The web won’t topple tyranny

Joshua Kurlantzick
25 March 2004

Last spring, during a trip to Laos, I visited an Internet caf?in the
capital, Vientiane. Inside, the scene reminded me more of the West Village
than the heart of a backward, communist nation. Though Laotians threshed
rice by hand just a few miles away, the caf?itself was thoroughly modern.
Tourists and local teenagers surfed the Internet on relatively new PCs. On a
large screen on one wall, music videos featured Madonna gyrating half-naked.
Below, kids seated at a row of computers logged onto pop-culture sites like

Yet, despite its trendiness and high-tech appearance, the Internet joint
conspicuously lacked one element usually associated with caf?life: any
discussion of current events. Virtually no one in the caf?spoke with anyone
else. Except for the tourists, no one seemed to venture onto news Web
pages–this, despite the fact that many Laotians can read Thai and could
have accessed uncensored information on news sites based in neighboring (and
democratic) Thailand. When I attempted to access the Web pages of exile
groups opposed to the authoritarian Vientiane regime, I received an error
message saying the pages were not accessible.

My experience in the Vientiane caf?was a sobering antidote to a pervasive
myth: that the Internet is a powerful force for democracy. For years, a
significant subset of the democratization industry–that network of
political scientists, think tanks, and policymakers–has placed its bets
(and, in many cases, its money) on the Web’s potential to spread liberal
ideas in illiberal parts of the world. Whereas once American politicians and
democratization groups focused on older technologies, such as radio, today
their plans to spread democracy rest in considerable part on programs for
boosting Internet access. In early March, Secretary of State Colin Powell
told Congress that a crucial part of the Bush administration’s
democratization initiative will be establishing “American corners” in
libraries overseas, complete with Internet kiosks where locals can surf the
Web. In the Middle East, American diplomats have touted their recent online
interactions with locals, such as Web dialogue between the American consul
in Jeddah and Saudis.

But world leaders, journalists, and political scientists who tout the
Internet as a powerful force for political change are just as wrong as the
dot-com enthusiasts who not so long ago believed the Web would completely
transform business. While it’s true that the Internet has proved itself able
to disseminate pop culture in authoritarian nations–not only Laos, but
China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere–to date, its political impact
has been decidedly limited. It has yet to topple–or even seriously
undermine–its first tyrannical regime. In fact, in some repressive
countries the spread of the Internet actually may be helping dictatorships
remain in power.

Ever since the Internet became a mass medium in the mid-’90s, its advocates
have been touting its political potential. In a 1996 appearance at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, John Perry Barlow, co-founder of one of the leading
Internet freedom organizations, delivered an address titled “Declaration of
the Independence of Cyberspace.” In it, he announced, “The global social
space we are building” will “be naturally independent of the tyrannies [that
governments] impose on us.” Other leading political theorists, such as
Harvard’s Joseph Nye, argued that, by increasing information flows within
and between countries and providing a space for political organization, the
Internet would threaten dictators.

With the gauntlet laid down, the Internet became a new focus of America’s
foreign policy elite. Political science departments began hiring faculty
with backgrounds in both political theory and computer science. The National
Democratic Institute and other democratization groups in Washington made
seminars on utilizing the Web for political discourse a central part of
their agenda. In a 1995 study, the Pentagon predicted the Internet would
prove a “strategic threat to authoritarian regimes.” In 2000, President
Clinton told reporters that, “in the new century, liberty will spread by …
cable modem” and memorably warned that, if China’s leaders attempted to
crack down on the Web, they would find it as difficult as “trying to nail
Jell-O to the wall.” In 1999, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush
confidently predicted that, if the Internet were to take hold in China,
“freedom’s genie will be out of the bottle.”

Since taking office, the Bush administration has focused on programs to
expand Web access in the Middle East, such as funding for Internet
connections in Arab schools. Margaret Tutwiler, undersecretary of state for
public diplomacy and public affairs, recently told Congress that such
efforts would help provide people in the Middle East with “a window on the
world. … It opens up a whole lot of avenues that I think are in our
self-interest.” Edward Djerejian, chairman of the White House advisory group
on public diplomacy, testified that, “given the strategic importance of
information technologies, a greater portion of the budget should be directed
to tap the resources of the Internet.”

