Analyses of recent political upheaval in authoritarian systems such as those in Peru, Mexico, and Yugoslavia, largely ignore any role the Internet may have played in spurring political change. At the same time, many experts recognize that political activists in various countries may have affected political developments by using Web sites and e-mail lists to communicate and organize -- witness such activity in the years leading up to the fall of long-standing Indonesian president Suharto. In sum, there is no consensus on whether there is a clear-cut mechanism that connects the Internet with democratic transitions around the world. Yet the relationship between the Internet and democratization is gaining greater attention in both policy circles and the developing world. Asia's rapid technological development, as well as its growing strategic importance, makes the question of Internet-related democratization especially relevant in this region.
Some believe that the Internet will play a crucial role in cracking open closed regimes and deepening new democracies, especially those in Asia where access to the Internet is growing rapidly. They point to the use of the Internet by groups such as China's Falun Gong, which marshaled thousands of protesters for a peaceful sit-in in front of the leadership compound in Beijing. They also note that Internet cafes have appeared in abundance everywhere from communist Vietnam to democratic South Korea, offering opportunities for citizens to exchange views and learn about the world beyond their borders.
On the other hand, many Asian countries have created skeins of Internet regulations tangled enough to ensnare even the most enthusiastic proponents of Internet-driven democratization. China's urban centers may teem with new Web startups and hip Internet cafes, but central authorities continue to smother them with restrictive edicts, arrest violators and promote self-censorship. And some governments have gone even further in attempting to control the Internet: They have adopted top-down approaches for promoting the Internet for economic development.
Democracy's New Standard-bearer?
So it is not yet clear if the Internet will become democracy's new standard-bearer. This is partly due to the novelty of the technology -- the Internet did not exist in its current form during the democratic transitions commonly referred to as "the third wave," a term used by political scientists to refer to democratic transitions that took place between 1974 and 1990. Also, although a connection has long been posited between the spread of information and communication technology (ICT) and democracy, there have been few academic studies to measure the Internet's role in fostering democracy in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries.
Additionally, it would be premature to discuss the Internet's political impact without mentioning its penetration, defined generally as Internet users per capita. In Asia, Internet use is growing in newly industrializing countries like Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as in developing countries such as China and India. Yet this does not mean that all of Asia will be wired at the same time or speed. According to estimates in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Internet penetration is expected by 2004 to top 50 percent in the more developed countries of Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Malaysia, which has enthusiastically promoted a wired economy, is expected to see penetration of around 23 percent by the same year, while elsewhere in east and southeast Asia, such as in the Philippines, penetration is not predicted to reach six percent or, in some cases, even one percent, as in Indonesia. Even in China and India, both huge countries that are emphasizing the incorporation of ICT into development strategies and their economies as a whole, penetration is not expected to exceed six percent by 2004.
Such numbers help encapsulate technology's reach, but they reveal little about the Internet's political impact. In order to understand the role the Internet may play in democratization, it is important to examine who is using the Internet, where it is used, and for what purposes. While there are several ways to disaggregate the Internet's political impact, here it can be analyzed in two key areas: civil society and government.
Civil society, broadly defined as a political realm of ideas and actors separate from state influence or control, is now generally recognized by many scholars as a necessary condition for the democratization process. Civil societal uses of the Internet can be broken down into use by domestic and transnational advocacy groups, civic groups without explicitly political agendas, fledgling opposition movements in authoritarian regimes, and more broadly the mass public. Non-governmental organizations and other civil societal organizations are expanding their use of the Internet in a number of ways. These range from South Korean civic groups holding online membership drives to Indonesian protesters using e-mail to coordinate activities. Internationally, advocacy groups also maintain pressure on authoritarian regimes through e-mail campaigns that connect expatriates and dissidents while keeping Western governments informed of developments on the ground.
Governments, on the other hand, are both reacting to the Internet's use by civil society and using it as a tool to further their own agendas. Authoritarian countries such as China walk a fine line between reaping the economic benefits of the technology -- for instance, through increased and value-added productivity, skill modernization and job creation -- and surrendering a measure of political control. Many governments are trying to regulate the Internet. They are also taking advantage of the Internet to streamline bureaucracy and combat corruption. Opposition political parties are using it to organize support and disseminate information.
