A panel discussion to launch Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, by Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas
January 31, 2003
About the speakers:
Jessica T. Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Shanthi Kalathil is an associate with the Information Revolution project at the Endowment who has focused her work on information and communications technology (ICT) in developing nations. Taylor Boas is a National Science Found graduate research fellow at UC-Berkeley and is pursuing a PhD in political science. Professor Ernie Wilson served as discussant. He teaches government and politics at the University of Maryland and until recently was director of Maryland's Center for International development and conflict management.
On January 31, the Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics convened a panel discussion entitled "The Internet: A Virus of Freedom?" to launch the publication of Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. The panel's moderator, Jessica Mathews, introduced the participants and characterized Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas' new book as a "conventional-wisdom shattering study." Open Networks, Closed Regimes explores Internet use in eight countries: two semi-authoritarian (Egypt and Singapore), and six fully authoritarian (China, Cuba, Vietnam, Burma, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia). The book analyzes the causal link often assumed between the information revolution and democratization. When the authors began their research, enthusiasm ran high in Washington about the capacity of Internet to spread a "virus of freedom" around the world. After examining the status of the Internet in these countries, however, Kalathil and Boas came to view the Internet less as a catalyst for democratization and more as a tool which, while capable of spreading democracy, in actual use depends on a variety of social and political actors. Despite the challenge the Internet poses to authoritarian regimes, it can in fact be used to fortify these regimes instead of threatening them.
Kalathil and Boas examine four areas of Internet use in their study: civil; political or state; economic; and international. 'Civil use' includes use by the public and civil society organizations. The authors seek to determine whether public access to the Internet contributes to the liberalization of the public sphere by studying the extent to which discourse in chat rooms and other online forums was critical of the government. They also explore Internet use by civil society organizations, or groups loosely defined as operating independent of the state.
In the political sphere, when possible, the authors examined opposition websites. Far more prevalent, however, is official state use of the Internet, usually contained in two forms: e-government and propaganda. The authors found that effective e-government often increased public satisfaction with the authoritarian state, thereby augmenting state power. Many e-government measures also served to improve transparency and government accountability, particularly when used at the local level.
In the economic realm, the authors looked at Internet use by domestic entepreneurs, state-sponsored attempts at ICT development, and foreign investment in Internet industries. They found that a variety of scenarios can result from ICT-related economic development. Internet entepreneurs can invigorate the private sector of authoritarian nations, sometimes creating a new domestic business elite that can encroach on the traditional business of the state. Successful economic development can also benefit the regime by increasing popular satisfaction and bolstering the state's intake of hard currency. But the rise of middle class that often attends such development may pose significant challenges to state authority.
Finally, the authors explore uses of ICT occurring beyond a state's borders but relevant to its political stability, particularly Internet use by transnational advocacy networks pushing specific political agendas. Kalathil and Boas found that these external networks primarily influence other groups and people outside the nation itself, including foreign consumers, governments, and international organizations.
China and Southeast Asia:
Information and communications technology "colors China's approach to modernization," Kalathil explained. The Chinese government has harnessed the Internet for specific political and economic gains, and has sought to use ICT to address corruption, transparency, and economic development in poor areas of the country, among other goals. Speculation about the benefits of the Internet once centered on public use, and the authors found that educated professionals and youth are indeed increasingly aware of new foreign products and culture to which they never would have been exposed without the Internet. National discussions following the EP3 incident on Hainan Island, however, indicate that the Internet is not solely a liberalizing tool in the hands of the public. After the incident, Chinese chat rooms flooded with calls for a hard line response, forcing leaders sensitive to nationalistic criticism to have censors delete the most nationalistic statements. "The Internet can crystallize public dissatisfaction while feeding nationalism," Kalathil noted, so that "when dissatisfaction with the government and nationalism overlap, they can place signficant pressures on the regime."
