked down and arrested, be it in internet cafes in Belarus or by tracking VOIP calls in the Middle East.\
The power of the internet in the hands of the state is not just obvious in targeting dissidents, but also in how these states filter and skew the content available. 25 countries in the world actively censor the internet as of May 2007, giving their governments a false legitimacy by removing material critical of anti-democratic policies and so acting as a psychological bulwark against discontent and dissent.
Sub-state dissident groups in repressive regimes are able to use the internet in their attempts to d...
Sub-state dissident groups in repressive regimes are able to use the internet in their attempts to destabilise these regimes. Falungong and Tibetan nationalists in China use email lists to arrange protests, making it harder for the state to plan policing in advance and allowing last-minute changes of details. Human Rights Organisations can also coordinate with dissident groups to collect information on abuses, as in the case of Peter Gabriel’s ‘The Hub’ project. Google maps even hosts up-to-the-day accurate information on the locations of reported atrocities in Dafur. Just as the VietCong used a complex tunnel system to evade capture during the Vietnam war, dissident groups now use email, encryption and websites so that they know where the government is operating, either in terms of web monitoring or physical repression. Externally, the internet can enable shareholder activism, as was the case over Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings in PetroChina, the result of a publicity campaign by dissidents within Sudan, Human Rights Organisations and western shareholders in BH.
The internet frequently works against democracy in the hands of sub-state groups. The internet is the primary medium of coordination for Jihadist groups looking to undermine the few Middle-Eastern states which are in the process of transition to democracy. In April 2007, groups of hackers (allegedly backed by the Russian government) attacked the websites of key politicians, ministries and utilities in Estonia in retaliation for the removal of a Soviet war memorial. The internet has even been used in an attempt to directly influence the outcome of an election through disruptive tactics when in the 2006 Belarusian elections, the websites of the main opposition candidates went offline in the run-up to the election as the result of persistent DDOS attacks. Often what democracy needs to develop is a stable base for elections and the internet is routinely used to disrupt the development of such a base.
Unsurprisingly, having originated in America and Europe, the internet brings with it a host of weste...
Unsurprisingly, having originated in America and Europe, the internet brings with it a host of western firms, either interacting directly with people and governments as in the case of Google or Yahoo, or investing in home-grown technology firms, for example through joint ventures in China. In the same way as the education of members of the Chinese elite at US business schools like Harvard and Stanford will likely lead to more liberal policies imposed from the top, the interaction with Western businesses required by the internet will bring about an exchange of values. Western firms increasingly own large shares of Middle Eastern and East Asian businesses, putting pressure on governments to remove their economic protectionism measures and to allow greater transparency. Similarly, the listing of ICBC on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges, which brought about large-scale personal share ownership and hence a stake in companies, is a product of the information age.
Suppression of democracy by repressive governments is also aided and abetted by Western firms and governments. Google voluntarily censors material critical of the government in China, giving the Chinese population a false impression of government legitimacy based on Google’s reputation for freedom of information. Yahoo has gone even further by actively handing over the IP addresses of users who have made certain searches, allowing governments to track down democracy activists.\
Governments help the repression because they do not place sanctions on hardware and software which can be used by dictatorial states to filter or track internet access. Whilst it is obvious when stun batons are being imported for torture, or weapons to be used to fight rebels, it is much more difficult to prove that potentially innocent computer hardware will be used to skew the population’s perception of the legitimacy of their government.\
The internet allows access not just to free information in general, but to the specific types of inf...
The internet allows access not just to free information in general, but to the specific types of information that are likely to help the development of democracy. ‘Push’ factors include information about human rights abuses from independent organisations such as Human Rights Watch which would otherwise be suppressed by the government. Knowledge about the problems in governance experienced by other authoritarian regimes can also encourage citizens to action, for example the way the Orange Revolution in Ukraine stimulated similar popular movements in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. ‘Pull’ factors include the proliferation of advertising for Western consumer goods, which are often not available in left-wing repressive regimes, or information about religious freedoms that are not available in some authoritarian states. Above all, the internet provides the kind of information which promotes political consciousness that has been systematically erased from libraries, newspapers and the broadcast media in these countries. For example, articles about political parties, parliaments, policy disputes, blogs about how political disagreements can be settled in a legislative sphere, or campaigns about mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay. Governments can effectively wipe this out of the domestic media, but the internet is saturated with such information.
People do not use the internet for the laudable aims of free access to information which would highlight the problems with their governments in the way that the proposition would like everyone to believe. As the song from the famous musical ‘Avenue Q’ says, “The Internet is for Porn”. Over 500m of the sites in the indexes of the major search engines are pornographic, the majority of internet bandwidth usage is for the downloading of porn. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, initially made his money by setting up an adult search engine. Even Rob Deibert, the founder of the ‘Siphon’ tool to evade the eyes of anti-democratic states admits that the majority of usage of his software is for accessing porn under the net of state control. This is symptomatic of the behaviour of internet users who use the web not to subvert governments or spread democratic messages, but rather to post amusing videos on YouTube and stay within their own comfort zones. Five of the twenty most visited websites on the internet are for illegal file downloads, porn, videos and online games. The internet maybe a great source of fun, but it isn’t a source of democracy.
The single greatest force behind the spread of democracy is the free flow of information, exactly th...
The single greatest force behind the spread of democracy is the free flow of information, exactly the argument presented by those who dislike sanctions. Wikipedia allows people in non-democratic regimes to find out information their government wishes to keep from them. Google allows the searching of the entire web rather than just a restricted portion. RSS feeds allow news from unfiltered sources to be streamed around the world. All of these factors increase the free flow of information into a country, making it harder for the regimes to suppress information and forging a sense of independence and participation among populations. The internet also allows information to flow the other way, with blogs providing information on what is happening inside regimes such as Zimbabwe which ban the presence of independent, Western media outlets. As soon as 1 million people in a country have access to free and fair information about their regime from multiple sources, it becomes impossible for the regime to continue to suppress that information and so the internet has helped fringe democracies to reach a ‘tipping point’ in the spread of information.
Internet access around the world, whilst growing, is not enough for the internet to act as a force for democracy. In May 2007 there were 1.1bn internet users worldwide, but nearly 600m of them are in liberal, already democratic countries in Western Europe, America and Oceania. In the Middle East, where regimes such as Syria keep power by heavily regulating the availability of information from outside the country, there are less than 20m users, and there are only 30m users in the whole of Africa (less than 4% of the population). In short, there isn’t a sufficiently high level of internet penetration in non-democratic countries for it to allow change. Further, the numbers of people in anti-democratic states who actually get access to information which might encourage democracy by evading state controls is incredibly small. Users of the ‘Siphon’ tool which allows web users in mainland China to evade state controls number only in the tens of thousands, a tiny proportion of overall usage.
What do you think?