Fighting Suharto by E-mail
When considering the Internet's impact on democratization, it is easy to imagine networks of dissidents furiously coordinating protests through rapid-fire e-mail while the prevailing power structure groans and buckles under the weight of these political electrons. In practice, of course, things aren't quite so simple. Yet this scenario does contain a grain of truth.
In China, where independent associations are still technically forbidden, groups have used the Internet to communicate and organize. The Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual movement that disseminates its teachings in part through Web sites and e-mail, has used these Internet resources to organize protests. In April 1999, over ten thousand practitioners staged a silent protest -- enabled in part by Internet-based organization -- in front of the Chinese leadership compound in Beijing. (The government reacted by suppressing the Falun Gong's Internet presence in China, shutting down its domestic Web sites and setting up its own counter-propaganda on the Web.)
Technology has also played a role in Indonesia's civil society. Anti-Suharto protesters coordinated their message through interactive forums such as news groups and chat rooms during the final years of the Suharto regime. E-mail discussion lists, often based outside Indonesia, became essential to political communication between critics of Suharto's regime inside and outside the country. According to authors David Hill and Krishna Sen, the Maryland-based e-mail list popularly known as apakabar (meaning "what's news?") which contains uncensored and unedited Indonesian hard news, political gossip and commentaries, helped non-governmental organizations share information with each other. By the end of 1995, Hill and Sen note, the list reached over 10,000 people, most of them Indonesians living in Indonesia. Certain Indonesian political groups, such as PIJAR (meaning "flame"), a student anti-Suharto group, also used the Internet to e-mail supporters abroad.
Internet-based organizing may help grassroots networks gain enough momentum to coalesce into formal political opposition. When Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had his deputy Anwar Ibrahim wrongly dismissed and arrested, the immediate outcry was amplified by online protest, both within and outside the country. Web sites set up by Anwar's supporters challenged the official government line on the incident. They kept local Malaysians informed of news that might not otherwise have penetrated, such as criticism of Anwar's arrest by neighboring southeast Asian countries. Ironically, this Internet-aided mobilization would not have been possible had the Malaysian government not made a point of pushing technology as a development tool. It is for these reasons that authoritarian neighbors in Asia are wary of the Internet's modernization potential.
The international community pays the most attention to Internet use by civil society when it occurs in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian countries. But civil societal groups which use technology to enhance their influence may find the most fertile ground for their activities in relatively recent democracies. South Korea, one of the newer and more vibrant democracies in Asia, boasts an active civil society that is starting to use the Internet in innovative ways to sustain and deepen the process of democratic consolidation. Certain civic groups now use e-mail to influence government officials and political parties. In January 2000, for instance, more than 500 civic groups and NGOs came together in a successful effort to demand the revision of the electoral code. Such groups are also using the Internet to publish reports on politicians' voting records as well as poor attendance records in the legislature. Meanwhile, although political demonstrations are restricted, civil societal groups have hosted "Internet rallies," during which they recruit new members, organize letter writing campaigns, and debate policy.
The Internet's impact on civil society is not limited to its use by non-governmental political advocacy groups. The Internet also makes possible the proliferation of unfiltered news channels through which a country's people can be informed and influenced. Take Indonesia, where online groups and e-mail lists that interpret and recast domestic news for local audiences continue to thrive, years after the collapse of the Suharto regime which they were created to protest.
The International Community
The international community has played an important role in mobilizing support for (usually) democratic causes on the Internet. In Burma (Myanmar), for instance, where the ruling military junta closely controls the Internet, international pressure makes itself felt through the involvement of groups such as the Free Burma Coalition. Activists have told Western media that the Internet enables the Burmese communities outside the U.S. to connect with each other, stay informed about events within Burma, and act quickly to protest government abuses of power as they happen. One online Burma news service based in Japan compiles news from Burma using various sources and e-mails it to several thousand mailboxes daily.