Academics and journalists, too, have bought into the idea, frequently
pointing to increased Internet usage as de facto evidence of political
liberalization. “The Internet and globalization,” wrote The New York Times’
Thomas Friedman in 2000, “are acting like nutcrackers to open societies and
empower Arab democrats.” A year later, when Bashar Assad became president of
Syria, the fact that he had once headed a Syrian computer group was taken as
evidence that he might be a liberalizer. Saudi Arabia is the most recent
beneficiary of this kind of misunderstanding, with media reports crediting
the desert kingdom with liberalization based on its burgeoning Internet
culture. This March, The Economist enthused, “The Internet, the mobile phone
and satellite television are all eroding the [Saudi] authorities’ control.”

But little of this excitement is predicated on empirical research. It’s
true, of course, that Internet usage has surged in many authoritarian
nations. In China, the number of people accessing the Web on a regular basis
has risen from fewer than one million in 1997 to almost 70 million in 2003.
In the Middle East, Internet penetration has nearly doubled in the past five
years. It’s also true that this increased access has provided some citizens
of dictatorships more access to the outside world and helped loosen
restrictive cultural norms. By prompting more open discussion of sexuality,
for instance, foreign websites may make it easier for Southeast Asian
youngsters to talk frankly about sex–a life-and-death proposition in a
region decimated by HIV/aids.

Yet the growth of the Internet has not substantially altered the political
climate in most authoritarian countries. In quasi-authoritarian Singapore,
where more than 50 percent of the population has regular Internet access,
the ruling People’s Action Party actually increased its political
stranglehold in the last election, winning more than 95 percent of the seats
in the legislature. In Malaysia, another country where Internet access is
much higher than in most of the developing world, the ruling United Malays
National Organization, which has been in power for over two decades,
dominated this week’s national elections. The State Department’s March
report on human rights in Burma says, “The Government’s extremely poor human
rights record worsened. … Citizens still did not have the right to change
their government.” And its annual report on human rights in China, also
released in March, said that last year saw “backsliding on key human rights
issues” by Beijing–such significant backsliding that the United States is
considering censuring China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Indeed,
nearly all the Chinese political science professors I have spoken with agree
that the mainland Chinese democracy movement is weaker now than it was a
decade ago. Nor is this unhappy trend limited to the Far East. Since March
2003, the Cuban government has initiated its biggest crackdown on dissent in
years. Neither Cuba nor such Middle Eastern nations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
and Syria have made any recent progress toward democracy, according to
Freedom House’s 2004 ranking of countries around the world.

Why has the Web failed to transform such regimes? In part because, as a
medium, the Web is in many ways ill-suited for expressing and organizing
dissent. And, even more significantly, because, as a technology, it has
proved surprisingly easy for authoritarian regimes to stifle, control, and

Many Internet advocates forget that, on the most basic level, the Web is a
vehicle merely for disseminating information. Someone, in other words, first
needs to have access to the information and a willingness to share it. In
practice, this means the impact of the Web depends to a certain degree on
local resources–specifically, the existence of opposition networks able to
provide evidence of government wrongdoing. This limitation is evident when
one compares Malaysia with Singapore. “The Internet has had more impact on
politics in Malaysia than in Singapore,” says Cherian George, who is writing
a book on Internet usage in Southeast Asia. There are several
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Malaysia committed to investigating
the government; in Singapore, there are virtually none. As a consequence,
when activists in Malaysia want to use the Web to highlight human rights
abuses, George says, they can draw upon the information amassed by the NGOs
from their networks of sources. Singaporeans, by contrast, have no such
resources. This is part of the reason James Gomez, founder of the well-known
Singaporean dissident website, admits that his organization
has not significantly altered local politics by using the Internet.

Another shortcoming of the Internet is that it lends itself to individual
rather than communal activities. It “is about people sitting in front of a
terminal, barely interacting,” says one Laotian researcher. The Web is less
well-suited to fostering political discussion and debate because, unlike
radio or even television, it does not generally bring people together in one
house or one room. In Rangoon, the capital of Burma–one of the most
repressive nations on earth–groups of men often crowd around radios in tea
shops to clandestinely listen to news from the BBC’s Burmese service and
then discuss what they’ve heard. Similarly, in bars and caf? in China,
people gather around televisions to watch and discuss the news. But, while
restaurateurs in the developing world can afford to use a radio or
television to lure customers who might have a snack while listening or
watching, owners of Internet caf? have to recoup their much higher capital
investments. They do this by dividing their establishments into individual
terminals and charging each user separately. In fact, in nearly every
Internet caf?I have visited, in Vientiane last year and in Rangoon this
winter (as well as in New York and in London), I have watched the same
scenes of people sitting in front of individual computer terminals, barely
talking to each other.

