A prevalent school of thought has held that as Internet access and use grows, the trajectory of freedom in unfree settings would improve, given these technologies’ unique traits of proliferation and diffusion, writes Christopher Walker.* In other words, unlike old media, authoritarian governments would be unable to manage the Internet’s rapid growth and its capacity to enable information sharing, coordination and mobilization.
Over the long haul (depending on how one defines “long haul”), digital media’s influence may still help achieve such positive goals in these repressive settings. What appears to be taking shape in the meantime, however, is the emergence of a growing number of cases in which Internet use is rising and reaching meaningful levels (say, a third or more of the population) but where repressive regimes are developing ways to effectively manage and limit the growth of Internet freedom. Access is growing but freedom is not, it seems.
Data from Freedom House’s just-released “Freedom on the Net” report tells the story.
China heads the list of countries with already high and growing Internet use. China also gets the most public attention for its focus on suppression of politically relevant content. But China’s case, given the country’s resources and the Chinese Communist Party’s forethought and commitment to managing the Internet, could be viewed as sui generis. But China is no longer an isolated case. Freedom House findings indicate that countries such as Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Vietnam are undergoing copious growth in Internet use but are either stuck in place or becoming less free in terms of Internet freedom. In these cases, the environment for Internet freedom is already assessed as Not Free.
Meanwhile, another subset of politically repressive regimes with partially free Internet environments that have growing levels of Internet use – Jordan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and, it is worth noting, Egypt – are moving in the direction of less Internet freedom.
If this trend holds, it suggests that undemocratic regimes whose systems feature large and growing online use are demonstrating the will and capacity to shrink the space for politically consequential use of the Internet. If it continues, it raises more questions for those who have seen the Internet and other digital technologies as the principal tool for bringing greater freedom to unfree societies. Activists continue to innovate and identify ways to defend Internet openness but the data from this report offers a cautionary note on the extent of the challenge.
In this respect, it is worth noting that the two countries that experienced the largest Internet freedom improvement in this year’s assessment are also those that underwent significant political openings: Tunisia and Burma. This is a reminder that achieving greater Internet freedom will be difficult to divorce from the realization of broader democratic change.
*Christopher Walker is executive director of the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. He can be followed on Twitter at @Walker_CT.