When Google announced earlier this year that it would shut down its China search engine after hackers allegedly broke into Chinese human-rights advocates’ Gmail accounts, the activists, editorial boards, and commentators lauded the company. In doing so, they echoed an argument made by many technophiles and politicians since the late 1990s: the Web, and new communications technology in general, will open up closed societies and hasten the demise of authoritarian regimes, with freedom-loving Internet companies leading the charge. Bill Clinton said as much at the time. He told Chinese leaders that they stood “on the wrong side of history.”
But the idea that the Internet will spark the decline of autocrats has been proven false. In the past four years, Web penetration has grown in most authoritarian states, yet overall the number of free societies worldwide has declined in that time period, according to annual reports by monitoring organization Freedom House. Online activists in many places have much less freedom than they did four years ago as well. In Vietnam the government has rounded up most of the leading online activists and sentenced many to jail; in Thailand, a soft--authoritarian state, the government recently arrested an editor of one of the most respected and vibrant online news sites. In China the government has shuttered thousands of blogs and sites in the past year alone.
Authoritarian regimes have undermined the potential power of the Web in several ways. Like China, many have developed highly sophisticated methods of monitoring and filtering Web sites. These autocrats increasingly are learning from each other’s filters: Vietnam has sent officials to Beijing to study the “Great Firewall of China,” while China has exported its technology and Internet-control strategies to Saudi Arabia and Burma, among other countries. These governments also use state-backed commentators to control online discourse and threaten political opponents. China reportedly has some 250,000 state-backed commentators weighing in on popular forums, and the Kremlin has its own funded “Web brigades,” which attack liberals and praise Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. And rather than just put portals in the hands of Western companies, savvy autocrats are creating their own. China is launching state-backed versions of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, all of which surely will not include content about controversial topics like the Tiananmen crackdown or the Dalai Lama. The Kremlin reportedly may launch a government--backed search engine as well, which will create headaches for Google in Russia as well.
Worse, much of the public in countries like China and Vietnam has no idea how much news and information they are missing out on in their filtered Web universe. Since these states allow just enough online freedom to perpetuate a fiction of a free Internet, while quietly blocking politically hot sites, users often think they are seeing the same Internet as someone in the U.S. or Japan or another free country.
In some ways the Internet and other new communications technology make it easier for authoritarian regimes to monitor political activists. Relying on technology to organize can lead activists to ignore old-fashioned on-the-ground political networking, critical for massing street protests or getting bodies to a polling booth. And by creating their own personal Web pages or Facebook pages, activists in countries like Iran are building the kinds of dossiers of information about themselves that, in the old days, government security services had to work hard to piece together. It also has become easier for the security services to follow dissidents, since they can track groups of them online rather than having to infiltrate meetings of dissidents in people’s homes or in bars. When the Chinese government wanted to crack down on the creators of Charter 08, an online petition calling for the rule of law and greater freedom, it could find most of their details online; many Iranian Green Movement protestors think Tehran used protest leaders’ Facebook pages and other online identifiers to find them and their friends after last summer’s antigovernment demonstrations.
Those supposedly beneficent Internet companies, dedicated to open networks and free expression, also have turned out to be, well, companies—interested first and foremost in the bottom line. Nokia and Siemens allegedly helped produce technology for Iran’s state telecommunications company that the Iranians then used for monitoring phones and other communications. Yahoo helped Beijing find and arrest a Chinese journalist and prominent rights activist. The largest Chinese Web sites, like local search-engine giant Baidu, employ teams of Web monitors who look for and remove anything in their traffic banned by China’s propaganda department. And though Google may have made an ethically responsible choice in China (though it had only a small slice of the search market in China anyway), in the days after its decision there was a deafening silence from other big technology firms with China operations. “We have done business in China for more than 20 years and we intend to continue our business there,” a Microsoft spokesman told the press after Google pulled out. Turns out, these companies didn’t want a free and uncensored Web that badly. And once the hype over Google’s exit fades, the companies will go back to business as usual. And the countries in which they operate will crack down once again.
Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.