Weighing the Scales: The Internet's Effect on State-Society Relations

Article excerpt

How does the information revolution affect the relationship between governments and global civil society?1 Does the internet lead to greater democratization and liberalization? The findings of political scientists on this question could best be described as ambiguous-that is, there are two very different narratives that can answer this question.2The more popular and prominent argument is that the internet dramatically lowers the costs of networked communication; therefore, civil society groups are better able to mobilize action to influence governments. Countless articles have been written about how the internet has facilitated social movements both to advocate for international treaties-like the Landmine Convention; and to block movement on initiatives-such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Decentralized forms of civil society, like Facebook or Twitter, are particularly likely to thrive with the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies that facilitate user-created content.3 The networked structure of online communities closely mirrors the networked structure of global civil society. The coordination of worldwide protests that took place in the run-up to the war in Iraq is but one example of this phenomenon. The growth of the blogosphere as a force in American politics is only the latest manifestation of this trend.

The counter-argument is that states are becoming increasingly savvy in their regulation of the information revolution. The code that forms the backbone of the Internet's architecture leaves several critical nodes vulnerable to regulation by governments.4 Discriminating governments have the capacity to decide which elements of digital information they choose to let in and which elements they can screen out. Beyond information, authoritarian governments have been willing to make life uncomfortable for the citizens who use online activities to threaten the regime in power. Governments ranging from China to Iran to Belarus have demonstrated a willingness to crack down on civil society activists and bloggers who defy the state.

These contradictory trends highlight the points of contention inherent in analyzing how information and communication technology (ICT) affects the art and science of politics. Does the Internet empower the coercive control of governments at the expense of citizen activists, or vice versa? As someone who has at different times advanced both sides of this argument, I fully recognize and appreciate the complexities of this question.5 Forty years ago, economist Albert Hirschman noted that democratic revolution is "unpredictable because it took the very actors by surprise and unrepeatable because once the event has happened everybody is put on notice and precautions will be taken by various parties so that it won't happen again."6 In gauging the effects of Web 2.0 technologies, the unpredictability is even more powerful. The pace of technological change, combined with the learning effects of authoritarian regimes, poses a daunting challenge for scholars and observers.

In this article, I offer a preliminary answer-that while the internet has probably empowered non-state actors more than states, the effect of this empowerment is not consistent across all types of political environments. In open societies, there is no question that the Internet has enhanced the power of civil society vis-à-vis the state. However, in dealing with totalitarian governments or international governmental negotiations, the information revolution does not fundamentally affect the state's ability to advance its interests.

There is an internal tension contained in this answer, and it comes to the surface when considering the ability of online activism to trigger an abrupt shift in public attitudes towards authoritarian states. A quiescent public dramatically lowers the costs of repression for a government. However, information technologies have the capacity to dramatically redirect the "information cascades" that promote quiescence. …