The Chinese government has tried to shape what it calls a "healthy and orderly" environment online, in part through the use of a firewall that blocks politically sensitive sites. Harvard's Berkman Center study, which does real time tracking of blocked sites, estimates that 19,000 sites are blocked in China. But Kalathil stressed that China does not strive for foolproof wall. The firewall is used in combination with regulation, policing, threats and arrests to contain public Internet use, encouraging intimidation and self-censorship. Chinese citizens are unlikely to seek out politically sensitive websites. Independent civil society organizations do not use the Internet in ways that might challenge the government, and little independent civil society exists in China. Falun Gong has moved away from overt dependence on sophisticated technology domestically, and the China Democracy Party similarly relied on ICT but was crushed by the government.
The Chinese state encourages officials to put documents and records online, a move that has been accompanied by a push for transparency and accountability in line with the government's anti-corruption campaign. At a lower level, e-government has helped improve communication between citizens and local government. State propaganda has been adapted to to the information age as well, with online content offerning a new and more subtle rendering of the government's perspective.
In the economic arena, Internet businesses are creating a more freewheeling, entepreneurial spirit in the private sector, while transforming traditional media. Despite the fact that many of these Internet entepreneurs are western educated, however, they do not seek to expand free public access to information. Businesses need good relations with the government to function, and sometimes hire monitors to watch over their live content online. Several domestic and international companies, including yahoo.com, have signed a supposedly voluntary pledge to keep "harmful" information off the Internet.
Overall, the authors characterize China as "largely successful at guiding use." Analysts have noted that the state is growing more fragmented, and thus unable to monitor the Internet in its entirety. The government does not retain control over every aspect of the Internet, but it defines the parameters of Internet use, thus controlling its effects. "The Internet has the potential to contribute to change but not precipitate the state's collapse," Kalathil concluded.
The authors came to similar conclusions in their analysis of the Internet in three southeast Asian countries. Singapore, Kalathil noted, has achieved what many believe impossible- "extensive Internet development with a negligible loss of political control." Other authoritarian countries, including China, have tried to learn from Singapore's example. Vietnam, more authoritarian than Singapore, has struggled with ICT and needs it badly. Vietnam is trying to recreate India's approach, encouraging a domestic knowledge economy based on software development. The control of information is crucial to Vietnam's Communist party, but the state has taken a haphazard approach to the task. The Burmese military imposes harsh authoritarian rule within its borders, limiting the political impact of domestic use. Because of this, the study focused on Internet use outside of Burma's borders. Overseas human rights groups and Burmese exiles have pressured the regime, primarily through other governments and multi-national corporations. The government is responding with own it information campaign, which to date has not matched that of its opponents.
Cuba and the Middle East:
While hopes for ICT-related democratization were not bantered as freely in the Cuban case as the Chinese, ICT initiatives have filtered into US policy towards Cuba. [In the 1992 Democracy Act, ICT products were strategically exempted from embargo, and the never-ratified 2001 Helms-Lieberman legislation suggested aid for opposition groups including Internet access.] While Cuba has studied Chinese control of the Internet, Cuba treats the Internet as a limited resource and does not promote its boundless growth as does China. The Cuban government controls Internet access, granting it institutionally instead of individually. For this reason, Cuba has not needed to use large scale filtering or blocking devices. Mass public use occurs instead on an intranet accessible at Cuban post offices throughout the island, giving citizens the benefits of networking, including international e-mail, without the Internet itself. In the political sphere, the government has treated the Internet as a tool for externally oriented propaganda.
The state promotes external economic development through the Internet, particularly the creation of e-commerce partnerships with foreign investors. Online travel agencies and websites where relatives abroad can send remittences or purchase color televisions for delivery in Cuba have increased the state intake of hard currency and pose no challenge to the regime.
Underground access could pose some challenge to the regime, and enterprising people do find ways to get online. Dissidents are closely watched, however, and it is unlikely that they would get access to the Internet or even be able to use international e-mail via the intranet. Loss of revenue to the underground market for Internet access, however, could force the nation to move towards mass access in the future.
One quarter of the population in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had access to the Internet in March 2001. Since its debut in the mid-1990s, individual access has been filtered through a proxy server, while leased lines used by businesses are exempt. Censorship blocks access primarily to pornography, as there is little political dissent online or otherwise. The government declared Dubai a high-tech free trade zone, and it has become the regional hub of many western firms. The most prominent uses of the Internet in the UAE enhance the provision of government services and create wealth, thus undergirding state support.
