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World: Analysis From Washington -- A Necessary But Not Sufficient Condition

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new study challenges the assumption that the spread of the Internet will actually lead to increased freedom of speech in authoritarian countries and suggests that at least some governments have been able to use the Internet to increase domestic control.

In a report released this week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, two scholars, Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas, examined the impact of the spread of the Internet in China and Cuba. They reached the conclusion that the governments of both countries have managed to limit political speech on the Internet and prevent web surfers from challenging the existing regimes.

China has done so by encouraging its citizens to go online but then carefully monitoring their use of websites and even blocking access to what it considers to be politically offensive ones, while Cuba has sought to limit access to the Internet for all but a select few. But both countries have been sufficiently successful in controlling the Internet that they now serve as models for other repressive states such as Myanmar and the United Arab Emirates, the Carnegie study says.

"Taken together, the cases of China and Cuba should illustrate that the diffusion of the Internet does not necessarily spell the demise of authoritarian rule," Kalathil and Boas conclude.

This finding calls into question the optimistic predictions by some advocates of the likely impact of the world wide web, and precisely because it does, proponents of the Internet are likely to note its limitations: the small sample of only two countries and the relatively brief period of time surveyed in both. China and Cuba may have been successful in controlling the impact of the web so far, but will they be able to do so in the future.

And on the other hand, the advocates of the Internet are likely to note that they have never insisted that the Internet could transform everything in a positive way but only that it could serve as a useful precondition to help prod and reinforce other developments in a particular country or group of countries.

The scope of the study is likely to be the focus of particular criticism. There are many countries where the governments have not been able to control Internet use and that fact has helped to transform them. And the impact of the Internet on social and political change is likely to take longer than the period covered by the study.

Indeed, the notion implicit in the Carnegie study that going online by itself will change those who do almost overnight is simply wrong. Those who use the Internet like those who read newspapers or listen to the electronic media are affected not so much by a single exposure but by the sustained exposure to information, an experience that ultimately leads them to demand more from the institutions which control their lives.

Moreover, many Internet advocates are likely to argue that the Carnegie study has effectively created a strawman by insisting that the Internet must change everything immediately or be judged of little importance is far more significant. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of the Internet have never suggested that it could transform a place where other preconditions for change do not exist.

Nonetheless, the Carnegie study is important because it will force both the advocates of the Internet and students of political change to refine their judgments about the role that this channel of information can and cannot play in promoting democracy or maintaining an authoritarian regime. The study will thus make a major contribution to the study of the impact of communications on political life, even if some of its conclusions may ultimately be judged as too sweeping as well.