Reprinted with permission from iMP: The Magazine on Information Impacts, October 2000.

?In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem? We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China. Now, there's no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet?good luck. That's sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.?

-President Bill Clinton, March 8, 2000.


?And the Internet, you know, has done a lot to bring democratic capitalism to other parts of the world. It was instrumental, I think, in bringing down the Berlin Wall. It was instrumental in having students protest the policies of East Berlin? CNN, the networks, and the Internet, were instrumental in the demise of the old Soviet Union. And we think the same thing should happen in Cuba.?

-Jim Courter, President of IDT Corporation and former six-term Republican Congressman, June 5, 2000.

There appears to be an increasingly strong consensus among politicians, policy wonks and pundits in the United States that the Internet is an irresistible force for democracy that will undermine authoritarian regimes around the world. For example, on a number of occasions, both President Clinton and Vice President Gore have suggested that the spread of the Internet will lead to the decay of authoritarian regimes, most notably in China. Other administration officials have expressed the same view, as have Texas Governor George W. Bush and an array of business leaders and media observers. [1] Indeed, the belief that the Internet will spread democracy throughout the developing world is so firmly held in Washington, D.C. policy circles that it is becoming an article of faith, one which can be questioned only at the risk of being labeled a terminal naysayer or pre-cyberspace dinosaur who simply doesn't "get it."

But on what does this faith rest? Certainly not on experience: in none of the democratic transitions that have occurred around the world over the past two decades could one plausibly argue that the Internet played an important -- much less crucial -- causal role. Of course, proponents of the faith could object that this is an unfair standard by which to judge because Internet access generally ranged from very limited to non-existent when the countries involved underwent these transitions. That the Internet did not figure prominently in the democratic transitions of the past does not mean that it will not do so in the future, particularly if the international community makes significant progress in tackling the global digital divide. [2]

This is a fair point, but proponents have not provided any systematic arguments as to why the future might be different from the past. Instead, they tend to cite anecdotal evidence of people living under repressive regimes using the Internet to "get the word out" about events or to organize politically and then leap to the conclusion that the governments involved will somehow be forced to relent as a consequence of these actions. From a social science standpoint, this is a classic example of a black box explanation, in which a cause is said to produce an outcome through mechanisms that are entirely unclear. To put it another way, such arguments appear to be based upon an explanatory leap of faith. One suspects that they also reflect a group-think dynamic among people who want to believe that increased information flow and Western-style democracy must go hand in hand, and that foreign publics, once adequately informed, will aspire to be "more like us."

Perhaps it would be unrealistic to expect politicians and pundits to sort systematically through such issues before heralding an Internet-driven transition to world-wide democracy. But the research community has not provided firm grounds for the faith of these optimists either. Indeed, the question has received relatively scant attention among scholars: most of the literature on democratization in the developing world does not explore the potential role of the Internet, while the literature on the Internet and electoral politics focuses largely on the United States and other advanced industrial democracies.

Furthermore, the few preliminary studies of the Internet and democratization provide little analytical support for the claims of the faithful. For example, in a macro-level study of 144 countries around the world, Christopher Kedzie has found a statistical correlation between network connectivity and political freedom, but he admits that these results cannot conclusively determine causality. Moreover, his most recent data are from 1993, before the Internet was much of a presence in the developing world. [3] Kevin Hill and John Hughes have analyzed the political content of postings to newsgroup discussions of authoritarian countries (such as soc.culture.cuba), but since few postings come from within the country in question, their predictions of democratic impact seem questionable. [4] Beyond these two cross-regional analyses, most research on the Internet and democratization in the developing world has focused individual case studies -- many of which have argued that the Internet will not necessarily bring about the downfall of authoritarian regimes. [5]

To be clear, we are not nay-saying curmudgeons who reject out of hand the possibility that the Internet could help to facilitate democratic transitions. While we are puzzled about the intellectual grounds upon which the true believers base their strong assertions, there may be something to their underlying proposition. But this is an analytical question that should be subjected to close investigation before firm conclusions are drawn.

