freedom via the web, your results may vary
For many tech evangelists, the internet is a place where people can interact regardless of where they live and find common ground on issues on which they’ve never may have thought they could. This, they argue, means that the web will be a crucial instrument in democratizing authoritarian regimes, bringing people together with the message of freedom, peace, and cooperation. The first part is true enough since it’s pretty easy to talk to a foreigner in real time and learn quite a bit about her views and her nation outside of any formal source, and in an age of instant status updates on Web 2.0 sites, international news now travels in real time. But the second part of this well-meaning notion? Not so much. You may talk to a foreign national who’s friendly, polite, and all smiles when you’re chatting, or you might run into some hyper-nationalistic conspiracy theorist looking to vent his irrational fury based on propaganda, lies, and paranoid fantasy, and all the web can do in that situation is to indirectly perpetuate the authoritarian status quo by serving as an outlet for misplaced political rage.
In the recent past, the U.S. State Department advocated the web as a tool for spreading public opinions in the world’s worst places to contradict the local government, and according to at least one critic, hasn’t done very much except put dictators and strongmen on alert. And really, it’s not surprising why. This isn’t an issue of the right technology being available to the right people at the right time, it’s a human factors problem. The web is just a user-friendly layer of a system that exchanges bits and bytes according to certain protocols, and what those bits and bytes carry is up to the humans who send them. It’s not enough to have opposition and reform activists in a country with a regime with a far less than perfect human rights record with internet connections and a way to scramble their home IPs. There has to be a big enough opposition and it has to have access to the outside world to counter autocrats’ powerful tools for maintaining order. While we lionize those who stand up to dictators armed with tanks, jets, a paramilitary police, and intelligence agencies which spy on their own people to spread the idea of having a say in one’s government, the fact of the matter is that words are usually useless against steel armor and brutal enforcers whose livelihood depends on keeping the current autocrats in office. Worse yet, those same tyrants can filter and block internet traffic, and already do so.
Now, let’s go back for a moment to my mention of the web being just a set of communication protocols which only transmits what humans want it to transmit. We would think that China’s web users able to overcome the country’s famous Great Firewall would be encouraging a great social awakening, especially in light of recent events; with a noted democracy activist’s family and friends placed under surveillance or house arrest in the wake of the announcement awarding him with the Nobel Peace Prize. However, nationalist fervor and spread of official propaganda have disproportionately large roles on the other side of the Firewall, with many Chinese taking to the web to voice their grievances with Beijing’s competitors and foes instead of asking for elections, or pleading for Liu Xiaobo’s freedom. Again, it’s the people, and if the people living under authoritarians don’t want change, or aren’t devoted to it across the board, you’re not going to see any regime changes no matter if they have access to Web 2.0 sites or not. It may seem alien to many in the United States, but as long as most people living under an autocrat’s or oligarchs’ rule are left alone by the secret police, they’re not going to be in any hurry to campaign for new governments because as they see it, they have too much to lose for a nebulous and abstract gain. In their minds, democracy is probably great and all, but will it put food on the table?