Saudi Arabia restricted Internet access before 1999, but since liberalizing public access has undertaken one of the most extensive attempts at Internet content control in the world. Saudi Arabia seeks to block not only pornography, but also criticism of the royal family and material offensive to Islam. Public access through a firewall debuted in 1999, and users can request that sites be blocked or unblocked, with block requests occurring more frequently. The most prominent political use occurs overseas and is geared to an international audience. The domestic impact of such sites, including those of opposition groups based in London, is limited as they are blocked in Saudi Arabia.
The semi-authoritarian state of Egypt has not seriously restricted Internet content, even the online content of some censored print media outlets. In the political sphere, some evidence suggests that opposition groups have used the Internet to disseminate their message, though the groups themselves are not an Internet-enabled threat. The Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that has been forbidden from campaigning under its own name, posted photos and bios of its members running for office under other parties on its website. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood won enough seats to make it the nation's largest opposition party. Boas recommended watching the future influence of Arab diaspora groups, who can express extreme Islamist views in online chat rooms that might influence the domestic populations of states who side with the US in the war on terror or Iraq.
The authors found that despite the popularity of the idea that the information age would propel non-state actors to the heights of power, the role of the state vis a vis the Internet remains predominant. The authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states under discussion exhibited a strong history of state regulation and ownership of ICT and mass media, facilitating their control of the Internet. States have learned from one another to constrain politically challenging use and restrict public access, particularly through "soft control" measures that convince the private sector to police its users. Public access is dominated by elites with a vested interest in state power. While average use is growing, such users tend to be risk averse and, as in many other nations, use the Internet for non-political activity like shopping or gaming.
While Internet entepreneurs can challenge central state control of resources, a challenge to centralization is not necessarily a political one. Both foreign and domestic investors tend to play by the state's rules. The Internet can legitimate the state when leveraged for social and economic development. In the transnational realm, most important for states like Burma, Internet groups have successfully encouraged some disinvestment in Burma and global recognition of its human rights violations, but the organizations did not achieve political change. Such campaigns are more likely to exist where there are significant opposition exiles, but success depends on the strategic and economic importance of the target country to Western states.
Although the book was not intended as a policy proposal, the authors suggested that as the mere presence of the Internet might not advance democracy, those seeking political change in the eight countries examined should focus on low-tech efforts, working through the WTO and other international forums. They also cautioned that not all dissent online is pro-liberal or pro-American, and that instead of seeking the rapid downfall of authoritarian regimes through ICT, it might be more wise to support the long term benefits of ICT within a country that will help them survive an eventual [low-tech] collapse.
Ernie Wilson praised the book's "unambiguous conclusion that the relationship between democracy and the Internet is ambiguous." He found the book successful in its debate with the "breathless advocates" of the 'techno-determinist' argument, which asserted that the simple presence of non-hierarchical technology such as the Internet would elicit the collapse of non-democratic regimes around the world. He noted that the techno-determinist argument parallels other arguments made about the relationship between democracy and economic growth. All three concepts are interrelated, but arguments for causal relationships are hard to support. Wilson cited studies tracing the development of middle classes, in which the political clout of the class always lags behind its newfound economic power. In most countries, access to the Internet is restricted to the upper middle class males-99.5% of Africans do not have access, nor do 98% of Latin Americans. Those with access are not necessarily concerned with democratization. While the Internet is a tool, it is not an independent factor that transforms society in its image.
Wilson's own research supports the authors' conclusion that the Chinese government stresses "informatization," or the application of ICT to industry, despite its potential political threat. The party manages this threat by controlling ICT growth, even when that control slightly reduces economic growth.