Opening up the explanatory black box and assessing the potential connections between the Internet and democratization requires that we answer two sets of questions. First, how exactly might the Internet promote shifts to democracy and open societies? Where and under what circumstances might which sorts of Internet usage by whom lead to effective pressures for democratic change? Second, how might undemocratic governments respond to such pressures, and how sustained and effective are these responses likely to be over time, especially as the Internet takes on new technological capabilities? On the one hand, many such governments are currently attempting -- with varying degrees of vigor and success -- to carefully circumscribe public access, block Web sites, monitor and punish what they deem to be undesirable Internet behavior, etc. Even if such restrictions are haphazardly enforced, they can still have a substantial deterrent impact on pro-democracy activities. On the other hand, the future development of new services and applications could significantly increase the cost or difficulty of maintaining such controls.

Answering these questions requires that we empirically examine uses of the Internet to access or disseminate politically relevant information, attitudinal and behavioral changes associated with these uses, and governmental or other restrictions on such uses. Four spheres of Internet activity to consider are:

Civil Society. As there is growing consensus among practitioners and scholars that a vibrant civil society is a key contributor to democracy, the use of the Internet by both civil societal organizations (CSOs) and the mass public merits significant attention. Especially important in the former category are human rights and other advocacy groups that actively work to promote social change. In addition, community, charitable, educational and other groups with less directly political agendas can also enhance a nation's social capital and the formation and spread of democratic impulses. Hence, one could examine CSOs' use of the Internet to produce and distribute pro-democracy information, coordinate actions and form alliances with domestic and international counterparts and other organizations, contribute to democracy-building and civic education, etc. With regard to the latter category, one could consider the implications of the mass public's Internet usage, e.g., the demonstration effects of increasing awareness of the outside world and exposure to democratic ideas and practices; greater access to information about domestic events such as government abuses of power; and the building of social capital and liberal values through virtual communities on the Internet. In parallel, one should also assess the "dark side" of civil societal Internet usage by groups promoting ethnic hatreds or other causes that may work against democratization.

The Economy. Economic development and the growth of a middle class may be important contributors to democratization. Internet-based electronic commerce is set to boom in parts of the developing world (most notably Asia and Latin America) and will provide many new opportunities for individual entrepreneurs, small businesses, larger internationally-oriented companies, and consumers. The resulting invigoration of national economies could help to foster pro-democracy attitudes, e.g., by increasing demands for transparency, accountability, and "good government" and an end to "crony capitalist" practices that are out of synch with the ethos of the global Internet economy. Alternatively, in some cases even Internet-oriented businesspeople and consumers may prefer to go along with an undemocratic regime than to rock the boat. Hence, it would be worth attempting to gauge the impact of Internet-based economic activity on the broad tenor of national political cultures, as well as on the attitudes and political demands of relevant individuals, firms, trade associations, etc.

The Polity. Use of the Internet in the realm of government and party politics is obviously a central concern. Government uses of the Internet may include such democracy-friendly practices as promoting public access to government information and transparency in procurement and other administrative functions. Conversely, they may entail such democracy-unfriendly practices as promulgating pro-authoritarian propaganda or inciting ethnic or regional tensions for political gain. It is also important to evaluate Internet usage by opposition political parties and elites to organize, mobilize domestic and international support, facilitate negotiations with the state, and so on.

The International Community. International actors and events also can contribute to democratic transitions. Internet usage by foreign governments, human rights advocates and other internationally-oriented CSOs, and the global mass media may apply significant pressures for democratic change and consolidation. The Internet facilitates the world-wide dissemination of information about events in authoritarian countries, and it can be used to support pro-democratic elements within such countries or to mobilize international campaigns against their governments. Moreover, the Internet can contribute to global economic pressures on authoritarian regimes by facilitating capital flight, allowing access to information about economic mismanagement, and so on. On the other hand, some authoritarian regimes are not easily shamed and may respond to external pressures by whipping up nationalist sentiments against "foreign intervention" or imposing controls on flows of capital and information.

In each of these spheres of activity, there may be patterns of Internet usage and effects that favor democratization, that are neutral, or that work against democratic change. The challenge then is to assess whether the net effect is favorable for democracy or seems likely to trend that way in the future. Given the difficulty of gathering systematic data in developing countries (especially those under authoritarian regimes) and the inherent limitations on our ability to predict, making such judgments is likely to involve at least as much art as it does science. In this context, empirical research reflecting a strong grounding in a given country's history and culture will probably get us closer to the mark than abstract theorizing conducted from afar.

