Democracy in Cyberspace

What Information Technology Can and Cannot Do

Courtesy Reuters

"Information technology has demolished time and distance," Walter Wriston, the former CEO of what is now Citigroup wrote in 1997. "Instead of validating Orwell's vision of Big Brother watching the citizen, [it] enables the citizen to watch Big Brother. And so the virus of freedom, for which there is no antidote, is spread by electronic networks to the four corners of the earth." Former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have articulated a similar vision, and with similarly grandiose rhetoric. All have argued that the long-term survival of authoritarian states depends on their ability to control the flow of ideas and information within and across their borders. As advances in communications technology -- cellular telephones, text messaging, the Internet, social networking -- allow an ever-widening circle of people to easily and inexpensively share ideas and aspirations, technology will break down barriers between peoples and nations. In this view, the spread of the "freedom virus" makes it harder and costlier for autocrats to isolate their people from the rest of the world and gives ordinary citizens tools to build alternative sources of power. The democratization of communications, the theory goes, will bring about the democratization of the world.

There seems to be plenty of evidence to support these ideas. In the Philippines in 2001, protesters sent text messages to organize the demonstrations that forced President Joseph Estrada from office. In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, supporters of Viktor Yushchenko, then the leader of the opposition, used text messaging to organize the massive protests that became the Orange Revolution. In Lebanon in 2005, activists coordinated via e-mail and text messaging to bring one million demonstrators into the streets to demand that the Syrian government end nearly three decades of military presence in Lebanon by withdrawing its 14,000 troops. (Syria complied a month later, under considerable international pressure.) Over the past few years, in Colombia, Myanmar (also known as Burma), and Zimbabwe, demonstrators have used cell phones and Facebook to coordinate protests

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