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Internet Arms Race

Whether the Internet will help or hinder the spread of democracy is still uncertain.
April 21, 2009

No matter where we are in the world, we change the dynamics of power when we use the Internet for political ends. Take a familiar case: the way community organizers used new technologies in Barack Obama’s 2008 election bid, which helped his cause and established a benchmark for other campaigns. In Kenya, the fact that bloggers are reporting publicly on debates in parliament for all the world to see gives politicians reason for pause before they speak and take action. In Switzerland and other advanced democracies, new technologies establish an important space for experimentation in public decision making. Each of these is a good thing.

We know, too, that the Internet is used as effectively by states as it is by activists, though often not in the interest of democratization. The Turkish government alters the political discourse when its censors tell the country’s Internet service providers to block all access to YouTube–which is widely popular there, as it is in the United States–because a video critical of Atatürk, the country’s modern founding father, popped up somewhere on the site.

The power of the Net is not lost on dictators or military juntas. The Internet is an extraordinary way to snoop on conversations and to look at documents sitting on hard drives in virtually every connected state in the world–as the recent exposure of a vast online spy network, centered in China, made plain.

It is not altogether clear, from the data we have, whether the Internet is a boon to the spread of democracy or its bane. The answer depends greatly on whether you are asking the question from an advanced democracy, from a state in transition, or from a country firmly under authoritarian control.

From the perch of a stable, prosperous state, the Internet is mostly a constructive force. True, we have hard problems to tackle, like how much surveillance we are willing to live with in the name of law enforcement and national security. And we ought to focus on ensuring that our kids, growing up in a digital era, are encouraged to use the Internet in safe, creative ways. But by and large, the Internet provides opportunities to improve our democracies and our economies.

In less democratic societies, sophisticated use of the Internet is limited to the few and the elite. Too often, using these tools puts activists at risk of greater control by the state, through surveillance, censorship, and imprisonment. Political leaders in dozens of states around the world are using digital tools to extend the reach of their power through propaganda, fear, and self-censorship. Resistance is limited to an impassioned, but widely dispersed, community of Internet activists. Bottom-up resistance plainly works at the margins: the tech-savvy can elude most censorship and surveillance most of the time (see “Dissent Made Safer,” p. 60). But so too can the smartest of tyrants keep the bulk of their citizens under greater, not lesser, control.

Digital technologies do not have a nature. They are what we make them. For those who care about human rights and the spread of democracy, alarm bells should be going off right now. The Internet may not be the universally positive influence we’ve been hoping for.

John Palfrey is the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a faculty codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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