Add to this a still more simple fact about the Internet–that, unlike
television or radio, it generally requires users to be literate–and it’s
not hard to see why democracy advocates in authoritarian countries (and some
authoritarian leaders) consider older, broadcast media to be a more
effective means of disseminating information and fostering debate. Wang Dan,
a well-known Chinese democracy activist, has argued that television and
radio are still the best means for communicating dissident messages within
China. Western diplomats in Laos concur, telling me that Thai television,
available to many Laotians, has more potential than the Internet to subvert
the authoritarian Laotian government. Likewise, in the Middle East, Islamist
organizations–the only groups that have had much success challenging
authoritarian regimes in the region–have largely disdained the Web, relying
instead on clandestine videos and audiocassettes, which can be watched
communally and then passed along from mosque to mosque.

In addition to lending itself primarily to individual use, the Internet also
fosters a kind of anarchy inimical to an effective opposition movement.
Singaporean dissident Gomez says the Web empowers individual members of a
political movement, rather than the movement as a whole. Opposition members
can offer dissenting opinions at will, thus undermining the leadership and
potentially splintering the organization. In combating an authoritarian
regime, in other words, there’s such a thing as too much democracy. Two of
the most successful opposition movements of the last few decades–the South
African opposition led by Nelson Mandela and the Burmese resistance led by
Aung San Suu Kyi–relied upon charismatic, almost authoritarian leaders to
set a message followed by the rest of the movement. The anti-globalization
movement, by contrast, has been a prime example of the anarchy that can
develop when groups utilize the Web to organize. Allowing nearly anyone to
make a statement or call a meeting via the Web, the anti-globalizers have
wound up with large but unorganized rallies in which everyone from serious
critics of free trade to advocates of witches and self-anointed saviors of
famed death-row convict Mumia Abu Jumal have their say. To take just one
example, at the anti-globalization World Social Forum held in Mumbai in
January, nuanced critics of globalization like former World Bank chief
economist Joseph Stiglitz shared space with, as The New York Times reported,
“a long list of regional causes,” including anti-Microsoft and anti-Coca
Cola activists.

But the Internet’s inherent flaws as a political medium are only part of the
reason for its failure to spread liberty. More significant has been the ease
with which authoritarian regimes have controlled and, in some cases,
subverted it. The most straightforward way governments have responded to
opposition websites has been simply to shut them down. In Singapore, for
example, an online political forum called Sintercom became popular in the
mid-’90s as one of the only places where citizens could express political
opinions relatively openly. But, following government pressure, Sintercom
was shut down in 2001. Since then, according to Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor
C. Boas, authors of the recent comprehensive book Open Networks, Closed
Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, the scope of
online political discussion in Singapore has shrunk. In Malaysia, too, many
of the anti-government websites that formed in the mid-’90s have been
shuttered, enabling the regime to beat back a liberal reform movement that
sprang up five years ago.

But nowhere has a regime’s ability to corral the Internet been more apparent
than in China, the world’s largest authoritarian state. Despite President
Clinton’s prediction, Beijing has proved that it can, in fact, nail Jell-O
to the wall. A 2003 study by Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, two
Harvard researchers, found that China has created the most extensive system
of Internet censorship in the world and has almost completely controlled the
impact of the Web on dissent. It has done this, they note, by mandating that
all Web traffic go through government-controlled servers and by constructing
an elaborate system of firewalls–which prevent access to certain
websites–and online monitoring by state security agents. Censored sites
include much of the Western media and sites related to Taiwan,
democratization, and other sensitive topics. (The New York Times won a
reprieve only when its former editor appealed personally to former President
Jiang Zemin.) In their book, Kalathil and Boas note that Saudi Arabia has
constructed similarly comprehensive systems to limit online dissent,
expanding their “censorship mechanism to keep pace with the burgeoning
sources of objectionable content.” What’s more, various authoritarian
regimes have collaborated with one another to improve their ability to
control the Web. As Kalathil and Boas note, China is formally advising Cuba
on its Internet policies, while several Middle Eastern states have looked to
Singapore as an example in controlling their citizens’ Web usage.

In such efforts, authoritarian regimes have also benefited from the
willingness of Western companies to sell the latest censorship technology.
Cybersecurity companies, such as San Jose-based Secure Computing, have
competed intensely to sell Web-filtering and -monitoring technology to
Riyadh, Beijing, and other repressive governments. One vice president of
Websense, a San Diego company that competed for the Saudi contract, told the
Times in 2001 that it would “be a terrific deal to win.” Unsurprisingly,
these companies have not made a similar effort to provide cash-poor
dissidents in these nations with technology that could enable them to
overcome firewalls or conceal their online identities. In a 2002 study,
Michael Chase and James Mulvenon, two rand researchers, found that the
Chinese authorities were able to prevent Internet users from accessing
anti-monitoring technology 80 percent of the time.

