Dot Com for Dictators

Tales of cyberdissidents fighting government censors feed the conventional wisdom about the Internet's role as a powerful tool against tyranny. But if democracy advocates want to spur meaningful change, they must also recognize the Net's ability to change authoritarian regimes from within. As nations such as China embrace the Web to streamline government and boost economic growth, they also create opportunities for greater transparency, accountability, and freedom.

Call it Authoritarianism 2.0: Forced to choose between jumping on the information superhighway or languishing on the unwired byways of technology, many authoritarian regimes are choosing to go along for the Internet ride. In addition to helping autocratic rulers compete in the global economy, the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can streamline authoritarian states and help them govern more effectively -- attractive options for many leaders. In some of these countries, reform-minded officials are even using the Internet to increase transparency, reduce corruption, and make government more responsive to citizens.

Call it Authoritarianism 2.0: Forced to choose between jumping on the information superhighway or languishing on the unwired byways of technology, many authoritarian regimes are choosing to go along for the Internet ride. In addition to helping autocratic rulers compete in the global economy, the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can streamline authoritarian states and help them govern more effectively — attractive options for many leaders. In some of these countries, reform-minded officials are even using the Internet to increase transparency, reduce corruption, and make government more responsive to citizens.

But hardheaded autocrats aren’t suddenly soliciting e-mail advice from dissenters. Controlling information has always been a cornerstone of authoritarian rule, and leaders are naturally suspicious of the Web. Public Internet access could expose large swaths of a population to forbidden information and images or galvanize grass-roots opposition, as has already happened in many countries where Internet users are growing in number and challenging oppressive governments. As a result, authoritarian regimes are deploying sophisticated censorship schemes to stay one step ahead of online dissidents.

Such instances of technological one-upmanship have created the appearance of an Internet arms race pitting would-be revolutionaries and democracy-hungry publics against states determined to block, censor, and monitor citizens. Indeed, anecdotes about empowered cyberdissidents, amplified by faith in the democratic nature of the technology, have helped spread the notion that the Internet ineluctably thwarts authoritarian regimes. Little surprise, then, that human rights advocates and press freedom organizations publicly condemn crackdowns on the Internet as violating technology’s democratizing manifest destiny.

But technological censorship and its evasion, while relevant to any discussion of political freedom, represent only one part of a larger developmental puzzle. Even if the Internet does not necessarily contribute to the downfall of authoritarianism, the Web does help transform authoritarianism’s modern expression. Although other programs censor and spread propaganda, e-government initiatives that reshape bureaucracy, dispense education and health information, and increase direct communication between officials and the public actually improve the quality of life for citizens and boost transparency. Understanding these distinct effects of technology is crucial for those interested in using the Internet effectively to increase political liberalization and improve governance in closed societies. Efforts by outside governments and activists to champion hackers and cyberheroes in authoritarian states may win headlines, but the more mundane task of supporting e-government programs is just as likely — if not more so — to foster lasting reform.


Historically, authoritarian states in developing countries provided economic benefits and stability in return for the right to rule. Authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes such as China, Malaysia, and Singapore have already thrown government weight behind domestic information technology industries that stimulate the local economy. Malaysia has long promoted its Multimedia Super Corridor as a haven for technology companies — complete with tax perks and hands-off censorship policies for investors. Vietnam, while struggling with economic reforms, nonetheless aims to develop a local "knowledge economy" based on a tech-savvy population of programmers. Even authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar (Burma) that are relatively wary of all forms of ICT often emphasize wiring those key industries that generate hard currency, such as tourism.

On the other hand, some authoritarian countries have significantly less incentive to promote Internet access within their borders. Isolated by an embargo and fearful of widespread Internet use, Cuba has chosen to restrict entrepreneurship and greater competition in its tiny Internet industry. Economic use of the Internet in Cuba has followed the country’s general pattern of separating its external and domestic sectors, and thus the majority of Internet use occurs in the tourist and export-oriented industries. Also shunned by many foreign investors and governments for its shoddy human rights record, Myanmar has been slow to open to information technology development. A 1996 decree makes possession of even an unregistered telephone (much less a computer) illegal and punishable by imprisonment — a regulation the government has made good on over the years.

Yet, if cash-strapped authoritarian states wish to tap the global economy, they will face growing pressure to permit private investment and market-led development within Internet sectors. Prodded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Myanmar is starting to liberalize its draconian ICT laws and invite technological investment from friendly neighbors. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund now encourage deregulating the telecommunications sector and opening it to investment, while entities like the World Trade Organization (WTO) require certain reforms in return for membership. China, for example, had to agree to foreign telecommunications investment to join the WTO. Such reforms can, in turn, reduce state influence in key economic sectors and promote local growth in domestic Internet industries.

Authoritarian states also use ICTs like the Internet to promote larger development goals. The state-supported All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), for instance, helps rural women get accurate, up-to-date health information online through local organizations that have Internet access. Via its Web site, the ACWF also offers women anonymous counseling on issues such as rape and spousal abuse. In Cuba, where mass Web access remains restricted, authorities have been pursuing online health initiatives. The Ministry of Public Health’s Infomed, one of Cuba’s oldest networks, connects medical centers nationwide and uses e-mail lists to disseminate health alerts. Egypt, a semi-authoritarian country that has not attempted to censor the Internet, is developing technology-access community centers to promote rural education.


