Authoritarianism VS. the Internet

By Calingaert, Daniel | Policy Review, April-May 2010 | Go to article overview

Authoritarianism VS. the Internet


Calingaert, Daniel, Policy Review


IN THE HEADY days following the disputed June 12, 2009, presidential election in Iran, images of protests against election fraud were captured on mobile phone cameras and sent via the internet by ordinary citizens to the outside world. While reporters from major international media were forced to leave the country or were holed up in their hotel rooms, short messages sent by Twitter and videos posted on You Tube filled the gap in information. Thus, at a time when the Iranian government was trying to hide the protests from television and newspaper reporters, the internet provided a window for audiences outside the country to see what was going on inside and gave Iranians a way to tell the world at large what was happening to them.

The internet in Iran is, however, subject to harsh controls, just as other walks of life are. Government restrictions on bandwidth make uploads of photos and videos very slow. Transmissions of text messages on mobile phones were blocked for three weeks following the June 12th presidential election, and government disruption of social networking sites such as Facebook further impeded the ability of Iranians to share information and to organize protests. Moreover, the government has conducted surveillance on internet communications, and that surveillance may have contributed to the arrests of dissidents.

In the months following Iran's presidential election, digital media helped to keep the anti-government "Green Movement" alive. Protests were announced and organized largely via digital media, and the movement's leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have relied heavily on the internet to communicate to Iranians. The regime, however, intensified its crackdown on online dissent. Green Movement websites were hacked. Services to circumvent online censorship, such as UltraSurf, were blocked. The Revolutionary Guard purchased a majority stake in the state telecommunications company to gain control over Iran's telecommunications network. A special unit in the prosecutor's office was created to investigate and prosecute internet crimes, with a focus on the regime's critics. In addition, state security has monitored the anti-regime web posts of Iranians living abroad and harassed their family members in Iran.

The role of the internet in Iran following the June 2009 presidential election raises a fundamental question: Will the internet bring freedom to oppressed people or can it be controlled so that it cannot threaten the hold on power of repressive regimes? The internet has provided greater space for free expression in countries where traditional broadcast and print media are restricted. It has increased opportunities to enrich public discourse, expose abuses of power, and facilitate citizen activism. The open nature of the internet challenges the ability of repressive regimes to thwart expressions of dissent and political opposition.

Authoritarian rulers understand the power of the internet and are actively curtailing its impact. A few countries--Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and Turkmenistan--restrict internet access to a very small segment of the population. They have few public internet access points, and the cost of internet service is prohibitive for the vast majority of citizens.

Other countries, such as China, Iran, and Tunisia, actively promote internet use as a way to stimulate innovation and economic growth, but they place wide-ranging controls over digital media to prevent them from being used for political opposition. They maintain extensive, multilayered systems of censorship and surveillance to stifle online dissent. These systems place severe limits on politically sensitive content that citizens can access, post on the internet, and transmit via mobile phones. Surveillance of internet and mobile phone communications is pervasive, and citizens who criticize the government online are subject to harassment, imprisonment, and torture.

In less restrictive settings, for instance in Egypt, Malaysia, and Russia, the internet has emerged as a haven of relatively free speech in otherwise restrictive media environments. …

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