Courtesy Reuters

Democracy in Cyberspace

What Information Technology Can and Cannot Do

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"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 and transmit photographs and videos of government crackdowns. The flood of words and images circulated by protesters following Iran's bitterly disputed 2009 presidential election -- quickly dubbed the "Twitter revolution" -- seemed to reinforce the view that Tehran has more to fear from "citizen media" than from the U.S. ships patrolling the Persian Gulf.

But a closer look at these examples suggests a more complicated reality. Only in democracies -- the Philippines, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Colombia -- did these communications weapons accomplish an immediate objective. In Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Iran, they managed to embarrass the government but not to remove it from power. As Wriston acknowledged, the information revolution is a long-term process, cyberspace is a complex place, and technological advances are no substitute for human wisdom. Innovations in modern communications may help erode authoritarian power over time. But for the moment, their impact on international politics is not so easy to predict.

There are many reasons why the optimistic view of the relationship among communications, information, and democracy has taken root in the United States. First, these communications tools embody twenty-first-century innovation, and Americans have long believed in the power of invention to promote peace and create prosperity. And with good reason. Admirers of Reagan argue that the United States' ability to invest in strategic missile defense sent the Soviet leadership into a crisis of confidence from which it never recovered. The light bulb, the automobile, and the airplane have changed the world, bringing greater personal autonomy to many Americans. Similarly, Americans believe that the millions of people around the world who use the Internet, an American invention, will eventually adopt American political beliefs, much like many of those who wear American jeans, watch American movies, and dance to American music have. Champions of the Internet's power to promote pluralism and human rights point to bloggers in China, Russia, and the Arab world who are calling for democracy and the rule of law for their countries, sometimes in English.

But of the hundreds of millions who blog in their own languages -- there are more than 75 million in China alone -- the vast majority have other priorities. Many more of them focus on pop culture rather than on political philosophy, on pocketbook issues rather than political power, and on national pride rather than cosmopolitan pretensions. In other words, the tools of modern communications satisfy as wide a range of ambitions and appetites as their twentieth-century ancestors did, and many of these ambitions and appetites do not have anything to do with democracy.

NET NEUTRALITY

A careful look at the current impact of modern communications on the political development of authoritarian states should give pause to those who hail these technologies as instruments of democratization. Techno-optimists appear to ignore the fact that these tools are value neutral; there is nothing inherently pro-democratic about them. To use them is to exercise a form of freedom, but it is not necessarily a freedom that promotes the freedom of others.

In enabling choice, the introduction of the Internet into an authoritarian country shares something fundamental with the advent of elections. Some have argued that promoting elections in one country in the Middle East will generate demand for elections elsewhere there. "A free Iraq is going to help inspire others to demand what I believe is a universal right of men and women," Bush said in July 2006; elections in Iraq would prompt the citizens of Iraq's neighbors to ask why Iraqis were now free to choose their leaders whereas they were not. Similarly, some have argued that the freedom that comes with the Internet will inevitably democratize China. Once Chinese people read about the freedoms of others, the thinking goes, they will want the same for themselves. The tools of modern communications will reveal to Chinese citizens the political freedoms they do not yet have and provide the means to demand them.

But the limited history of elections in the Middle East shows that people do not always vote for pluralism. Sometimes, they vote for security or absolutism, sometimes to express outrage or defend local interests. The same pattern holds true for the Internet and other forms of modern communications. These technologies provide access to information of all kinds, information that entertains the full range of human appetites -- from titillation to rationalization, from hope to anger. They provide the user with an audience but do not determine what he will say. They are a megaphone, and have a multiplier effect, but they serve both those who want to speed up the cross-border flow of information and those who want to divert or manipulate it.

Cyberspace can be a very dark place. In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier argues that the anonymity provided by the Internet can promote a "culture of sadism," feeding an appetite for drive-by attacks and mob justice. In China, the Internet has given voice to wounded national pride, anti-Western and anti-Japanese resentment over injuries both real and imagined, and hostility toward Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, and other minority groups. It has also become a kind of public square for improvised violence. In an article for The New York Times Magazine earlier this year, Tom Downey described the "human-flesh search" phenomenon in China, "a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath." The targets of these searches, a kind of "crowd-sourced detective work," as Downey put it, can be corrupt officials or enemies of the state, or simply people who have made other people angry.