Finally, it bears noting that the Internet does not exist in a vacuum as a world unto itself. One could go wildly wrong by observing patterns of Internet usage alone and then jumping to the conclusion that a dictatorship is in danger. Just as the Internet is embedded in social and institutional forces existing in the "real world," so too, its political effects will depend on the interplay with off-line political dynamics like shifting elite preferences and coalitional dynamics, wider economic conditions, and diplomatic pressures from abroad. Indeed, it may be that these factors are sufficiently causal independent of any Internet activity, or that use of the Internet will play at best an intervening or facilitative role in future democratic transitions.

In light of these considerations, we offer snapshots of the Internet's political impact in two of the more repressive countries in which the faithful have predicted Internet-driven democratization: China and Cuba. While an extended dissection of these cases would be beyond the scope of this paper, our brief summary of current trends should be sufficient to show that caution is merited when assessing the Internet's democratic potential. In both countries there are some signs of Internet use that could eventually increase the pressure for democratic change. But it is equally evident that both regimes are acutely aware of this possibility and have responded accordingly. In at least the near to medium-terms, there are real grounds for skepticism that Internet use will lead to any significant political change in China and Cuba.


Since establishing China's first connection in 1993, the government has actively promoted Internet development while closely reining in its political use. In recent years, access and usage have developed at a phenomenal pace; one estimate predicts 20 million people online by the end of 2000. China also has witnessed a rapid increase in domains and Web sites -- roughly 20 percent per quarter, according to some estimates -- and more and more Internet users are accessing the Web from personal computers at home and the office, as well as from the more traditional areas of school and public Internet cafes. [6] As the Internet takes hold in the country, many international observers have begun to suggest that the technology poses an insurmountable threat to China's authoritarian regime. But the Chinese government has chosen to meet this challenge head-on, by combining (awkwardly, at times) the pursuit of Internet-driven economic goals with a number of restrictions.

Much of the speculation about the Internet's political effects in China has centered on its impact on civil society. As more and more of China's educated urban professionals (and especially the young) gain access to the Internet, the argument goes, they will be exposed to democratic norms and demand similar freedoms from their government. To be sure, many of China's young urban professionals are increasingly aware of foreign products, culture, and norms, and are gaining some of that exposure through the Internet. But while exposure to overseas political content is increasing in China, the Internet can also serve to reinforce extreme nationalist sentiment -- witness the outpouring of patriotic fervor and anti-Western opinion in (government-backed) chat-rooms following the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. [7] In addition, self-censorship is quite common among Chinese Internet users and even entrepreneurs, who flood their Chinese-language portals with politically safe, vapid content and hire "Big Mamas" to police bulletin boards. [8] Internet access and usage alone, therefore, clearly do not create a culture of western-style free speech and activism.

In addition to the Internet's impact on mass public opinion, many observers have focused on the possible impact of China's nascent civil societal organizations using the Internet to organize protest or publicize their cause. The most frequently mentioned case is that of the Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual movement that disseminates its teachings through the Web and has used e-mail to organize a major protest in Beijing. On an international scale, the Internet has helped the movement gain both members and exposure, but Chinese authorities have moved quite swiftly to suppress the Falun Gong's Internet use within the country. The group's domestic Web sites have long since been shut down, and access to overseas sites blocked, while the government has countered with its own message on an anti-Falun Gong Web site. [9]

Individual dissidents also have sought to use the Web to disseminate information, but have met with even less success. The government is not limited to censorship as it seeks to discourage Internet-based organization; a few well-placed crackdowns can also act as a strong deterrent. In the past, it has moved swiftly and prominently to arrest and sentence such offenders as Lin Hai, who sent a list of e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy magazine, or Huang Qi, who ran a human rights Web site. Such actions undoubtedly send a message to others who might use the Internet for democratic aims or to challenge existing institutions.

