Does the Internet spread democracy?, asks Evgeny Morozov, a fellow with the Open Society Institute. He is skeptical, questioning the starry-eyed cyber-optimism and technological determinism that underpins the fallacy “that unfettered access to the Internet will bring democracy”.
He concedes that new information and communication technology has in many cases empowered activists and helped create political space, alternative media and enhanced access to information. But, he argues, authoritarian regimes’ success in pro-actively using the internet and the rise of cyber-nationalism in Russia and China suggest that the political impact of the Web is not necessarily pro-democratic.
“Rather than sounding the death knell for authoritarianism, the global diffusion of the Internet presents both opportunity and challenge for authoritarian regimes,” an earlier analysis had cautioned.
Could it be that technology’s impact actually helps bolster existing authoritarianism?, Morozov asks. “There are many cyber-campaigns that authoritarian governments would actually like to encourage, particularly those that deal with identifying and punishing corrupt low-level officials,” he notes, while conceding the benefits for activists:
Let’s not gloss over the fact that the arrival of the internet has made the work of such professional activists much more effective, if only because their internal and external communications became much cheaper and harder to monitor. Thus, it’s only natural that many Western pro-democracy organizations and agencies want to equip these activists with the best online tools and platforms. Just to give an example: switching their communications from tapped phones to Skype may actually help to save some of them from prison.
But the growth of online nationalism, the use of cyber-attacks to silence opponents, the enclave extremism of internet debates make him suspicious of “some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user”:
This does not mean we should give up on the Internet as a force for democratization, only that we should ditch the blinding ideology of technological determinism and focus on practical tasks. Figuring out how the Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations-very few of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web-would not be a bad place to start.