There aren't many ideas that unite former U.S. president George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama. But one safe topic for conversation would be Internet freedom and the power of technology to foment democratic revolutions. In mid-April Bush welcomed to his new think tank in Texas six dissidents who used Web tools to oppose dictatorships, applauding them as examples "of how the Internet can be effectively used to advance the freedom agenda." Obama, meanwhile, has made Internet freedom a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and in a speech in Beijing late last year hailed "access to information" as a "universal right."
This kind of talk taps into a wide vein of techno-utopianism that has been around since at least the dawn of the Web. The Internet is disruptive by nature, rapidly overturning business models and mores, so it was natural for tech-savvy foreign-policy thinkers to believe that dictatorships, too, would fall with the click of a mouse. That, of course, didn't happen. In fact, quite the opposite is true, say a growing number of cyberskeptics. Autocrats have "mastered the use of cyberspace for propaganda," says Evgeny Morozov, one of the smartest and best-known cyberskeptics. Worse, they've learned to mine online information, such as Facebook profiles, for intelligence purposes. "The KGB used to torture to get ahold of this data," says Morozov. "Now it's all available online." In short, say the cyberskeptics, the Internet will lead to the entrenchment of dictatorship, not its end.
But that is a shortsighted view, and one predicated on the trend line over the last few years, in which autocracies appear to have gained the upper hand against democrats. If it seems as if they have, it's because the hardliners are playing catch-up—they've finally recognized the existential threat posed by the Internet. The color revolutions in former Soviet republics, the post-election protests in Iran, the saffron revolt in Burma, and smaller-scale Chinese demonstrations against pollution and corruption—all prominently featured the use of online tools and mobile phones to organize protesters and project their message around the world.
The cyberskeptics are right that this is not a one-sided fight; Iran's Basij militiamen can use Facebook, too. But the Internet represents "the largest increase in expressive capability in human history," as the writer Clay Shirky puts it, and because of its open, decentralized architecture, it is biased toward open, decentralized systems, i.e., democracies. For instance, the use of Twitter by protesting youths in Moldova last year to create a flash mob in the capital city of Chisinau illustrated just how powerful an organizing and communicating tool the Internet is, even when limits are placed on it. And when dictators fight back against it, they're pushing against a wall of water. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," says Daniel Calingaert, the deputy director of programs at Freedom House—each new government restriction is met with an inventive workaround, which prompts new restrictions. In Moldova the government blocked cell-phone reception in the square where protesters had gathered. So the protesters simply walked a couple of blocks away to post tweets, then returned to the square. Their tweets dominated the micromessaging service for days.
Of course, there is a logical end to any cyber cat-and-mouse game that goes on long enough. During Burma's saffron rebellion in 2007, the junta maintained its heavy-handed Web censorship tactics, blocking many foreign sites and e-mail programs, but protesters easily circumvented them and managed to post photos and firsthand accounts of the regime's brutality, including a video of a soldier shooting a Japanese reporter dead. On Sept. 29 the junta decided it had had enough, and simply shut down the country's two Internet service providers. To the techno--utopians, this was a splash of ice-cold water to the face, suggesting that the government in power virtually always holds the trump card. But in one way the junta's extreme reaction actually revealed the futility of its censorship. Their choice was a binary one: accept that the Web cannot be controlled, or eliminate it altogether. Choosing the latter sets a nation on a path to becoming the next Hermit Kingdom, a decision that almost every nation is unwilling to make.
The cyberskeptics also forget that the path toward democracy is a long one, and that the Internet is, in many places, less than 10 years old. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once remarked that the wisest democratic reformers "tend to be leery of simple solutions and of revolutions." Massive protests and toppled statues make for great TV, but most of the hard work comes well before and lasts long after the putsch. It's during that long process—which academics such as Huntington call "democratic consolidation"—that the Web's impact will be most felt. Mobile banking and e--commerce are helping more people join the ranks of the middle class, typically the first group to agitate for freedoms. Bloggers and tweeters are fulfilling the watchdog role in places where the mainstream media is muzzled. Election monitoring can now be performed by anyone, thanks to open-source platforms like Ushahidi, which facilitate anonymous reporting. In other words, Presidents Bush and Obama are right to agree on this issue: the digital masses trump the despots.
Sheridan, a NEWSWEEK staff writer, covers business and technology.