Stephen M. Walt

The Internet, Dictatorship, and Democracy

The Internet, Dictatorship, and Democracy

As I said a couple of posts ago, I began my trip to Europe at a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." It was a fascinating event, in part because it brought together two tribes that don’t interact very often and have relatively few overlapping members.

In one group were various foreign-policy or IR scholars (myself, Dan Drezner, Beth Simmons, Karl Kaiser, John Mearsheimer, Rob Paarlberg, etc.); in the other group was a diverse collection of computer science experts, Internet entrepreneurs, communications scholars, and experts on Internet governance (e.g., Susan Crawford, Adam Bye, Milton Mueller, Zeynep Tufekci, Terry Roberts, Ben Scott, etc.). There were also some journalists, business leaders, and other academics who don’t fit neatly in either group

As several people commented at the conference, it was interesting to see how differently the two main groups tended to approach these issues. To oversimplify, the IR/FP types tended to see the Internet as an important but not revolutionary development. In this view, it will affect some of the things that states did (or how they did them), but it isn’t a transformative development that is going to alter the balance of power, shift the agenda of world affairs in fundamental ways, or render international politics substantially more benign. By contrast, most of the "Internet experts" seemed to have greater confidence in its revolutionary potential, saw the integration of markets, data, and individual platforms as a game-changer, and emphasized that states really had to get up to speed on its impact and implications. They were also (mostly) in agreement on the need for much better global cooperation on many of these questions.

The conference was planned long before L’affaire Snowden, so the timing was really remarkably fortuitous. As you might expect, there was a lot of discussion about what Edward Snowden’s disclosures would mean for the broader question of Internet governance, privacy, social media, and politics more generally. There was a pretty broad consensus that the revelations about NSA surveillance and cyber-espionage had done a lot of damage to the U.S. position on a lot of cybersecurity issues, at least in terms of the United States’ ability to lead the world toward some sort of a legal regime. As many people have already noted, how can Washington complain about Chinese hacking, global cybercrime, and all sorts of other bad things when it is clearly spending millions of dollars doing similar things itself?

At the heart of all this discussion is a very profound set of Brave New World-ish issues: Can we trust governments or private corporations to know this much about us, our preferences, our network of friends and associates, and even what we write or say to each other? The potential for abuse is enormous; the dangers of subtle forms of intimidation are real, and we are still in the earliest phase of these global developments. At the same time, the benefits of all this interconnectivity are already vast. To take a trivial example, it’s why I can sit in a hotel room in Oslo and type this, and then ship it to FP at the speed of light. Interconnectivity empowers and enriches, but it also can threaten, incriminate, or enslave.

And as one participant observed, perhaps the most likely possibility is that we will see a partial convergence between authoritarian systems like the People’s Republic of China and open democracies like Britain and the United States. Instead of empowering individuals and forcing monarchies and dictatorships to liberalize, the connectivity revolution could cause democracies and dictatorships to move somewhat closer together. Dictatorships will be less able to prevent new ideas from circulating and may even be vulnerable to collective action facilitated by social media (see under: Arab Spring). So they will become somewhat more open. But at the same time, previously open societies that privileged privacy and strictly limited government monitoring will be unable to resist the temptation to collect lots of private data, whether from surveillance cameras or from your laptop. Authoritarian states may get somewhat weaker, while liberal governments become somewhat more intrusive and authoritarian.

I’m not saying this development is inevitable, but it hardly seems like a remote possibility given recent events. There’s also the possibility that states will start to retreat the vision of one-world united by digital data, with different countries adopting Chinese-style firewalls of various types to keep others from snooping as they do today. Might today’s world be the high-water mark of globalized Internet access? I tend to think not, but I can’t rule that out either. Somehow, I tend to think the real answer will be determined not by people of my generation, but by all those young people who are a lot more wired than most people my age. So I’m going to ask my kids just as soon as I get home.