China also has co-opted its own local Internet content providers. In 2002,
the country’s leading Web entrepreneurs signed a pledge vowing to promote
self-discipline in Web usage and encourage “the elimination of deleterious
information [on] the Internet.” Some of these Internet entrepreneurs are
former dissidents who fled China after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising but have
since abandoned their political activism, returning to China seeking Web
fortune. In fact, as Kalathil and Boas note, “Many of China’s up-and-coming
Internet entrepreneurs see a substantial … role for the government in the
Internet sector. … [They] have visions for Chinese Internet development
that are inherently pragmatic and complementary to state strategy.” So much
for Barlow’s idea that technology workers will reject the “tyrannies” of

In the past two years, as authoritarian regimes have become more
sophisticated in controlling the Web, many of them have been able to
leverage that control to create climates of online self-censorship.
According to Nina Hachigian, an expert on China at the Pacific Council on
International Policy, the knowledge that the Chinese government monitors
online activity, combined with Internet laws so broad they could apply to
almost any Web surfer, effectively scare most users into avoiding political
sites altogether. As Gary Rodan, a Southeast Asia specialist at Murdoch
University in Australia, notes in an essay on Singapore in Political Science
Quarterly, “When extensive networks of political surveillance are already in
place and a culture of fear about such practices exists, the impact of
monitoring is likely to be strong.”

To maintain this fear, Internet cops in China launch periodic crackdowns on
the Web, arresting and prosecuting Chinese citizens for posting Web items
related to democracy or to helping people evade firewalls. Beijing also has
shuttered thousands of Internet caf? over the past four years. On a visit
to Shanghai in 1999, I noticed numerous new caf?. By 2003, many had been
closed. Other authoritarian regimes have used similar bullying tactics to
foster climates of self-censorship online. Singapore also has drafted broad
Internet laws that could implicate many Web users and, Kalathil and Boas
report, has reinforced citizens’ paranoia by occasionally arresting people
for posting articles critical of the government and by periodically
reminding the public that the country’s one Internet service provider, which
is connected the government, snoops through users’ Web accounts. The
Vietnamese government has made owners of Internet caf? responsible for
anything users post online and has made a series of arrests over the past
two years of people who posted dissident articles. In January, Hanoi
sentenced a man who used the Web to criticize the Vietnamese government to
seven years in prison.

Even beyond its failure to live up to democratizers’ dreams, the Web may
actually be helping to keep some dictatorships in power. Asian dissidents
have told me that the Web has made it easier for authoritarian regimes to
monitor citizens. In Singapore, Gomez says, the government previously had to
employ many security agents and spend a lot of time to monitor activists who
were meeting with each other in person. But, with the advent of the Web,
security agents can easily use government-linked servers to track the
activities of activists and dissidents. In fact, Gomez says, in recent years
opposition groups in Singapore have moved away from communicating online and
returned to exchanging information face-to-face, in order to avoid

In China, the Web has similarly empowered the authorities. In the past two
decades, Beijing’s system of monitoring the population by installing
informers into businesses, neighborhoods, and other social institutions has
broken down–in part because the Chinese population has become more
transient and in part because the regime’s embrace of capitalism has meant
fewer devoted Communists willing to spy for the government. But Beijing has
replaced these legions of informers with a smaller group of dedicated
security agents who monitor the Internet traffic of millions of Chinese.
“The real problem with groups trying to use the Internet is that you are
actually more easily monitored if you use online forms of communication than
if you just meet in person in secret,” one specialist in Chinese Internet
usage told me. Indeed, in May 2003 Beijing’s security services imprisoned
four people for “inciting the overthrow of the Chinese government”; press
reports suggested the authorities learned about the dissidents’ movements
through reports on pro-democracy websites. Later, in February of this year,
Beijing charged Du Daobin, a well-known Internet dissident, with “inciting
subversion of state power and the overthrow of China’s socialist system.”

In the Middle East, security services have used the Internet in similar
ways. In Egypt, police once had to conduct time-consuming stakeouts of bars
and clubs to find gay men breaking the laws against homosexuality. Yet, in
2002, the Associated Press reported that a group of state security agents
went “online masquerading as gay men … [and] arrested men … who
responded to the ads.” In its most recent annual report on human rights in
Egypt, the State Department noted, “Egyptian police have continued to target
homosexuals using Internet-based sting operations.”