The international community can also use the Internet to pressure undemocratic governments indirectly. By drawing the attention of policymakers in their own countries to human rights violations and abuses of power in specific regimes, they can exert influence through diplomatic channels or through the international media. The Committee to Protect Journalists circulates and posts on its Web site letters protesting certain governments' restrictions on Internet free speech. These letters go to entities such as the U.S. State Department, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, though tangible results from these activities are hard to measure. And Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has noted that, when Cambodian ruler Hun Sen ordered him arrested and forced him to flee to United Nations headquarters, e-mails sent to the U.N. and journalists by the international community pressured Hun Sen's security apparatus to halt the arrest at the last minute. "Because of the e-mail, people could move in time to warn Hun Sen (about the repercussions of his ordering my arrest)," Rainsy told the online magazine Salon.
Big Brother on The Web
Civil society is not the only group of actors which recognizes the potential political power of the Internet. Authoritarian governments are wary of the political communication the Internet makes possible. Many have pushed measures to control the technology and shape the Internet's development to their needs. In some cases, an authoritarian regime deals with the problem of new technology by simply not allowing any Internet penetration at all, save for members of the society's political and business elite. Given that North Korea prevents its citizens from accessing the Internet, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's recent request for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's e-mail address seems especially ironic.
Some countries, such as Burma and Laos, have embraced measures designed to prevent the Internet and even simpler technologies such as fax machines from reaching the majority of citizens. Laos recently set up a government body to regulate the Internet which prohibits online data theft, pornography, the publication of national secrets and using the Internet to protest against the government. Burma's ruling junta regularly taps telephone lines and intercepts those few authorized e-mails that are allowed -- ordinary citizens generally do not have access to the Internet. It also mandates that fax machines, computers, and satellite dishes be registered with the government. In 1996, Burma passed a law that promises seven to 15 years in prison for anyone who attempts to use the Internet without prior permission from the proper government authority. New sets of Internet regulations which prohibit the use of the Web for political speech were introduced in January 2000.
As might be expected, the most extreme examples of Internet regulation come from regimes most fearful of uncontrolled communication and organization. China, which has adopted a slightly more measured approach than Burma to regulating Internet use, has blocked certain Web sites such as that of The Washington Post and published exhaustive guidelines for Web site operation and content. Yet the Chinese government actively encourages the development of Internet businesses and an Internet-savvy culture, primarily to ensure that the technology's economic benefits don't pass the country by. To reconcile its economic interest in promoting the Internet with its political need to squelch free-flowing information, the government relies on broad regulatory phrases -- such as making it a crime for anyone to publish "state secrets" on the Internet -- to leave itself plenty of room for maneuver when deciding how and where to selectively crack down. The possibility of being shut down by the government has encouraged self-censorship by Internet companies -- which in turn has dampened online political communication.
The Uses of E-Government
Many Asian governments, both authoritarian and democratic, have also made concerted efforts to implement e-government measures, some of which rival those of the most wired countries in Europe and North America. Such measures include everything from putting the minutes of administrative meetings online to allowing members of the public to find and contact local officials easily through government Web sites. Proponents of e-government say it can make the inner workings of government more transparent and ease communication between local branches of the bureaucracy, leading to quicker government processes and more effective policy. Asian democracies believe e-government measures enhance open and representative government while authoritarian regimes see them as way to consolidate central power.
Even a relative newcomer to the concept like Japan, which lags among developed nations in terms of Internet infrastructure and content, is trying to make ICT development a national goal. A proposed five-year plan set to begin immediately would set up an accessible, low-cost nation-wide public Internet framework which includes a proposal for an online government initiative. This e-government initiative would create a more efficient bureaucracy and be better able to connect citizens to government services online.
