Internet & Democracy

My recent trip to Washington D.C. to appear before the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission has me thinking a lot about the Internet, censorship and democracy. This is an old but still interesting discussion. Some believe that there is basically a direct corelation between the Internet and democratization. Others suggest that the Internet can actually strengthen authoritarian regimes. But beneath the surface of the rhetoric we can and do see spaces of public debate expanding and the boundaries of information control challenged. Unfortunetly, these developments are often overlooked when they do not conform with preconcieved notions of what democracy is.

In an often quoted speech Colin Powell said “[t]he rise of democracy and the power of the information revolution combine to leverage each other.” He continued:

Over one hundred million people are connected by this company and its various services. They can instant-message, they can e-mail, they can trade photos, papers, ideas, dreams, likes and dislikes — all without customs posts, visas, passports, tariffs, guard towers, or any other way for governments to interfere. With the speed of light, they can communicate. With the speed of light, the concept of freedom can travel around the world.

The Internet is a tool, like any other, that can be both used and abused. We know that governments around the world, much like companies, schools, libraries, and parents, restrict access to Internet content they don’t want their citizens, employees, students, patrons and children to have access to. There are many ways, both technical and non-technical for “governments to interfere” with online communications. In fact, all governments do it to a certain degree demcratic and authoritarian. What seems to be the difference is the way in which filtering is imposed and type of information targetted. So, authoritarian regimes come under much more scrutiniy because of the non-transparent way in which filtering is implemented and the fact that the targetted content is often blocked for political reasons.

It is within this scenario that the link between the Internet and democracy is forged (despite the undemocratic nature in which filtering takes place in non-authoritarian countries). But it has become rather clear that this connection has indeed been overated. Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas wrote about this in the past suggesting that “[d]espite the challenge the Internet poses to authoritarian regimes, it can in fact be used to fortify these regimes instead of threatening them.”

In fact, there is “censorship connection” between democracies and authoritarian regimes. There are a variety of corporations in democratic countries that manufacture hardware and software that filters Internet content and they do not hesitate to sell these products to authoritarian regimes. They see technology as “neutral”. They say they cannot control how their customers use technology. So they continue providing the infrastructure for censorship and surveillance. The irony here is that depite the rhetoric of democracy, democracies themselves are faciltating the creation of censorship and sureveillance regimes in authoritarian countries.

The abundance of information on the Internet and the competing propaganda is not inherently democratic. Democracy is not something that is imposed. Freedom of expression is not synonomous with flooding a target population with your political views. Freedom is not an export.

Even within confined, controlled spaces democratic practices can make headway. As the boundaries of information control are challenged and new locations of public debate expanded democratic practices are enhanced. Unfortunetly, these developments are often overlooked when they do not conform with preconcieved notions of what democracy is — when the expansion of free speech does not mean conformity with exported speech.

When we view democracy and something organic, a situation in which people have increasing influence participation in decisions that affect their lives, when journalism, politics and economics become participatory — not exclusively elite — then an analysis of the Internet’s impact on democratization becomes entirely different.

Stay tuned.

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