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Democracy in the time of the internet

Samantha Luiz's picture
"If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them the internet.”
 
These are the words of Wael Ghonim, an internet activist and Google executive who played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring, an Egyptian protest movement that succeeded in the toppling of the country’s president Hosni Mubarak.
 
Evidently, Ghonim is a “cyber-utopian”- a person who naïvely believes in the emancipatory power of the internet.
 
His words remind me of A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace by the poet John Perry Barlow.  This declaration was published at the height cyber utopian thinking. It predicted a world of unrestrained free speech, self-organized governance.
 
Until recently, I might have considered myself a cyber-utopian too. I understood the internet as this great space that allows for the protection of democracy. And the great part was that the ordinary Dick and Harry could do it too- through blogging, tweeting and citizen journalism (whether accidental or not), we as citizens could actively take part in guarding our democracy. Right?
 
I’m not so sure anymore. Earlier this week in class, we viewed TED Fellow and journalist Evgeny Morozov’s TED presentation on how the internet aids dictatorships. Following the viewing, our professor asked the class: on a scale on 1 to ten (with 1 being pessimistic and 10 optimistic) what role does the internet play in the protection (or prevention of democracy).
 
I said 6. To a larger extent I see the internet in positive terms. If we look at the Arab Spring, one cannot deny the role played by the internet in the organization and mobilization of protestors. Yes the internet has empowered citizens, but it has empowered governments too.
 
The internet has been used to threaten and even thwart the democratic right of citizens.  Dictators have used the internet to watch, track and intimidate dissidents, thus maintaining their absolute power.
 
How do they use the internet to do this?
 
Through censorship of course.
The turkist minister hates social media. Source: mashable.com
 
China
It’s widely known that the Chinese government uses internet censorship to keep tight control over access to information within the country. In 2013, the Chinese authorities hired more than 2 million people to monitor web activity on blogs and Weibo, the country’s popular social media platform. Further the government blocks the access to information that may promote dissidence, for example the Free Tibet Movement.
 
These actions by the government peaked recently when the country clamped down news websites and search engines ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre- going as far as blocking Google and Wall Street Journal.
interview with CNN , Morozov explained how the Egypt dictatorship fell because the leaders did not use censorship strategies to curb the protest.
 
“They had a very carefree, laissez-faire attitude towards the web. I haven't seen them develop the kind of sophisticated mechanisms for guiding online public opinion, like the Chinese did, where they train bloggers and they pay bloggers to spread information. They monitor many of the internet discussions in real time, “said Morozov.
 
Turkey
The same can be observed from Turkey. Earlier this year, the Turkish parliament passed a law that would tighten government controls over the internet. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been openly critical of the internet , calling Twitter a "scourge" and condemning social media as "the worst menace to society".
 
It becomes clear that the internet, like anything else has its evils. Yes, the internet has empowered individuals. But guess what, it has also empowered governments and dictatorships a whole lot more. With that said, I maintain my 6 on the professor’s scale. We would be foolish to ignore the positive role the internet has played in social action, regardless of the dystopian tendencies that lurk beneath the surface.  

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