These problems are hardly unique to China. In Russia, skinheads have filmed murderous attacks on dark-skinned immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia and posted the footage online. Also in Russia -- and in the United States and Europe -- hate groups and militants of various kinds use the Internet to recruit new members and disseminate propaganda. Of course, beyond all this fear and loathing, many more people around the world use the Internet as a global shopping mall and a source of entertainment. The Internet makes it easier for users with political interests to find and engage with others who believe what they believe, but there is little reliable evidence that it also opens their minds to ideas and information that challenge their worldviews. The medium fuels many passions -- consumerism and conspiracy theories, resentment and fanaticism -- but it promotes calls for democracy only where there is already a demand for democracy. If technology has helped citizens pressure authoritarian governments in several countries, it is not because the technology created a demand for change. That demand must come from public anger at authoritarianism itself.

STATESIDE

Citizens are not the only ones active in cyberspace. The state is online, too, promoting its own ideas and limiting what an average user can see and do. Innovations in communications technology provide people with new sources of information and new opportunities to share ideas, but they also empower governments to manipulate the conversation and to monitor what people are saying.

The collapse of Soviet communism a generation ago taught authoritarian leaders around the world that they could not simply mandate lasting economic growth and that they would have to embrace capitalism if they hoped to create the jobs and the higher standards of living that would ensure their long-term political survival. But to embrace capitalism is to allow for dangerous new freedoms. And so in order to generate strong growth while maintaining political control, some autocrats have turned to state capitalism, a system that helps them dominate market activity through the use of national oil companies, other state-owned enterprises, privately owned but politically loyal national champions, state-run banks, and sovereign wealth funds.

Following precisely the same logic, authoritarian governments are now trying to ensure that the increasingly free flow of ideas and information through cyberspace fuels their economies without threatening their political power. In June, the Chinese government released its first formal statement on the rights and responsibilities of Internet users. The document "guarantee[d] the citizens' freedom of speech on the Internet as well as the public's right to know, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee [the government] in accordance with the law." But it also stipulated that "within Chinese territory, the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty." That caveat legitimates China's "great firewall," a system of filters and re-routers, detours and dead ends designed to keep Chinese Internet users on the state-approved online path.

The Chinese leadership also uses more low-tech means to safeguard its interests online. The average Chinese Web surfer cannot be sure that every idea or opinion he encounters in cyberspace genuinely reflects the views of its author. The government has created the 50 Cent Party, an army of online commentators that it pays for each blog entry or message-board post promoting the Chinese Communist Party's line on sensitive subjects. This is a simple, inexpensive way for governments to disseminate and disguise official views. Authoritarian states do not use technology simply to block the free flow of unwelcome ideas. They also use it to promote ideas of their own.

NONALIGNED MOVEMENT

The techno-optimists who hope that modern communications tools will democratize authoritarian states are also hoping that they will help align the interests of nondemocracies with those of democracies. But the opposite is happening. Efforts by police states to control or co-opt these tools are inevitably creating commercial conflicts that then create political conflicts between governments.

In January, Google publicly complained that private Gmail accounts had been breached in attacks originating in China -- attacks that Chinese officials appeared to tolerate or even to have launched themselves. In protest, Google announced that it would no longer censor the results of users' searches in mainland China, which it had reluctantly agreed to do when it entered the Chinese market in 2006. Beijing refused to back down, and Google automatically redirected searches by Chinese users to the uncensored Hong Kong version of the site. But much to the relief of mainland users, mostly students and researchers who prefer Google's capabilities to its main domestic rival, Baidu, Chinese officials eventually announced the renewal of Google's operating license. (It is possible that they backtracked because they believed that they could control Google or use it to monitor the online activities of political dissidents.)

As Chinese technology companies begin to compete on a par with Western ones and the Chinese government uses legal and financial means to more actively promote domestic firms that see censorship as a routine cost of doing business, there will be less demand for Google's products in China. In August 2010, the state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Mobile, the country's largest cell-phone carrier, announced plans to jointly build a state-owned search-engine and media company. In response to these developments, U.S. technology companies will undoubtedly turn to U.S. lawmakers for help in creating and maintaining a level commercial playing field in China. Far from aligning American and Chinese political values and bringing the citizens of the two countries closer together, conflicts over the flow of information through cyberspace will further complicate the already troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Signs of strife are already visible. When Google first went public with its complaints about cyberattacks and censorship, Beijing looked past the company, which it sees as a high-tech arm of the U.S. government, and addressed its response directly to Washington. A Chinese Communist Party tabloid ran an editorial under the headline "The World Does Not Welcome the White House's Google"; it argued, "Whenever the U.S. government demands it, Google can easily become a convenient tool for promoting the U.S. government's political will and values abroad." In response, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged companies such as Google not to cooperate with "politically motivated censorship," further emphasizing the difference, not the convergence, of political values in the United States and China.