In countries that embrace ICT development, authoritarianism is no longer solely the domain of creaky bureaucracies and aging dictators. By implementing e-government policies — such as wiring key industries and federal departments — states can guide Internet development to serve their own goals. As a result, authoritarian states are shedding years of inefficiency and waste, paring down unwieldy bureaucracies, and consolidating central authority through more efficient communication with remote provinces. Such advancements are seemingly antithetical to democratization, but expanding government Internet programs can also make regimes more transparent and allow citizens to directly express their concerns about government performance.

The semi-authoritarian country of Singapore, in particular, has led the world in revamping its bureaucracy and changing the way government interacts with citizens. Singapore’s ICT sector is one of the world’s most dynamic, and the city-state boasts sky-high Internet penetration rates, with an estimated 2.1 million citizens online out of a total population of 4.5 million. Singapore’s crown Internet jewel is its eCitizen program, which smoothly integrates services from several government departments and packages them in a user-friendly way. Just about any action requiring interaction with the government can be performed online, and the list is constantly expanding. Under the eCitizen site’s "Get Married" subheading, for instance, visitors can file notice for either a civil or Muslim marriage, scan a roster of justices of the peace, find out about pre- and post-marriage counseling programs, and even obtain a list of hospitals providing genetic counseling. By using the Internet to enhance government responsiveness and quality of life, Singapore’s ruling party has turned the Internet into an asset that increases citizens’ satisfaction with their government.

Singapore, of course, is something of a special case — it has a tiny population of just 4.5 million and is hardly a full-blown authoritarian state. Opposition parties, for example, participate in regular elections that are held at constitutionally mandated intervals. But they face other obstacles. As the U.S. State Department’s 2001 human rights report delicately puts it, "Government leaders historically have utilized court proceedings, in particular defamation suits, against political opponents and critics… Both this practice and consistent awards in favor of government plaintiffs have raised questions about the relationship between the Government and the judiciary and led to a perception that the judiciary reflects the views of the executive in politically sensitive cases." Moreover, as the report goes on to note, "The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression but permits official restrictions on these rights, and in practice the Government significantly restricts freedom of speech and of the press." Web sites, for instance, that the government considers political must be registered with the authorities. The established media, which is connected to the government and espouses uncritical views, has a strong Internet presence. Since most civil society groups tend to have some connection to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), they too use the Internet in government-approved ways. When a handful of independent groups used the Internet to provide a platform for criticism of the PAP, the party responded with new regulations. Many of these independent sites quickly shuttered operations rather than risk the continual regulatory ire of the PAP. The government’s grip on power is generally aided by use of ICTs, which help modernize government operations and open communication channels between the government and the public. Civil society organizations’ use of the Internet, on the other hand, has not yet proved a potent challenge to the PAP’s mixture of official regulations and unspoken inducements to damp politically threatening speech.

Small and capable states such as Singapore can generally reap the benefits of e-government technology more quickly than large states with unwieldy bureaucracies. Nonetheless, across the board, many authoritarian regimes moved early and forcefully on e-government plans. In Egypt, the most politically significant Internet use takes place not among opposition groups but within the government itself. During the last two decades, Egypt computerized regional governments and then connected them through a national network. The country now has a central government Web site, and about 500 other government entities are online. In April 2001, Egypt announced an e-government initiative to provide civil services and promote intragovernmental collaboration using a technological infrastructure provided by Microsoft.

China, which uses the term "informatization" to describe the incorporation of ICTs into all spheres of life — political, economic, and social — is developing a particularly ambitious e-government plan. In addition to implementing a comprehensive project called Government Online to make services and information available to the public, individual Chinese ministries are partnering with private companies to eliminate corruption. By using online procurement auctions, ministries can eliminate layers of middlemen, along with traditional opportunities for graft. In major cities, municipal Web sites not only provide helpful local information but also solicit feedback on projects, such as large-scale construction work. These initiatives have yet to reach poverty-stricken interior provinces, but even government officials there are beginning to think creatively about Internet kiosks and basic Internet training.

E-government provides the citizens of authoritarian regimes with important benefits. True, such programs can also help strengthen authoritarian states, particularly if they augment central authority. Some governments may also be interested only in the facade of improved governance. Yet cynical power calculations are not the sole reason officials in these countries pursue e-government initiatives. Internal reformers may attempt to use such measures as a basis for political liberalization, if not outright democratization. In China, for instance, midlevel officials have expressed the desire to use the Internet to increase government transparency and bolster accountability.


For all their power in creating the architecture for national Internet development, many authoritarian regimes have realized that adapting to the information age means relinquishing a measure of control. Savvy leaders understand they simply cannot dominate every facet of the Internet and rarely erect foolproof fire walls. Indeed, countries such as Malaysia and China allow a freer information environment online than they do in traditional print and broadcast media. Many employ measures of "soft control" to shape the boundaries of Internet use.

