Thursday, October 28, 2010

The internet isn't a tool for democracy - it's simply a tool

Over the weekend I read an insightful an well written paper by Rebecca McKinnon of Harvard University. Presented at the two day 'Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regime' conference on 10-11 October, the paper provides some compelling evidence that the internet is not a tool for democracy, it is simply a tool and can be used to support authoritarian regimes just as it can be used to support democratic ones.

Named Networked Authoritarianism in China and Beyond: Implications for global Internet freedom, and sponsored the Hoover Institution & the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), Stanford University, the paper discusses the use of the internet by China. While external sources of political news and influence may be blocked, the Chinese government is making extensive use of the internet internally to empower citizens in support of the present regime - using legal means and extensive censorship controls to channel online discussions into politically acceptable thread.

It discusses the rise of 'networked authoritarianism' - where an authoritarian regime embraces and adjusts to the changes brought by digital communications technologies and co-opts the medium. Permitting citizens the illusion of freedom of speech, the ability to discuss social ills and influence some government policies, while retaining strict control over political expression.

I think it is important to bear in mind that by itself the internet will not necessarily lead to greater transparency, openness and democratic governance. It requires the efforts of individuals and organisations to unleash its potential.

To quote two of Rebecca's conclusions:
The business and regulatory environment for telecommunications and Internet services must become a new and important focus of human rights activism and policy. Free and democratic political discourse requires Internet and telecommunications regulation and policymaking that is transparent, accountable, and open to reform both through the courts and the political system. Without such baseline conditions, opposition, dissent, and reform movements will face an increasingly uphill battle against increasingly innovative forms of censorship and surveillance, assisted by companies that operate and shape activists’ digital environment.

Finally citizens and policymakers of democratic nations must not forget that global Internet freedom begins at home. One of the most urgent tasks of the world’s democracies is to develop best practices for openness, accountability, rule of law, and transparent governance of their own digital networks. That is the best possible long-term weapon against the spread of networked authoritarianism. It is also essential in order to ensure the long-term health of the world’s existing democracies.


  1. After my recent visit to China, I enjoyed the paper you linked to, Craig. I must admit, I was a surprised at how different China, well Shanghai for a tourist, was to my expectations. There seemed to be no difficulty in jumping the 'Great Firewall' and the place was absolutely alive with ideas. The educators I met were progressive and impressive. It came to my mind that democracies, as you suggest, must be careful to not become complacent about 'freedoms'.

  2. Hi Darcy,

    Glad to hear you had an insightful trip.

    Often we write off China because western media has a very shallow view of what is an extremely populous, diverse and energetic society. The language barrier doesn't help, Mandarin language sites are incomprehensible to western media commentators.

    I think in some ways western nations and China are heading in opposite directions. They are gradually increasing freedoms, in a slow and measured way. Whereas in the west we see freedoms gradually eroding.

    Whether and where the cross-over will occur is an area ripe for informed debate, but not much of that is occurring in Australia.

  3. Craig,

    I think you are correct about 'our freedoms'. Waleed Aly's essay exploring the tradion of conservative ideas was widely admired, perhaps because many feel we have lost our way in the radical neo-con era in the west. I was surprised at how much I liked Aly's framing of these ideas, especially as he emphasises that (at a sensible pace) 'progress' is part of the tradition.

    Yes, "in a slow and measured way" sums up China (except for the 20th Century).