The only place where the West is still unabashedly eager to promote democracy is in cyberspace. Enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology, accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom, is of growing appeal to many policy makers. In fact, many of them are as upbeat about the revolutionary potential of the Internet as their colleagues in the corporate sector were in the 1990s.
We shouldn't give the Internet too much credit, however, and we should probably give it credit for some of the negative things that are happening. We shouldn't be biased and just look at the brighter side. We should be more critical in thinking about its impacts.
The idea that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor is marred by what I call cyber-utopianism: a naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.
Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil. Failing to anticipate how authoritarian governments would respond to the Internet, cyber-utopians did not predict how useful the Internet would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would use it for surveillance, and how sophisticated modern forms of Internet censorship would become.
Fidel Castro's Twitter page has been around for a few years. But very few people in Cuba own computers, because the Cuban government restricted the sale of computers to its population, so most of them just don't have the equipment to tweet. They: don't have Internet cafes. They do have a small blogging culture, a few bloggers who have to be very careful. The government modified the restrictions on computers only a short while ago, so I wouldn't expect Facebook or Twitter to matter much in Cuba in the next five to ten years.
Take a closer look at the blogo-spheres in almost any authoritarian regime, and you are likely to discover that they are teeming with nationalism and xenophobia. Things don't look particularly bright for the kind of flawless democratization that some expect from the Internet's arrival.
Likewise, bloggers uncovering and publicizing corruption in local governments could be--and are--easily coopted by higher-ranking politicians and made part of the anti-corruption campaign. The overall impact on the strength of the regime in this case is hard to determine; the bloggers may be diminishing the power of local authorities but boosting the power of the federal government. Authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, for example, have been actively promoting a host of e-government initiatives.
Normally a regime that fights its own corruption has more legitimacy with its own people. From that perspective, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Internet is making the government more accountable, but I would say that it is making local officials more responsible.
The government may be eliminating corruption in the provinces, making the people happier, but that doesn't mean that they're eliminating corruption at the top. So the distribution of corruption might be changing. But I do think government might use the Internet to solicit more citizen input. That won't undermine the government. It will bolster its legitimacy.
It's not paradoxical. The fact that the government is soliciting their opinions does not mean that the government is listening to them. It wants to give the people the impression that it is listening to them. In some sense, it creates a semblance of democratic institutions. It's all about creating a veneer of legitimacy.
THE INTERNET'S ROLE IN MIDDLE EASTERN REVOLUTIONS
Digital activists in the Middle East can boast quite a few accomplishments, particularly when it comes to documenting police brutality, but I don't think the Internet will play much of a role in Middle Eastern democratic revolutions compared with other factors. …