Yet those who equate the Internet with democratization point to more than its use by a small minority of dissidents. They also highlight the Internet's potential to spread democracy through its impact on the Chinese economy. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has been actively promoting the development of a national Internet infrastructure, emphasizing the developmental benefits of the technology and its potential to power economic growth. Through its Golden Projects, initiated in 1993, it has established a high-speed backbone and an electronic payment project. In addition, the government encourages technological development in the private sector through the creation of high-tech industrial zones (as in Beijing's Zhongguancun district), which incubate domestic Internet start-ups and encourage homegrown talent. [10] With government support helping to power forward the development of an information economy, conventional wisdom suggests, an emerging class of Internet-empowered entrepreneurs and an influx of foreign investors will eventually push for both political reforms and freedom of information.

In practice, there are several problems with this idea. First, support for Internet development among government officials is neither as unanimous nor as enthusiastic as might appear at first glance. Some of the government's rules concerning the Internet industry seem to be at odds with its general promotion of network growth and e-commerce. Despite China's sanctioning of competition in the sector, for example, the country's privately owned Internet service providers must lease telephone lines at high cost from China Telecom. For this reason, many are forced to rely on outside funding or other government ties. China Telecom's Internet service provider, the country's largest, also charges local users per hour for dial-up Internet access, further limiting mass usage.

Internet content providers also have run into regulatory hassles, ranging from conflicting rules about the definition of "state secrets" on the Web to capriciously imposed regulations on foreign ownership of domestic content providers. Both can be an unwanted deterrent to the influx of capital needed to bolster the country's fledgling and inexperienced start-up Internet companies. Recent regulations reiterate government bans on direct foreign investment in the industry, while requiring all Internet companies to apply for licenses by the end of November and stipulating that they are responsible for content carried on their sites. These stringent and complicated new rules -- which ask companies to maintain records of all information posted on their Web sites and all users who have connected to their servers in the past 60 days -- may serve to further alienate those who seek to invest in the sector. [11]

Second, whle many hype the possibility of an emerging class of Internet entrepreneurs driving political reform, it remains to be seen if (1) this class will actually emerge as an economically independent and powerful social force, and (2) it will take an active interest in politics, much less the politics of opposition. Indeed, a placated domestic business elite may be less likely to push for political reform. Similarly, Internet-driven economic development may help shore up the regime's legitimacy among the public at large, if people generally feel that the government has promoted growth and raised living standards through its embrace of the technology.

Finally, supporters of normal trade relations with China often assert that foreign investment will help open the country to more objective news and that overseas investors will pressure the Chinese government for greater freedom of information. Yet many foreign Internet investors in China -- those largely responsible for spearheading innovation and entrepreneurship in the sector -- have been afraid of compromising the government approval necessary for successful investment. They are both unwilling to speak up on political issues and largely self-censoring when publishing news on Chinese Web sites. For the time being, at least, the Chinese government is able to apply subtle pressure on international capital to ensure that the game is being played by its rules, rather than the other way around. [12]

In addition to the pursuit of economic gain, the Chinese government is attempting to exploit the Internet for its distinct administrative and political benefits, in particularly, the regime seeks to streamline streamline many of its government operations through networked information management, distribute propaganda online at the national and local levels, and consolidate Beijing's central authority through more efficient communication with provincial governments. Though its ambitions for e-government far outstrip its achievements, a number of departments and bureaucracies have established homepages or put databases and archives on the Web. Similarly, large national propaganda newspapers like The People's Daily maintain a strong Web presence and offer up popular chat-rooms for the masses. [13] In addition, China's State Council and Ministry of Information Industry are weighing the benefits of online auctions to increase transparency and reduce kickbacks in awarding government contracts, thereby addressing the corruption problem which the government sees as weakening central authority and impeding modernization. Clearly, the Chinese government is developing a more sophisticated understanding of the Internet's possibilities for e-government and political propaganda, and is actively using the medium to its advantage in addition to regulating content posted by others.