Wilson suggested that the authors might have explored more fully the ways in which the Internet is differentially defined by different consituencies in China and other countries. He proposed several ways in which scholars and practitioners might make use of this study and build on its analysis, including: Greater attention to micro-level case studies that would explore how the Internet is used at the municipal level; the role of "information champions" and diasporas in ICT growth; and the circumstances under which the Internet is a progressive or a regressive tool. Wilson further suggested that policymakers construct a repository of "best practices" in ICT growth, and that they attempt to integrate the findings of the book into the Millenium Challenge.
One participant suggested three factors that impede the Internet as agent for social change in the developing world: the prohibitive cost of equipment and service, slow and unreliable connections, and predominantly Western-language-only content. He suggested that governments should be encouraged to set lower access prices for connection while improving the connections, treating the Internet as a "public utility instead of a cash cow." Kalathil and Boas agreed with his assessments, noting that they discuss the problems of the "digital divide" in their book.
Another participant wondered if the authors had overstated their skepticism of the techno-determinist argument, given that many of the nations concerned lacked the most basic fundamentals for democracy. He suggested that the techno-determinist argument grew more plausible when given a more realistic time frame. The Internet could help create a semi-organized citizenry and a forum for some modicum of intellectual exchange that would respond positively some years in the future when given an opening. Boas replied that while the authors would not disagree with the comment, he believed the scenario described by the participant to be one of liberalization, but not democraticization.
Another audience member concurred with the authors that "techno-optimists" are a significant obstacle to reaching the potential of the Internet, and asked whether the book differentiated between use of the World Wide Web and use of e-mail, which he characterized as far more pervasive, accessible, and challenging to firewalls. Kalathil replied that while the book does not specifically separate the web from e-mail, which is primarily a communications tool, the Chinese state has also apparently detected the power of e-mail and some are afraid that the government now monitors e-mail in addition to the web.
One audience member recently returned from China reported that, after conducting small experiments in Internet cafes there, he found the firewall quite porous. He asked whether the advance of technology would make the wall taller or easier to get around. Kalathil acknowledged that the firewall is porous, and stressed that the government does not aim for a foolproof wall. Rather, the government has managed to control the overall political impact of Internet use through a combination of measures, including but not limited to the firewall.
Another audience member suggested that in addition to the Internet, other forms of ICT including SMS messaging and contact database programs would help those groups seeking to promote democracy.
One participant described several uses of ICT in the Middle East which could contribute to long-term political change through indirectly political means, particularly the use of the Internet by children of the elite to converse privately with members of the opposite sex. This sort of communication has the potential to contribute to a profound generation gap or social revolution. She also noted that the information posted to the Internet about the Palestinian intifada is far more radical than news on Al-jazeera or that issued by Arab governments. The Internet is becoming a critical alternative source of information that, while not leading to direct political action, inflames opinions among key elite groups.
Another participant, after conducting his own experiments in Beijing, cautioned relying on the Berkman Center study citing 19,000 blocked sites in China. He believes the number is too high, and noted that many of the sites listed as blocked originated in China and could have been directly shut down by the government if desired.
Another audience member asked whether the Internet could become a force for negative developments such as the spread of terrorist organizations.
Responding to these comments, Kalathil replied that the Internet is indeed a tool that can be used by authoritarian states and democracies alike, as well as terrorist organizations. Regarding the Berkman study, she suggested that the while the firewall is an inconsistent device, the Berkman study was the most far-reaching of any the authors had found. The book attempts to paint the firewall as only one type of government control on Internet use, intensively examining other state techniques. Boas noted that, in regards to the Middle East, the audience member's point found ample support in Saudi Arabia, where a conflict is developing between supporters of more restrictive blocking and forces of liberalization.
The session concluded with a final audience member asking what the Chinese regime fears more, democratic or nationalistic content online, and wondering whether state controls will be effective in clamping down on nationalistic discourse. Kalathil replied that the problem of nationalistic content is a significant one for the regime, particularly as it has encouraged the media in the past to use a nationalistic tone in its reporting. While the government has found it easy to delete comments advocating democracy, it has more trouble determining which nationalistic comments to erase, in part because at times the government still seeks to foster nationalistic sentiment. The Internet could exacerbate such a nationalistic crisis with an unpredictable outcome.
Report prepared by Anne O'Donnell, Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.