Internet fails to end political repression: study

Authoritarian governments in several countries have disproved the widely held belief that the Internet is an inevitable force for promoting transparency and political pluralism, according to a study released Tuesday by the Washington D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

Those governments have found ways to deal with the potential liberalizing threat of the Internet by both reactive methods – controlling access and filtering material – and proactive methods such as creating propaganda sites and encouraging content providers to be pro-regime, according to the study. The Internet may even help increase a regime’s control, the study noted.

The CEIP study said there was no evidence to support President George W. Bush’s statement that the Internet will bring freedom to China or Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assertion that “the rise of democracy and the power of the information revolution combine to leverage each other.”

“Many authoritarian regimes translate a long and successful history of control over other information and communication technologies into strong control of Internet development within their borders,” the study said. “Through a combination of reactive and proactive strategies, an authoritarian regime can counter the challenges posed by Internet use and even utilize the Internet to extend its reach and authority.”

Authoritarian governments find it easier to control Internet activities than do democratic governments simply because they have dominated the Internet in their countries from the beginning, the study noted.

Four separate areas of Internet use threaten authoritarian regimes, according to the study: mass public use, civil society organizations (citizens’ pressure groups), economic groups and the international community.

Reactive strategies to counter these threats are visible, and include:

– limiting access to networked computers;

– filtering content or blocking Web sites using software tools;

– monitoring users’ online behavior;

– prohibiting Internet use entirely.

Proactive strategies involve guiding Internet development and use to serve the government’s interests and priorities, according to the study. Strategies include:

– distributing propaganda on the Internet domestically and internationally;

– creating state-run national intranets as a substitute for the global Internet;

– implementing electronic government services that increase citizens’ satisfaction with the government;

– strengthening state power by engaging in information warfare against opponents of the government.

The study focuses principally on two countries – China and Cuba – which use a different mix of proactive and reactive strategies to harness the Internet.

China uses a mix of filtering and inducements to self-censorship as its main reactive strategies, and the only cracks in its control have resulted from confusion over which of 20 possible state organizations should be in ultimate control, according to the study. It has started a proactive strategy of building e-government services to strengthen the state bureaucracy.

In Cuba, with a less open economic model, the government allows Internet access only from approved institutions, and has begun plans to build a national intranet with wide access from schools, computing clubs and post offices, and the government will encourage use of this. Although Cuba’s strategy is mainly reactive, it plans to computerize Cuban society, with propaganda being used as a key weapon. It also promotes Internet development in areas that can generate hard currency and help shore up the regime, according to the study.

However, governments that want to control the Internet will have to be wary, the study said.

“Internet technology will continue to evolve over time … authoritarian regimes will have to continually adapt their measures of control if they want to counter effectively the challenges of future (changes) in information and communication technologies (ICTs),” the study said. “It is quite possible that this will prove too difficult and that use of ICTs will eventually play a role in the democratic revolution that has been widely predicted.”

“Over time, however, authoritarian regimes have weathered innumerable challenges posed by changing technologies, and they may prove up to the current challenge as well,” it said.

CEIP can be contacted at