What’s more, authoritarian regimes have begun flooding the Web with their
own content, using high-profile websites to actually increase support for
the government. Kalathil and Boas report that e-government services “are
likely to boost regime legitimacy, particularly in countries [like Singapore
and China] where the state has traditionally offered extensive services
[such as social welfare programs] in exchange for political support.”
Singapore has indeed developed one of the most extensive e-government sites
in the world, and Hachigian’s research shows that nearly one-tenth of all
sites in China are directly related to the Beijing regime. Some of these
sites, such as the e-government sites for Beijing municipality, are very
sophisticated and include sections in which citizens can e-mail Beijing’s
mayor with suggestions. (There is little evidence, however, that the mayor
feels any need to respond to or even read the submissions.)

Dictators also have poured money into the websites of state-linked media
outlets, helping to make them more appealing than their independent
competitors. Gomez says that The Straits Times, the government-linked
newspaper in Singapore with the most sophisticated and comprehensive
website, is where nearly everyone in Singapore goes for news. Similarly, the
People’s Daily, a leading party publication in China, now has a very
sophisticated Internet presence and has become a leading source of news for
wired Chinese. Its chat rooms have become notorious for their nationalistic
sentiment–partly the consequence of security bureau Beijing agents logging
into the rooms and posting xenophobic statements. Indeed, during crises like
the China-U.S. spy-plane incident in 2001 and the run-up to last week’s
election in Taiwan, Beijing has utilized these chat rooms to whip up
patriotic sentiment.

In the long run, the Internet may fulfill some of its hype as an engine of
liberalization. Gomez told me that small civil society groups that do not
attract as much attention from state security agents–professional
organizations, charities, religious groups–are where the Internet’s true
potential is likely to be. Not, in other words, with groups pushing for
regime change. Chinese environmental organizations provide an example of how
smaller groups can benefit: These single-issue groups, which normally focus
on one environmental problem, have used the Web to coordinate meetings.
What’s more, by empowering small companies, the Web may decrease state
control of the economy. In New Media, New Politics? From Satellite
Television to the Internet in the Arab World, a recent study of technology
in the Middle East, Jon Alterman reports that, in countries like the Persian
Gulf states, the spread of the Web may allow small, nimble entrepreneurs to
challenge the massive, state-linked companies that have been the foundations
of autocratic regimes.

While recognizing that the Internet is not developing into the political
tool many had predicted, governments and private companies could help
promote the Web’s gradual emergence as a force for change. In the House of
Representatives, Christopher Cox has sponsored legislation to allow U.S.
companies to more easily export encryption technology, which lets Internet
users send coded messages that cannot be monitored by central governments.
Other legislators have proposed a U.S. Office of Global Internet Freedom
designed to facilitate the reform of Internet policies around the world.
Most important, the private sector could push regimes not to crack down on
Internet freedoms. Such an idea is not wishful thinking. China, Malaysia,
Singapore, and other authoritarian states desperately want to prove that
they are modern, First World nations, and mastering the Internet is
essential to this image. Malaysia has built a massive “Multimedia Super
Corridor” in an attempt to create a local version of Silicon Valley, while
Singapore has promoted itself as an “Intelligent Island” hardwired into the
Web. Consequently, foreign companies can have some influence over dictators,
since, without their assistance, authoritarian regimes cannot realize their
pretensions of modernity. According to The New York Times, John Kamm, the
former head of Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce, once gave a speech
at a banquet for Zhou Nan, Beijing’s senior representative in the city, in
which he asked Zhou to push for the release of a prominent student detained
during the Tiananmen Square protest. Though in public Zhou reacted icily to
Kamm’s request, a month later the student was released.

But neither Western governments nor Western companies seem likely to step up
to the plate. Since the war on terrorism began, the Bush administration has
been at pains not to ruffle Beijing’s feathers. (Indeed, in an ironic twist,
the White House is now considering Web-surveillance techniques similar to
those utilized by the Chinese government.) Meanwhile, as the
information-technology sector continues to struggle, most tech companies are
unwilling to risk alienating potential clients, such as the Chinese
government. In part, this eagerness to jump into bed with Beijing and Riyadh
reflects the economic reality of a sector no longer in a state of permanent
expansion. And, in part, it represents the transition of the Web from a
technology run by civil-libertarian geeks like Barlow to one dominated by
relatively conservative, large corporations. “In the mid-1990s, there was
this feeling among the Web’s early users that it had to be a medium to
promote freedom,” says author George. “But companies like AOL, they don’t
share that commitment–they focus on entertainment.” Indeed, Yahoo! and
America Online have both willingly censored their news content to please
authoritarian regimes like China. “I haven’t seen any businesses pushing
governments in this way,” Gomez told me. “People are giving up on the idea
of the Internet as a frontier for freedom.”

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