July/August 2001 -- Apparently the World Wide Web isn't as worldwide as it could be. The Internet—the centerpiece of the "new economy" technology that was supposed to stamp out tyranny and usher in a culture of freedom—is having a hard time taking hold in authoritarian countries. Despite advances in encryption and other privacy-oriented technologies, authoritarian governments are finding it all too easy to restrict and censor Internet access within their boundaries—usually by employing "old economy" technologies like guns and prisons.
Vietnam censors the material its citizens can access by forcing the entire nation to share a single international connection. This makes for awfully slow connection speeds—especially when the bandwidth is shared among 100 thousand users—but it makes the censor's job much easier. With a single international access point, all traffic coming in or out of the country can be easily tagged, tracked, and analyzed.
Censorship is more difficult in larger, industrialized nations like Russia, but it's not impossible. The Russian government has sidestepped the technological problem of distributed access by targeting the companies offering the access itself. By requiring local service providers to monitor their clients' activities, the Russian government has efficiently, and increasingly effectively, controlled the flow of controversial or unapproved political speech. In China, which uses the same methods, chat rooms that criticize government policy are shut down daily and dissidents who post to the Web are routinely arrested.
This comes as a shock to people who believed that the Internet would radically transform all of civilization, but it really should not be that surprising. The Internet, for all its usefulness, is not much different from a telephone. Sure, the Internet offers video and imaging technology that phones cannot, but as great as the differences between the two technologies are, they are differences of degree, not kind. And authoritarian governments can as easily monitor Internet communication as they can phone conversations.
What all this shows is that the technology of the Internet, by itself, simply is not enough. Authoritarian countries do not need to address the questions of technological complexity that the distributed nature of the Internet raises if they don't want to—they can simply restrict physical access or imprison enough dissidents to deter future opposition.
Sanguine suggestions that raise the possibilities of satellite access, strong encryption, and anonymous remailers ignore the single greatest obstacle that the citizens of these countries face—repression. For example, in Vietnam, a country with over 79 million people, just 100 thousand people have access to the Internet. By limiting the access rate to a paltry 0.1 percent of the population, the government can successfully deal with dissidence by using campaigns of terror and intimidation. A country needs to jail only a few publishers to have a chilling effect on free speech. Satellite access just doesn't work from a jail cell.
In mostly free countries, like the United States, where access is widespread and the citizenry is well equipped to use technology to combat restrictions, outright censorship may not be ultimately viable. But in oppressive countries, where restrictions are heavy and access is limited, the citizenry is ill equipped to circumvent direct censorship. It is worth remembering, however, that even in America (where there is still some culture of freedom) modern communications technologies like radio and the television have been subjected to much greater governmental controls than their older counterparts in the press. So far, the Internet has narrowly escaped significant restriction in the United States, but even now, some people are advocating stronger restrictions on political speech and a possible revival of the fairness doctrine—a law that required media outlets like television stations to provide equal time to opposing political candidates—by requiring Web sites to link to other sites with opposing views. As long as there continues to be widespread popular opposition to such controls, additional regulation will remain unlikely.
This illustrates a more fundamental point; the Internet—like any other communication technology—is a tool. It doesn't change cultural attitudes; it reflects the attitudes of those who use it. If the majority of Internet users in a society value independence, autonomy, and individualism—the Internet will reflect those values. If the users value submission, collectivism, and nationalism, the Internet will just as readily reflect those values. The tool does not use the master; the master uses the tool. And in countries like China, Russia, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia, where political masters use human beings as simple tools, the Internet will reflect the values of those political masters.
Moreover, to the extent that the most influential political and cultural dissidents are the ones using new technologies, a heavily regulated Internet may actually be an impediment to political change in oppressive countries. Given the pace at which tracking and monitoring technology is developing, the Internet may well become yet another instrument for oppression.
Political change depends, as it always has, on widespread cultural change. As long as oppressive governments continue to deny their citizens basic human rights, digital freedom will remain a poor substitute for the real thing.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.