Optimism about the Internet's potential to democratize China is not limited to the effects of its use by those within its borders. As with other authoritarian regimes, dissidents and activists outside the country have initiated some of the most large-scale and well-publicized Web activity dealing with China, from information gathering and dissemination to overt calls for political action. Groups such as Human Rights in China and the Committee to Protect Journalists post news of arrests and human rights violations, circulate online petitions, and maintain e-mail databases of Chinese dissidents and other activists. Although it is unclear whether such transnational advocacy can directly influence internal Chinese politics, it does serve to inform international opinion and shape official U.S. policy toward China. As China increasingly opens its markets to the West and attempts to gain international legitimacy as both an economic and political world power, it may prove more susceptible to the forms of Internet-based advocacy employed by movements such as the anti-MAI coalition, which successfully used the Internet to mobilize and pressure governments and international organizations. To date, though, there has been little indication that international influence has played a concrete role in shaping domestic Chinese policy.

As the Internet spreads through China, then, it leaves a multifaceted imprint, one which cannot be easily characterized as either wholly conducive to democracy or as wholly reinforcing the institutions of authoritarianism. While Chinese citizens can now easily gain access to Western culture, products and ideas through the Internet, they can also participate in online interactions that shore up their sense of national identity, pride and values. Although the government is eager to promote an information-driven economy, its fears about loss of control have led it to promote a restrictive and uncertain regulatory environment. Domestic and international activists are eager to use the Internet as a tool for organizing and disseminating information, but the government is able to both track their activities and use punitive measures as a deterrent to others. Meanwhile, although overseas observers usually see the regime's role as strictly reactive in dealing with the Internet -- i.e., banning certain Western Web sites and censoring selected material -- it in fact is taking an increasingly proactive role, using the Internet not only to spread its own propaganda but to streamline its bureaucracy and consolidate central control. For these reasons, it is unwarranted to assume that the spread of the Internet will necessarily enhance democracy in China.


China's experience with the Internet may have received more international attention, but Cuba has also sought to take advantage of the medium in many similar ways. Under the radar screen of most observers, Cuba has been selectively promoting Internet development for several years now, and it has profited from the technology while controlling it even more stringently than the Chinese regime.

Since Cuba established its first direct Internet connection in 1996, Internet use has developed at a steady, if not explosive pace. Today, there are between 33,000 and 60,000 Cubans with e-mail access, several thousand of whom have full access to the World Wide Web. [14] These numbers may seem small in a country of 11 million, but the potential pace of growth is limited by a government policy allowing Internet access only through approved institutions -- select universities and places of employment. This policy ensures that the Internet is used mainly by the politically trustworthy, and only in environments where use can be informally monitored. There are still no Internet cafes allowed in Cuba, and individual access is prohibited, beyond a few well-connected individuals who work out of their homes. Essentially, Internet diffusion in Cuba is determined by government policy rather than the market, such that it exists in a still rigidly socialist country. [15]

Because of the Cuban government's strategy of restricting public Internet access, the medium is unlikely to have any notable effect on mass public opinion. This dynamic could change only if the regime altered its policy first. On the other hand, the Internet may have some potential to impact the opinions of Cuba's social and cultural elite -- artists and intellectuals who, while loyal to the regime, are generally more supportive of reform. Internet access is more widespread among this segment of the population, and use is less likely to be monitored in an artist's studio than in a traditional workplace. Still, even reformist artists and intellectuals have a long history of working within boundaries defined by the hard line Cuban government, and it is questionable whether a new medium will markedly shift this dynamic.

With regard to the political impact of Internet use by civil societal organizations (CSOs), access restrictions prevent any serious use of the medium to challenge the government. Human rights and dissident organizations (which exist illegally) have little hope of gaining any Internet access; indeed, most have their phone calls regularly monitored, and several have had computers confiscated by authorities. Other CSOs are permitted to operate legally, but Internet access is limited to those that enjoy good relations with the government. Many such organizations, mostly think tanks and groups that promote environmental conservation and sustainable development, use the Internet quite effectively for networking and logistics, but their work generally supports the regime. [16]

Just as limited Internet use in civil society holds few prospects for democratization in Cuba, so its introduction into the Cuban economy tends to strengthen the authoritarian regime. Economic use of the Internet in Cuba has followed the country's general pattern of economic bifurcation, where market mechanisms are introduced only in the dollar-denominated, export-oriented sector. To prevent the creation of class divisions between Cubans, the government has allowed only a minimum of market reform in the domestic economy, such as permitting small restaurants to be run out of the home. Without a major and committed liberalization of restrictions on private enterprise, there is little chance of the emergence of a class of Internet entrepreneurs that might exert political pressure on the regime (a possibility much hyped in China). In any case, the domestic economy currently presents dismal prospects for Internet-related ventures: minimal Internet access, no credit cards and limited access to hard currency.