Revealing similar fears about the future of its political control, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia took action earlier this year against Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, for equipping its devices with encryption technology that authorities cannot decode. Arguing that terrorists and spies could use BlackBerries to communicate within the UAE without fear of being detected, Emirati officials announced in August that they would soon suspend BlackBerry service unless RIM provided state officials with some means of monitoring BlackBerry messaging. Within two days, Saudi Arabia announced a similar shutdown, although Riyadh and RIM have since reached a compromise that requires RIM to install a relay server on Saudi territory, which allows Saudi officials to monitor messages sent from and within the country. The UAE will probably also make a deal with RIM: there are half a million BlackBerry users in the UAE (about ten percent of the population), and the country wants to remain the Arab world's primary commercial and tourist hub. Yet far from promoting Western values in non-Western police states, the BlackBerry has sparked a new round of debate over the willingness of Western technology companies to protect their market shares by making concessions that help authoritarian governments spy on their citizens.

In fairness to these governments, the world's leading democracies are no less concerned about potential terrorist threats posed by unmonitored messaging. The Indian government has also threatened to ban BlackBerries unless RIM gives it access to certain data, and counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe are considering the option as well. Via efforts to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Obama administration has already taken steps to help the FBI gain access to "electronic communication transactional records" -- recipients' addresses, logs of users' online activities, browser histories -- without a court order if investigators suspect terrorism or espionage. Politicians and technology companies such as Google and RIM will be fighting these battles for years to come.

Of course, authoritarian governments, unlike democracies, also worry that individuals who are neither terrorists nor spies will use new communications tools to challenge their political legitimacy. China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian states cannot halt the proliferation of weapons of modern communications, but they can try to monitor and manipulate them for their own purposes. That struggle will continue as well, limiting the ability of new technologies to empower the political opposition within these countries and creating more conflicts over political values between democratic and authoritarian states.

FEEDBACK LOOPS

The Internet may have changed the world, but now the world is changing the Internet. For 30 years, new communications technologies have driven globalization, the defining trend of the times. The companies that created these products made long-term plans based on the wants and needs of consumers, not governments. Their profits rose as they connected billions of customers with one another; borders became increasingly less important.

But now, the pace of technological change and the threat of terrorism are forcing policymakers to expand their definitions of national security and to rethink their definitions of "critical infrastructure." As a result, governments are turning to high-tech communications firms to help shore up emerging security vulnerabilities, and high-tech communications firms have begun to think more like defense contractors -- companies whose success depends on secrecy, exclusivity, political contacts, and security clearances.

As a result, political borders, which the rise of information technology once seemed set to dissolve, are taking on a new importance: if greater openness creates new opportunities, it also creates new worries. Unable to match U.S. defense spending, China and Russia have become adept at information warfare. The Pentagon reported last August that China continues to develop its ability to steal U.S. military secrets electronically and to deny its adversaries "access to information essential to conduct combat operations." In 2007, a massive cyberattack launched from inside Russia damaged digital infrastructure in neighboring Estonia. The United States' vulnerabilities range from its nuclear power plants and electrical grids to the information systems of government agencies and major U.S. companies. Despite their political and commercial rivalries, the United States, China, Russia, India, and many other states also share a vulnerability to cyberattacks, and they have pledged to work together to build a joint cybersecurity strategy. But when it comes to espionage, governments can never fully trust one another. And of course the Obama administration does not want to share technologies that would make it easier for security officials in Beijing or Moscow to track the online activities of political dissidents.

Other problems will exacerbate international tensions. Technology firms in the United States and Europe, mindful of Google's recent troubles in China, will increasingly turn to their governments for help with their own security needs. As cyberthreats become ever more sophisticated, these companies will collaborate more actively with national security agencies on developing new technologies. This will pull more technology companies into the orbit of the military-industrial complex. That, in turn, will make them even more suspect to authoritarian regimes and likelier targets for hackers and spies of all kinds. Borders are about to become much more important.

The result will be a world that has not one Internet but a set of interlinked intranets closely monitored by various governments. The Internet is not about to disappear, but the prediction that a single Internet could accommodate both the West and the evolving demands of authoritarian states was never realistic. American and European users will access the same Internet as before, but the Chinese government has already made clear its intention to declare sovereignty over an Internet of its own. Other authoritarian states have every incentive to follow its lead.

There are far too many variables at work to predict with confidence the full, long-term impact of modern tools of communications on the political development of authoritarian states. But it seems safe to expect that their effects will vary as widely as the motives of the people and the states that use them.

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