Flash question: does the Internet help dictators or undermine them? Most of the people we’ve spoken to instinctively believe that the Internet enables freedom of expression and facilitates collective activism, thus diluting the corrosive power of dictators.
Now how about a slightly different question: does technology empower Big Brother or destroy it? Our memories of fictional accounts give people pause: people remember Orwell’s dystopian 1984, the movie Blade Runner or the film Minority Report (depending on whether they are baby boomers, Gen X or Gen Y). These works underscore the suspicion that Big Brother uses technology to spread its influence over society and to monitor and manipulate citizens. In the case of Big Brother, technology is a crucial part of its grip on citizens.
So here’s the final question: what’s the difference between a dictator and Big Brother? The difference is mostly semantic and emotional: Big Brother is just a technologically savvy authoritarian system.
Let’s look at the example of the oft-cited protests after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. Protestors and the anti-regime diaspora gained momentum using Twitter and through massive international media coverage. Many non-Iranians also pledged their allegiance online—a flash mob that quickly dispersed to mourn the death of Michael Jackson, who died soon after the elections. We all know what happened next: the protests failed to delegitimize the election results and President Ahmadinejad’s government, and many of the protestors were arrested and tortured for months.
Would it disturb you to know that many of these protestors were traced via the online footprint they left behind on Twitter, Facebook and bulletin boards? If you re-tweeted the location of a protest, or linked to a protestor’s blog on your website, should you feel guilty that you might have led the Iranian secret police right to their door? It seems then that the Internet helped both the protestors and the regime, and at least in the short run, the authoritarian government won the first round.
Even religious clerics in traditional garb can use the Internet in sophisticated ways. But is that really surprising? Authoritarian governments often control most of the resources of their nation, and are not afraid to use them to control the population. If that means hiring the most sophisticated technologists and buying the latest hardware, that is still chump change compared to setting up a nuclear reactor.
If we had lived in the Soviet Union, we wouldn’t be so shocked that the government will use any means necessary to spy on and manipulate its people. Why should the virtual world be any different? By some estimates, the Chinese government employs some 250,000 commentators specifically to spy on and manipulate the public via the Intenet. China has actually earned quite a reputation for its high-tech surveillance of citizens on the Web: Vietnam recently sent its technocrats to China to lean citizen monitoring techniques, as has Saudi Arabia.
Today there are more autocracies than twenty years ago, and if any of them invests cleverly in certain technologies, they could one day be used against you even if you’re not a citizen of those countries. If you write articles or make comments on other people’s blogs about these countries, could the next time you cross the border into any of these nations or their allies make your name pop up on a black list? The scary about public data is precisely that it’s public. Luckily, most autocracies are in the Third World and far from having a comprehensively networked infrastructure.
Joshua Kurlantzik rightly points out that perhaps the most chilling thing about the web-savvy of authoritarian governments like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia is that their citizens don’t even realize that the Internet they are browsing is already filtered and “cleansed” of “offensive” materials. When citizens are sedated into thinking they are free when in fact they are being manipulated by the government, crude dictatorships begin to morph into Orwellian Big Brothers.
So coming back to the question of whether the Internet abets or undermines dictatorships, a vigorous debate has unfolded between Clay Shirky (who votes in favor of the Internet trumping dictators) and Evgeny Mozorov (who sorrowfully reports that in fact the opposite is true). In truth, they’re both right, because there will always be a tension between free societies and authoritarian systems in the use of information technology, with the Internet just the latest but by no means the last example.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.