by The New Republic | April 5, 2004

Vientiane, Laos 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 MTV.com. 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 co-opt. 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 ThinkCentre.org, 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 cafs 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 cafs 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.. .. 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 government. 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 cafs over the past four years. On a visit to Shanghai in 1999, I noticed numerous new cafs. 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 cafs 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 surveillance. 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."

By Joshua Kurlantzick

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