The Internet can serve as potent a tool to oppress a national population as it is a way for those oppressed to communicate secretly and foment rebellion against dictatorial authorities, according to a new study.
Widespread assumptions and anecdotal evidence that democratic movements are made stronger by the ability to use Internet technology to share information and communicate covertly are over-optimistic and ignore the Internet’s ability to act as a stick as well as a carrot, according to political-science researcher Martin Karlsson of Orebro University in Sweden.
The ability of an oppressed population to access the Internet is, at best, an inconvenience to governments that don’t allow their populations to vote or have any overt role in governance, according to Karlsson’s study “Carrots and Sticks: Internet governance in non-democratic regimes,” which was published in the current edition of the International Journal of Electronic Governance.
Karlsson’s analysis is based on levels of “e-participation” – in blogs, micro-blogs such as Twitter, Web forums and other forums for online activism – from a host of authoritarian nations including Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Syria, Vietnam, and Iran.
He compared participation data in each country with information showing levels of online surveillance, content-filtering and censorship to form a picture of the level of Internet freedom he characterizes as the “carrot,” with punishment or enforcement techniques he calls “the stick.”
Many non-democratic countries, including China, tightly restrict the kinds of content residents can access, and monitor their activity online to seek out and punish those who break the rules.
Even countries that allow relatively open access to Internet resources, however, typically monitor that activity closely, using the façade of openness to draw out potential opponents, who can then be either more easily monitored, or arrested and punished.
In practice, levels of freedom, communication and information access provided by limited use of the Internet are overbalanced in authoritarian countries by efforts to make sure none of those things helps opponents organize or promote ideas counter to the interests of the government, Karlsson found: “These dual strategies of internet governance generate substantial doubts about the democratizing potential of the Internet.”
A similar study published in April 2012 concluded that the Internet is far more effective a medium for political change and political activity in countries that already have a measure of freedom.
“Instead of the internet promoting fundamental political change, it seems to reinforce political change in countries that already have at least some level of democratic freedoms,” according to Erik Nisbet, lead author of a study of 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia that evaluated their level of Internet access and levels of freedom both online and off.
While greater online activity and participation tends to bring oppressed communities closer together, it also gives the authorities enough additional control to offset any additional rebelliousness or political opposition unless some protections for those activities already exist, the study found.
Karlsson, who teaches in Orebro University’s School of Public Affairs, focuses his research almost exclusively on evaluating the efficacy of online blogging, campaigning and other political activity, especially compared to tradition political activities, as well as the controls that could limit the impact of both.
“Our results suggest that the internet can’t plant the seed of democracy in a country,” Nisbet said in a statement announcing publication of the study. “However, the internet may help democracy flourish if it has already started to grow.” Even in democratic countries, surveillance and political countermeasures create an unreasonable power for governments and unreasonable restrictions on their people, according to a petition signed in December by 562 authors from more than 80 countries in protest against surveillance by the NSA and the governments of other Western powers.
“The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual… all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested,” read the petition from Writers Against Mass Surveillance.
“This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes. A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”
Image: Shutterstock.com/ EvrenKalinbacak