The Null Device

Re-bottling the genie

Remember all those claims about how the internet was to render tyranny and authoritarianism unviable and usher in a global blossoming of democracy, pluralism and liberty? Well, according to this article, that's not happening, and if anything, the web is helping to reinforce authoritarian regimes and dissipate dissent:
Singaporean dissident Gomez says the Web empowers individual members of a political movement, rather than the movement as a whole. Opposition members can offer dissenting opinions at will, thus undermining the leadership and potentially splintering the organization. In combating an authoritarian regime, in other words, there's such a thing as too much democracy. Two of the most successful opposition movements of the last few decades--the South African opposition led by Nelson Mandela and the Burmese resistance led by Aung San Suu Kyi--relied upon charismatic, almost authoritarian leaders to set a message followed by the rest of the movement. The anti-globalization movement, by contrast, has been a prime example of the anarchy that can develop when groups utilize the Web to organize. Allowing nearly anyone to make a statement or call a meeting via the Web, the anti-globalizers have wound up with large but unorganized rallies in which everyone from serious critics of free trade to advocates of witches and self-anointed saviors of famed death-row convict Mumia Abu Jumal have their say. To take just one example, at the anti-globalization World Social Forum held in Mumbai in January, nuanced critics of globalization like former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz shared space with, as The New York Times reported, "a long list of regional causes," including anti-Microsoft and anti-Coca Cola activists.
In China, the Web has similarly empowered the authorities. In the past two decades, Beijing's system of monitoring the population by installing informers into businesses, neighborhoods, and other social institutions has broken down--in part because the Chinese population has become more transient and in part because the regime's embrace of capitalism has meant fewer devoted Communists willing to spy for the government. But Beijing has replaced these legions of informers with a smaller group of dedicated security agents who monitor the Internet traffic of millions of Chinese.

Though the article suggests more that the effects of the internet will be slower to take effect, and more long-term. While China has clamped down on anti-government dissent more or less effectively, Chinese environmental activists are organising in ways they would have been unable to before; meanwhile, a new generation of urban Chinese are used to more freedom of choice and cultural expression, and the Communist Party has been forced to enshrine private property and human rights in law (not that that necessarily changes much, but it will). Maybe if we check back in 20 years' time, the verdict on the liberating potential of the internet will be different.

Then again, with the intellectual-property interests which increasingly make up most of the West's economies pushing for "trusted computing" systems, which could just as easily be used to stop samizdat as MP3 sharing, and the increasing will (on the part of both the public and legislators) to accept mechanisms of surveillance and control unthinkable three years ago to defend against an asymmetric terrorist threat, perhaps the liberating potential of computers has peaked, and it can only go downhill from here?

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