But a dearth of independent Internet businesses in Cuba's domestic economy certainly has not prevented the regime from reaping some of the technology's economic benefits. For several years now, the government has targeted Internet development in industries that can generate much-needed foreign exchange. Various government-affiliated Web sites heavily promote Cuban tourism, the country's largest source of hard currency. Cubaweb, the regime's first official Web site, boasts an online money transfer service, allowing exiles to send money to friends and relatives on the island. [17] Recently, Cuba established a fledging e-commerce commission to encourage foreign investment in Internet ventures, and a trickle of investors have begun to show interest. [18] Greater foreign involvement in Cuba's Internet sector may lead to more economic liberalization, but it does not necessarily signal political change. As in China, most foreign investors tend to ignore politics in their dealings with the Cuban government. [19]

Nor has the Cuban government's strategy of restricting public Internet access kept it from using the Web for its own political advantage. Various government-affiliated portals offer official perspectives on current events, with frequent denunciations of the United States. A number of state publications are available online, including the international edition of the Communist Party's newspaper Granma. [20] Much of this government information is oriented toward a foreign audience, but the Internet also plays a role in domestic propaganda for many of Cuba's Internet users. As mentioned above, most users can send international e-mail but can only access Web sites on servers within the country -- all of which are either run or approved by the government. For the majority of Cuba's online community, therefore, the government's presence looms large on the Internet, as in all aspects of Cuban life.

In addition to its Internet propaganda, the Cuban government has long operated a medical information network, Infomed, connecting doctors and hospitals around the country to such services as online medical journals and searchable databases. [21] This project can be considered an e-government initiative in that it facilitates the provision of public services. Undoubtedly, Infomed provides a social benefit to the Cuban people, but it is not necessarily a force of democracy or transparency. By improving the state's ability to maintain its social safety net, the network increases the legitimacy of Cuba's authoritarian regime. Furthermore, since Infomed is essentially a domestic network, the state can connect users without granting them international Web or e-mail access, thus limiting the potential political impact.

The largest share of Cuba-related political information on the Internet does not emanate from within the country, but rather from foreign-based organizations that seek to influence Cuban politics and U.S. policy toward Cuba. Cuban exile groups call for political change on their Web sites, human rights organizations post critical reports online, and sites like Cubanet publish stories from independent Cuban journalists (transcribed from international phone calls). [22] In addition to stating their policy positions, all of these organizations use e-mail and the Web to improve logistical operation, networking and coalition building. It is doubtful, however, that this sort of Internet activism has or will have much impact on internal Cuban politics. The regime has staunchly defended its sovereignty for 41 years and has long ignored criticism or calls for democratization. Its limited engagement with the world, compared to many other developing countries, means there are fewer ways for outsiders to exert leverage. If anything, Cuba-related uses of the Internet by international actors are most likely to influence Cuba in a roundabout way, e.g. through their impact on U.S. policy.

Indeed, U.S. policy toward Cuba often has a significant impact on the country's internal politics, and U.S. information policy is no exception. During the 1990s, the United States has sought to engage the Cuban people while still opposing the regime, and improving telecommunications links for voice and data traffic are a key component of this strategy. Unsurprisingly, Cuban authorities consider this policy to be subversive, and it arguably has strengthened the position of the regime's hard-liners with respect to both the Internet and political change in general. Viewed in this context, the incorporation of the Internet into U.S. policy has probably weakened the medium's potential to promote democratization in Cuba. As it has shown with crackdowns on independent journalists and the jamming of Radio Martí, Cuba will place much greater restrictions on anything it considers a tool of U.S. aggression. [23]

It would be a mistake to argue that the Internet could never contribute to political change in Cuba, just as it would be wrong to argue that it will definitely drive democratization. Indeed, almost all of the arguments against its democratic impact depend upon the continued success of the government's strategy of control. But controlling the Internet by restricting public access appears to be a very sustainable strategy, and it is unlikely that technological progress alone will alter this dynamic. Indeed, political change, driven by non-technological variables, is much more likely to impact Cuba's Internet than the other way around.