Regimes often promote self-censorship — a task easily accomplished in an authoritarian atmosphere — rather than official censorship, access restrictions, and other forms of overt control. Such governments also encourage private Internet companies to filter content or police users. Moreover, years of ideological conditioning and the threat of punitive action keep citizens from crossing the boundaries of politically acceptable Internet use, making it easy for authorities to sustain an environment where comprehensive censorship is unnecessary.

Authoritarian countries seeking to encourage domestic Internet industries can also present a wide array of politically unthreatening, domestically generated content that satisfies the demands of most Internet users, whose basic online needs often mirror those of residents in advanced industrialized democracies. Want to e-mail a friend, get news on a favorite sports team, or check local weather? It’s easy to do in China without ever having to use proxy servers to access government-blocked Web pages. China’s own private and state-owned Internet companies have generated a staggering body of information — all in Mandarin Chinese, using the People’s Republic’s own simplified characters — that falls largely within the boundaries of the country’s harsh content restrictions. Whether via rules stipulating that all online news must flow from official sources or by making examples of those who transgress regulations, China’s government has created a domestic Internet for domestic consumption.

The concept that subtler forms of ideological influence might prove effective has extended to many propaganda departments as well. In authoritarian countries where the government has taken an active interest in the Internet, the official newspaper is generally one of the first government organs to establish an online presence, which may be substantially more engaging and inviting than stodgy print counterparts. In Vietnam, the Communist Party’s official Nhan Dan newspaper was among the first government bodies to go online in 1999. China’s People’s Daily Web edition provides not only the official take on news but a snazzy English site with links to, among other things, Chinese government white papers. The Chinese-language version features a popular chat room, called the Strong Country Forum, where users can and do debate issues related to national security, international relations, and China’s global role. Unsurprisingly, such discussions feature a distinctively nationalistic tinge. These forums can provide the government with a subtler means of ideological control than the blunt instrument of official rhetoric.


These rarefied forms of ideological control did not evolve overnight. Many governments have shaped Internet policy by imitating each other’s policies and techniques. In China, where both domestic and foreign observers are examining the Internet’s impact, officials have long sought to emulate Singapore’s success in neutralizing the Web as a medium for political opposition. Authoritarian countries in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates, also look to Singapore’s successful e-government and e-commerce programs. For its part, China is formally advising Cuba on ICT policies and has sent Chinese Information Industry Minister Wu Jichuan to Cuba to explore joint projects. Even in Myanmar, where Internet access is tightly controlled, the government is borrowing technology strategies (or at least tech-friendly lingo) from authoritarian neighbors in ASEAN.

The Internet may be empowering autocrats, but it is also forcing them to reassess, adapt, and, in some cases, make critical changes. True, e-government programs can streamline the state, extend the central government’s reach, and increase citizen support, but they also represent a hidden opportunity for political liberalization. It is a mistake to discount them simply because they come from within authoritarian governments themselves. Yet many Western policymakers and activists tend to regard autocratic moves toward e-government as mere window dressing, focusing instead on using technology to strengthen popular opposition movements. The latter approach deals with means — such as anticensorship techniques — instead of the presumably desirable ends of increased openness.

Heightened political reform and more responsive governance require not only combating censorship but also promoting Internet use that tangibly benefits citizens of authoritarian regimes while increasing government transparency. Approaches currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress, such as unblocking Web sites or offering anonymizing software to citizens in authoritarian nations, will commit large sums of money to fixing only one small piece of the greater liberalization puzzle. Rather than treating the Internet as an innately liberating tool that, if unleashed in closed societies, will release a tide of opposition sentiment, policymakers should identify and support specific actions and Internet policies that are likely to promote openness in authoritarian countries. This approach should not preclude the opportunity to combat censorship. However, since countless non-governmental organizations, private companies, and individuals are already working toward that goal, government-funded Western support should also help reformers within authoritarian regimes use technology to make government accountable and transparent — reformers who may not attract the media attention that dissidents and human rights campaigners command.

Aid organizations are beginning to get the message: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, has committed more than $39 million over five years to promote e-government, e-commerce, and ICT diffusion in Egypt. At present, however, there is little coordination or information sharing between various agencies and groups in the United States, much less internationally. Apart from USAID, other arms of the U.S. government are pursuing their own Internet-based initiatives, while recent anticensorship measures proposed in Congress by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of California, among others, take no notice of these activities. If an Office of Global Internet Freedom (as suggested in proposed U.S. legislation) is to be established, it should have as its mandate not merely unjamming Web sites but also coordinating various government efforts to better achieve democratic reform.

Once strong-arm regimes open the door to technology, they may find it difficult to return to a culture of bureaucratic secrecy, unscrupulous abuse of power, and unaccountability. Using technology to illuminate murky government processes and craft better public services may not automatically lead to more politically liberal atmospheres, but these moves are helping to spur more government oversight — or at least create the expectation of it. Authoritarian governments may not enter the information age with reform in mind, but it can be a welcome result.

Shanthi Kalathil is the director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

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