World Wide Wash

Unfortunately, as Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas argue in their fascinating and extremely useful new book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes, that shouldn’t surprise. The Internet hasn’t really helped global democracy, and it hasn’t built a global civil society either. In some countries, authoritarian governments have even been able to use the Internet to entrench themselves, gleefully reversing Ronald Reagan’s 1988 assertion that “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” In other words, sometimes the Net helps the good guys; sometimes it helps the bad guys–and quite often, it does nothing.

Kalathil and Boas derive their argument from analyzing eight authoritarian countries with varied strategies for controlling the Internet. Cuba, for example, forces many users to connect to a national intranet instead of the World Wide Web and blocks non-supportive organizations from getting online. It also uses the Internet quite effectively to spread its own propaganda: “Internet development has largely proceeded beneficially for Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” write the authors.

Burma, on the other hand, just shuts off access from the rest of the world and carefully monitors what little it allows. In the United Arab Emirates, the government plays “a cat and mouse game of moderate intensity,” blocking pornography and some political sites, though not really cracking down on violators.

But no matter a particular government’s strategy, in all eight case studies the house wins, and the Internet fails to provide a possible back door to transformation. In a telling example, the authors argue that the greatest threat posed to countries in the Middle East may well be that e-government makes governments more efficient, thus reducing patronage jobs through which tyrants can co-opt their subjects. That’s possible, and it may perk up the ears of longtime Washington Monthly readers familiar with this magazine’s theories on the power of bureaucracy. Even so, a revolt of technologically displaced grunt workers is probably not high on King Fahd’s list of concerns.

The first problem is that the technology just hasn’t spread very far yet. The Internet is amazing, but accessing it in most of the world is a pain, and an expensive one at that. Moreover, regulation is much easier than people thought a few years ago and wildcat access, through, say, small satellites or jerry-rigged modems, hasn’t really panned out. Kalathil and Boas cite an estimate that the entire population of Iraq has just 500 separate email accounts. So, even if everyone gets online at the same time and starts planning a new democratic constitution, they’ll still have fewer supporters than the Marijuana Reform Party does in many New York counties.

Another explanation, which the authors don’t make directly, is that the countries they survey with enough Internet access to have any chance of online-inspired political upheaval are also succeeding economically. Singapore has a repressive government and easy Internet access. But it also has a per-capita income almost matching that of the United States–so who’s going to get riled up enough to start an online revolution? As a clever Singaporean writer said in the early 1990s: “Give me Liberty, or give me Wealth.” China has a similar problem, so to speak. Yes, the government is repressive, but it’s also doing much better economically than most of its neighbors, meaning that, as a programmer in Taiwan emailed me a few months ago, “the Chinese people are more interested in money making than freedom-seeking nowadays.” To put it another way, the financial boom is more likely to convince users with Internet access to stare at the legs of women than to read The Rights of Man.

The one irritating thing about Open Networks, Closed Regimes is that Kalathil and Boas consistently argue against a straw man of “blind optimism” about the Internet’s democratizing effect. But they give away the game in the book’s second paragraph: “There is now a widespread belief in the policy world that the Internet now poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule.” Their prime example in the next sentence, however, is that Colin Powell once said that “the rise of the democracy and the power of the information revolution combine to leverage each other,” which is a very different statement.

Some people may still argue that the Internet will tear down walls of oppression everywhere. But there aren’t many of them. At most, proponents insist that the Internet has had a significant impact in a few countries that the authors didn’t survey, such as Indonesia, and might well have more of an impact in the future. Overall, though, the conventional wisdom actually isn’t far from Kalathil and Boas’s thesis that the Internet has had an ambiguous impact on international democracy and that no one can really make a confident guess about what will happen next.

Still, that’s not a reason not to read the book. Mirroring the conventional wisdom in this case is good since the conventional wisdom is probably correct. And when that happens, an author can still add lots of value by providing heaps of new information and keen analysis. Kalathil and Boas certainly do that.

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