But online government is not limited to democracies. A strengthened bureaucracy in China, for instance, may enhance the power of the central government by helping it keep a tight grip on the economy through better control of provincial taxation, an area with which it has had problems in the past. The country implemented a "Government Online" project in early 1999 which aims to get a majority of government organs online. The project's goals include posting online government functions, duties, organizational structure and administrative procedures, making available government documents and archives, releasing the daily activities of government departments, and implementing an electronic filing system for documents to improve administrative efficiency. Chinese officials have also been discussing ways to effectively implement an online taxation system, which could significantly increase the central government's financial strength and give it more power over the richer and more economically independent coastal provinces. The government is also considering having online auctions to combat corruption in awarding government contracts.
Singapore, whose tiny size makes the balance between ICT promotion and control somewhat more manageable, has adopted a sophisticated approach to handling new technology. In the past, it has developed laws to encourage business and elite use of technology -- such as permitting large companies the use of satellite dishes -- while steering the public toward government-approved (and more easily filtered) channels, such as cable television. With the Internet, the government has relied on monitoring media content and a censorship-friendly national culture to promote non-offensive online political communication. At the same time, the government is promoting the use of the Internet by all its citizens, and has overtaken most industrialized countries in putting government services online; it is planning to spend around 1.5 billion Singapore dollars (US$1.16 billion) in the next three years on its e-Government Action Plan. This plan already offers consumer services, such as the ability to apply for telephone, utilities and television licenses. The plan will further invest in technology, train public servants to use new ICT, and adapt decision-making and administration systems to the information age. Already, 40 percent of Singapore's tax payers submit returns via the Internet. According to USA Today, just 28 percent of U.S. tax returns were filed online in 2000.
Even rulers of the most restrictive regimes are doing more than simply worrying about and trying to regulate the Internet. In Burma, for instance, the Internet is being used to disseminate propaganda. The New Light of Myanmar, the Burmese government's online English newspaper, carries military propaganda and daily updates on foreign goodwill visits by Burma's leadership. The government also runs the official Web site Myanmar.com, which attempts to legitimize the current government by offering "the golden land" as an ideal tourist destination.
Opposition parties in democracies and semi-authoritarian countries are trying to use the Internet to mobilize popular support and publicize their political views internationally. However, their success in using the Internet to share their politics depends on how severe, and how well enforced, their government regulations on Internet use are. In Singapore, the ruling People's Action Party dominates use of the Internet for political purposes. Opposition parties have nonetheless attempted to use the medium to disseminate their messages. Two such parties set up Web sites in 1996, although they were subsequently ordered to remove candidate biographies and posters from the sites and accused of having contravened the Parliamentary Elections Act, which did not provide for campaigning on the Internet (although it did not specifically forbid it either).
It seems, then, that the Internet can be conducive to both the institutions of democracy and the institutions of authoritarianism. It is true that penetration is growing, and that as more people gain access to the technology, they will be able to participate in forums such as e-mail discussions and chat rooms. There have already been instances of grass-roots organizing aided or even enabled by the Internet, and in some cases, the public may actually be able to petition a government that may be responsive to their views. Yet it would be unwise to assume that the effects of technology can flow in only one political direction, toward democracy. A quick look at the controversy over online privacy in the U.S. gives a chilling glimpse of the potential for surveillance that the Internet also provides -- potential which authoritarian governments are certain to recognize.
As evidenced by many Asian countries, governments both dictatorial and democratic are eager to put technology to their own uses -- and those in the former category are not quite as unsophisticated in their methods as those in the latter might hope. China's combination of outright censorship, extensive regulations, selective arrests, and promotion of self-censorship by the private sector shows that it is at least attempting to work out a nuanced method of control, even if the success of its strategy has yet to be proven. Even a military junta like Burma's has demonstrated that it is growing proficient at using the Internet to draw in tourists and hard currency.
As these examples show, one must be cautious about drawing easy conclusions. Freedom of expression does not automatically lead to a full-blown constitutional democracy. It is possible that in Asia and other regions, the Internet may help destabilize authoritarian regimes but not necessarily pave the way toward liberal democracy, leading to an as-yet-unforeseen political situation. Moreover, many other factors weigh heavily in the process of democratization, and the Internet, if it plays a role at all, should not assume a place of unwarranted importance simply because it happens to be a buzzword.