No, the Internet does not help build democracies

I don’t know if Barrett Sheridan wrote his Newsweek piece, “The Internet Helps Build Democracies” in response to or independent of Evgeny Morozov’s recent piece in Foreign Policy (Think Again: The Internet ; May/June 2010).

Still, it sort of amazes me that this techno-utopianism (or as Evgeny puts it, “iPod liberalism“) still persists, at least amongst smart, internationally-minded journalists like Barrett Sheridan. I mean, I get why popular opinion might come to this conclusion, and maybe even some well-intentioned policymakers. But seriously, Barrett, is this what you’re arguing? I’m sure Barrett is a good guy, and based on his LinkedIn profile he also seems like an intelligent guy (even if he did go to Stanford ; Go Bears!). But I can’t understand how he can seriously believe that the Internet can “build” democracies.

Let’s take this point by point, shall we?

Obama, meanwhile, has made Internet freedom a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and in a speech in Beijing late last year hailed “access to information” as a “universal right.”

While it is true that the State Department is making quite a splash with its 21st Century Statecraft initiative, I’m not sure that their approach is quite as simple as it might appear.

Alec Ross, one of the architects of the 21st Century Statecraft initiative himself has said:

While these examples from Iran are compelling to many around the globe, it’s important to make clear that just as these networks were used to organize — as well as to galvanize the outside world — they were also monitored and manipulated by government forces. The same openness that allowed sympathizers in, also let in those that sought to end the dissent and punish the dissenters.

So we clearly can’t take a sort of kumbaya approach to connection technologies. They can and are being used by our enemies, like al-Qaeda, and by authoritarian regimes. But I think that this, more than anything else, makes the case for our own aggressive engagement on global networks. We need to raise our own game. We can’t curl into the fetal position because bad guys are becoming smarter about how to use technology. It just creates an imperative for us to be smarter ourselves.

In other words, they’re well aware of the potential dangers that these tools create for dissidents and that they don’t believe that they suddenly can create “revolution” in places where we might want there to be. What Barrett is arguing strikes me as pretty freakin’ kumbaya.

He goes on: For instance, the use of Twitter by protesting youths in Moldova last year to create a flash mob in the capital city of Chisinau illustrated just how powerful an organizing and communicating tool the Internet is, even when limits are placed on it.

It’s been fairly well documented that this “Twitter Revolution” was a myth.

The short version, as Ethan Zuckerman put it: “My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn’t all that important in organizing the demonstrations. Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time.”

Same logic goes for Iran, by the way.

To the techno–utopians, [cutting off the Internet in Burma] was a splash of ice-cold water to the face, suggesting that the government in power virtually always holds the trump card. But in one way the junta’s extreme reaction actually revealed the futility of its censorship. Their choice was a binary one: accept that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether.

First off, Burma is a country of 48 million people that has only about 100,000 Internet users, according to the CIA Factbook. That’s about 0.25 percent of the population. Presumably those that do have access to the Internet are mostly within the cadre of the junta anyway. Regardless, Burma hasn’t been offline since 2007. In fact, two weeks after it cut off the Internet — that same junta restored the existing limited access.

There isn’t a binary choice of accepting that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether. Lots of authoritarian regimes ranging from China to Cuba to Iran have done precisely that. While Iran has about 35 percent Internet penetration, it’s shown that it will use online tools to intimidate, arrest, and exile online dissidents and activists. Heck, Supreme Leader Khamenei is on Twitter. Millions of regular people in China and Iran are using the Internet every single day. They just experience a much more filtered, surveilled and censored Web than we do.

As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith wrote in their book Who Controls The Internet? back in 2006:

What we have seen, time and time again, is that physical coercion by government – the hallmark of a traditional legal system – remains far more important than anyone expected. This may sound crude and ugly and even depressing. Yet at a fundamental level, it’s the most important thing missing from most predictions of where globalization will lead, and the most significant gap in predictions about the future shape of the Internet.

Barrett also writes that the Internet is, “in many places, less than 10 years old.” That’s just blantantly wrong, at least in many of the countries that he cites. The Internet first came to Russia in 1990, to China in 1994, to Cuba in 1991, and to Iran in 1993. To be fair, the Internet was introduced in Burma in 2000.

As much as I love the Internet, it is no more capable of causing revolution than the telegraph was, as Tom Standage showed in his great book, The Victorian Internet.

The fact of the matter is that for all the talk of Twitter Revolution in Iran — the status quo has been preserved. Khamenei is still doing his thing and Ahmedinejad is still doing his. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Islamic Republic is in danger of collapse anytime soon.

I generally agree with Evgeny, although I may not be as cynical as he is. The bottom line though, is that I feel like Fox Mulder on the X-Files: I want to believe that the Internet helps to build democracies, but as of now, I simply cannot.