In different ways, the cases of China and Cuba seem to indicate that, at least at present, authoritarian regimes can benefit economically and politically from the Internet while successfully controlling the medium's political impact. Cuba's approach to Internet regulation has been more defensive than China's, in that it restricts access among the mass public in order to prevent potentially destabilizing Internet usage by civil society and the growth of domestic Internet businesses. In contrast, China is promoting public Internet access while blocking Web sites, monitoring e-mail, arresting Internet dissidents and encouraging self-censorship.

At the same time, both regimes have actively sought to encourage foreign investment and infrastructure development to benefit from the Internet's economic potential. International investors in each country (more notably in China) have shown a willingness to play the game by the government's rules rather than to push for democratic reform. Similarly, both governments have attempted, to varying degrees, to establish electronic government initiatives that could strengthen the state, and they have used the Internet to promote nationalist and anti-Western sentiment. And while foreign civil societal organizations may use the Internet to lobby for political change from outside the country, such efforts can only be effective in a roundabout way, through their impact on the policy of other governments.

These snapshots of China and Cuba do not prove that the Internet can never be a significant force for democratic change. As Internet access increases in China and Cuba, or as other political and economic conditions evolve, the Internet may come to play a greater role. But simply to assume, at this early stage in the Internet's diffusion in the developing world, that the Internet will be an inevitable and unequivocal force of democracy seems naively optimistic at best and downright foolhardy at worst.

The debate on the Internet and democratization will continue. Broader comparative work and detailed empirical analyses of conditions on the ground are necessary, and many significant questions remain unexplored. For example, do the prospects for Internet-driven or facilitated democratization vary across regions and civilizations? Do they vary across regime types? Will the Internet's political impact be markedly different in semi-authoritarian regimes, which are nominally democratic but where the contest for power is still tightly constrained by the ruling party? What about the impact in new democracies where the conditions for sustainable open societies have not yet been consolidated? In a new research initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we seek to address some of these questions. In doing so, we hope to shed some light on an important topic that so far has been dominated by hype, easy assumptions, and wishful thinking.


[1] Particularly prolific pundits include Thomas Friedman and Robert Wright. See, for example, Thomas L. Friedman, "Censors Beware," The New York Times Jul. 25, 2000; and Robert Wright, "Gaining Freedom by Modem," The New York Times Jan. 28, 2000. Return to text

[2] American policy makers have frequently stated that democratic enlargement abroad is critical to the U.S. national interest. If they believe that the Internet will promote democracy in the developing countries, this would seem to be another reason why tackling the global digital divide should be a foreign policy priority. But while the Clinton administration has launched a few laudable small-scale initiatives in this arena, the Congress will not provide the resources for it to do anything more substantial on its own. As with many of the new issues raised by globalization, progress here will require coordinated efforts by the U.S. and other governments, international organizations, the global business community, and civil societal organizations. For some suggestions along these lines, see, William J. Drake, From the Global Digital Divide to the Global Digital Opportunity: Proposals Submitted to the G-8 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit 2000-Report of the World Economic Forum Task Force on the Global Digital Divide (Geneva: World Economic Forum, July 19, 2000), [
]. Return to text

[3] Christopher R. Kedzie, Communication and Democracy: Coincident Revolutions and the Emergent Dictator's Dilemma (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1997), []. Return to text

[4] Kevin A. Hill and John E. Hughes, "Is the Internet an Instrument of Global Democratization?" in Hill and Hughes, Cyberpolitics: Citizen Activism in the Age of the Internet (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998). Also published in Democratization 6.2 (Summer 1999): 99-127. Return to text

