[This blog post is cross-posted at Information Technology and Public Policy Course Blog at Princeton. The course website can be found here. Many thanks to Rebekah, Evgeny, Sami, Patrick and Ethan for sharing their thoughts on this topic]
It seems quite clear that the role of internet as a vehicle for democracy and transparency around the world has drastically changed in recent years. In a speech given at the Newseum on January 21st, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that:
"in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."
She contrasted the current interconnected situation with the past situation during cold war and stated:
"The Berlin Wall symbolized a world divided and it defined an entire era. Today, remnants of that wall sit inside this museum where they belong, and the new iconic infrastructure of our age is the internet. Instead of division, it stands for connection. But even as networks spread to nations around the globe, virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls."
Still, the Secretary of State acknowledged that even if in theory a more open and connected world ought to favor more transparency and accountability in authoritarian regimes, it could also have many unwanted consequences. She noted that internet is also used to undermine human progress and political rights: she lists propaganda by terrorist groups and dictatorship tracking internet activities to arrest political activists as examples of the detrimental effects of technology.
Before we address those issues, let's examine what impact internet had so far on promoting governmental openness and accountability. One of the most publicized example of democracy pushing back censorship from an authoritarian regime was the "twitter revolution" in Iran. After a highly contested election marred with multiple instances of fraud, part of Iranian government's repression of the public protests were documented in real-time on twitter and various online platforms, despite several attempts at blocking all digital information from exiting the country. The information still made their way out Iran and many mainstream media outlet hailed the transmission of information as a testimony of the triumph of democracy and technology over dictatorship and censorship. Still, in her research thesis, Rebekah Heacock writes that not much has changed in terms of change from authoritarian regime to a more open one. She notes that:
"none of the so-called [twitter] “revolutions” in Iran, Moldova, Guatemala or Uganda have lead to substantially different governments. Rather than reflecting actual politics, the Twitter Revolution seems to be largely a product of the media, both mainstream and social."
Many other critics of "cyber-utopia" have observed that technology might actually be detrimental to meaningful political activism. In Foreign Policy, Evgeny Morozov wrote at length about "slacktivism : term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact". He warns that media attention doesn't always translate into campaign effectiveness and asks:
"are the publicity gains gained through this greater reliance on new media worth the organizational losses that traditional activists entities are likely to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from conventional (and proven) forms of activism (demonstrations, sit-ins, confrontation with police, strategic litigation, etc) and embrace more "slacktivist" forms?"
Morozov adds that there is another danger of relying heavily on technology to put pressure on authoritarian regimes. Those governments have become more weary than ever of being exposed on online platforms and are coming down on political activists with an online presence.
It is interesting that indeed, authoritarian regimes have become increasingly suspicious of online networks. Even in countries where internet penetration is minimal like Madagascar (1% of the population had access to internet in 2008), the current government born from a coup in March 2009 still went through the trouble of shutting down one of the largest online platform of the country, topmada.com, with physical threats to the owner of the website. The most agreed upon theory is that in developing countries largely dependent on international trade and aid, such documented examples of offenses against human rights often result in economic sanction that in turn could lead to the downfall of the regime, if it is already standing on fragile political ground.
Indeed there is a tangible risk that technology can be used by authoritarian regime to assert their political foundation as is the case in China, where various bloggers are paid to participate on online forums to praise the effort of the government. It obviously can also be utilized to track and arrest dissidents by tracing their online presence.
In summary, the impact of the digital revolution worldwide is probably overstated, mostly because internet users are still clearly a minority worldwide (i.e the digital divide). However, it is also become evident that internet has gotten the attention of dictators everywhere and that information technology has facilitated putting meaningful political pressure on some authoritarian regimes, when these regimes must build a reputation of accountability to foster some much-needed international good will.