[5] See, for example, David T. Hill and Krishna Sen, "The Internet in Indonesia's New Democracy," Democratization 7.1 (Spring 2000): 119-136, as well as other articles in this special issue on the Internet. See also Rafal Rohozinski, "How the Internet Did Not Transform Russia," Current History Oct. 2000: 334-338; Kathleen Hartford, "Cyberspace with Chinese Characteristics," Current History Sept. 2000: 255-262; Jack Linchuan Qiu, "Virtual Censorship in China: Keeping the Gate between the Cyberspaces," International Journal of Communications Law and Policy 4 (Winter 1999-2000): 1-25, [] Garry Rodan, "The Internet and Political Control in Singapore," Political Science Quarterly 113.1 (Spring 1998): 63-89,
] and Jon B. Alterman, New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998). Return to text

[6] See Simon Cartledge and Peter Lovelock, "Special subject: E-China," in China Economic Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1999; also Thomas Lum, "China's Internet Industry," CRS Report for Congress (Congressional Research Service), Aug. 14, 2000, for projected user and Web site growth in 2000. Return to text

[7] Christiaan Virant, "Chinese Log On To Vent Anti-U.S. Protest," Reuters, May 10, 1999. Return to text

[8] "In China, The Net Grows Up: To Avoid Censors, 'Web Worms' Police Themselves," Reuters, Jan. 25, 2000. See also Shanthi Kalathil, "The 'C' Word, Dangerous Assignments Summer 2000, []. Return to text

[9] Arnold Zeitlin, "Falun Gong sect shows power of Web, Hong Kong press," Freedom Forum Web site, July 27, 1999, []. Return to text

[10] John Markoff, "Silicon Valley's Primal Spirit Lives, in a Part of Beijing," The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2000. Return to text

[11] Craig S. Smith, "Little Anxiety Over China Web Rules," The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2000. Return to text

[12] Shanthi Kalathil, "A Thousand Websites Almost Bloom," The Asian Wall Street Journal, Aug. 29, 2000, []. Return to text

[13] "Much Achieved by Government Online Project in China," People's Daily Online, July 13, 1999, []; "The Complete Reference to the Web Sites of Chinese Government Agency," []. Return to text

[14] Figures vary based on the source of the estimate and how one tallies shared accounts. See ITU, Americas Telecommunication Indicators (Geneva: ITU, 2000), for the 60,000 figure. A Cuban government-supplied figure of 33,000 is cited in Brett Sokol, "e-Cuba: One guess who'll control access to the Internet," Miami New Times Jul. 27,2000, [] and Bill Hinchberger, "Netting Fidel," The Industry Standard Apr. 10, 2000, [,1153,13759,00.html]. In January 1999, a Cuban government official claimed that 2000 computers had direct access to the World Wide Web -- a number which is likely to have increased since then, but not dramatically. See Jesús Martínez, "The Net in Cuba," Matrix News 901 (Jan. 1999), []. Return to text

[15] For overviews and a history of Cuban computer networking, see Nelson P. Valdés and Mario A. Rivera, "The Political Economy of the Internet in Cuba" Cuba in Transition 9 (1999): 141-154, []; and MOSAIC Group, The Global Diffusion of the Internet Project: An Initial Inductive Study (McLean, VA: Center for Information Strategy and Policy, 1998), []. Return to text

[16] Taylor C. Boas, "The Dictator's Dilemma? The Internet and U.S. Policy toward Cuba," The Washington Quarterly 23.3 (Summer 2000): 57-67, []. Return to text

[17] [] ; []. Return to text

[18] Chief among these is the British-based Tour and Marketing Group, [], which operates over 30 Cuba-related Web sites, including a popular online travel agency. Return to text

[19] Some of the principle investors in Cuban Internet ventures have even voiced explicit support of the government's political position. For instance, founder Phillip Agee has boasted that his travel Web site is "another concrete way to support the revolution" (Cited in Sokol, Ibid.), and Tour and Marketing Group's Web site claims that "we defend...Cuba's right to national sovereignty, independence and self-determination." Return to text

[20] [] . Return to text

[21] [] . Return to text

[22] See, for example, [] , [] , [] , and [] . Return to text

[23] See Boas, Ibid. Return to text

Released: October 23, 2000
iMP Magazine:

(c) 2000. William J. Drake, Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas. All rights reserved.