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Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule

Author: Shanthi Kalathil, Taylor C. Boas
Publisher: Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003
Review Published: September 2004

 REVIEW 1: Arthur L. Morin

    "On the whole, we argue that the Internet is not inherently a threat to authoritarian rule... [It] presents both opportunity and challenge for authoritarian regimes" (136).
Some readers may be inclined to believe that authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes are dinosaurs that are unable to adapt to new information technology (for example, see page one of the book). Somehow, they assume, the Internet will either level the playing field or will be a weapon that can be used more advantageously by 'the little person' than by pea-brained, big-footed dinosaurs slipping inexorably toward the tar pits. Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas's book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, provides enough evidence and analysis to turn many such believers into agnostics. Until last year, Kalathil was "a Carnegie associate in the Information Revolution and World Politics Project at the Carnegie Endowment." Boas "is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the University of California, Berkley" (217). The analytical framework used by the authors "was built around the cases of China and Cuba" (9). The eight "dinosaurs" they study -- Vietnam, Cuba, Burma, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates -- are not yet in the tar pits. Indeed, Kalathil and Boas's book leads me to conclude that, at this point in history at any rate and with regard to these eight countries, "(semi-) authoritarian regimes as chameleons" may be a more apt metaphor than "(semi-) authoritarian regimes as dinosaurs."

Drawing on the work of Bruce Bimber (2003) may be helpful here. Bimber (2003, 13) builds upon Levy’s idea of a
    "communications ecology," the basic features of information and communication to which human institutions and organizations are adapted [citation omitted]. Vertically integrated firms, retail stores, administrative organizations, and even universities are in part adaptations to a communications ecology in which information is costly and asymmetric.

    From this perspective, the contemporary information revolution involves deep changes in the communications ecology, with potential consequences for institutions and processes whose structures are in substantial ways adapted to older communications arrangements. [1]
Thus the emergence of advanced communications technology and of the Internet can be seen as the rise of a new communications ecology [2]. To apply this idea to the ‘dinosaur’ metaphor: the "dinosaurs" would not be able to adapt to the new communications ecology and would slip into the tar pit of history. However, the dinosaurs in question appear to be much more adept at adjusting to their new communications ecology than some might have initially suspected (or hoped). In China, the authoritarian government appears to be "winning." Cuba has adapted surprisingly well. As the authors note, Singapore "merits special consideration for its government's achievement of what many believed to be impossible: extensive ICT [Information and Communication Technology] development with a negligible erosion of political control" (73). Both Burma and Vietnam have had struggles; both face pressure from external groups. However, both have made some adjustments to their new communications ecology and neither at this point faces "extinction." United Arab Emirates (particularly Dubai) has been more proactive in adopting the new communications technology than has either Egypt or Saudi Arabia; of the eight regimes, Saudi Arabia may currently be the most successful in staving off threats within its communications ecology.

The authors reach a nuanced conclusion based on their analysis of more than one dimension of the eight regimes. They select "four comprehensive categories" for the basis of their analysis: "civil society, politics and the state, the economy, and the international sphere" (6). At certain points, specific sections are explicitly dedicated to each of these categories, but at other points their analysis is not so explicitly delineated. In my opinion, the civil society category is operationalized very well. Their operationalization of the economy is defensible, but their analysis leads me to wonder whether a strong or growing middle class is an inherent threat to authoritarianism -- a point to which I shall return later. I found their operationalization of politics and the state initially questionable, since interest groups were not included, but a reasonable response to my initial concern would be "what interest groups?" I found their operationalization of the international sphere to be defensible as well.

There are at least seven lessons that can be drawn from the book. The first lesson is that the Internet can be used as a weapon against authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. This lesson bolsters the argument made by Ronfeldt et al in their book The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. This is good news for those who hope for the eventual victory of democracy over authoritarianism.

The second lesson, however, runs in the opposite direction: the pro-active use of the Internet by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes may effectually "stave off" threats from opponents -- as per success with e-government, such as in the cases of Cuba, Singapore, and the UAE. For example, according to the authors: "It is . . . possible that the [Chinese] government is using the Internet as a form of "preemptive liberalization'" (27).

The third lesson is that an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime may successfully bifurcate "economics" from "politics" -- as in the cases of Singapore, China, the UAE, and perhaps also Saudi Arabia. The authors make it clear that one regime can learn from the successes of another regime. Since leaders of regimes have the capability to communicate rapidly with each other, telecommunications can be a double-edged sword. Nor can one forget another point, that a regime can exercise great influence over the telecommunications infrastructure: "all the states in [the authors'] study (with the exception of Egypt) control much of the physical network infrastructure within their borders, including national backbones . . . and gateways to the global Internet" (137).

The fourth lesson is that economic success and political stability may be more important than political liberalization, a lesson we can draw from the experience of Singapore, the UAE, and perhaps China. The second and third lessons are related to a concern raised earlier in this review: whether a strong or growing middle class is an inherent threat to authoritarianism -- but I will again defer a discussion of this concern until later.

The fifth lesson is that external actors may have more success influencing authoritarian regimes -- as per lessons from Burma and Vietnam, and perhaps Saudi Arabia -- by picking the "weakest" regime, then lobbying foreign governments and multi-national organizations (I can think of the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF) to bring pressure on that regime for regime modification. Once some regime modification has occurred, external actors can unite in their efforts to bring about regime modification in the now-weakest regime -- resulting in a "reverse domino" effect.

The sixth lesson is that geopolitics still matters - for example, the Middle East, Burma, and Cuba. The book helps us understand that regimes in the Middle East are advantaged by being in a region where traditionalist values play a predominant role and where oral and personal communication is favored. These characteristics tend to dull the influence of advanced telecommunications technology. Also, as the book points out, being among nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Burma is not a member of ASEAN) may help Burma be more responsive to democratizing efforts than it might otherwise be; on the other hand, the geopolitics might also "cut" in Burma's favor. Cuba's geopolitical sin is its proximity to the U.S.A., but, as the book intimates, not every nation is thrilled with the U.S.A.'s embargo efforts to fence in Cuba. As the authors note: "For the near future, Cuba will probably continue to defy the conventional wisdom that the Internet poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule" (45). If Cuba is capable of this, then which country is not?

The seventh lesson is that not all groups and individuals using the Internet and other advanced communications technologies are advocates of democracy and capitalism (or "the free market" if you prefer that term). For example, both Saudi Arabia and China face counter-liberalization interests: Saudi Arabia faces Islamic extremists, while China must deal with nationalists.

One assumption that some have made in the past is that economic liberalization will lead to political liberalization. Certainly, this point of view can be used -- and has been used -- in defense of granting "most favored nation" status to China. But if an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime may successfully bifurcate "economics" from "politics" (our second lesson, above), then this assumption is brought into question. The assumption is further brought into question when we begin to consider what incentives businesses and their employees (that is, the middle class) have for pressing for democratization. Clearly, businesses would benefit if authoritarian regimes liberalized and privatized their economy, but it does not necessarily follow that businesses would have a monetary or even a political incentive to press for democratization. Perhaps presenting a "what if" scenario will illustrate a possibility that, in my opinion, needs to be taken seriously.

(Suppose I am a business owner. I have a firm in Vietnam that employs a large number of people whom I pay much more than they would otherwise receive. I am helping to create a new middle class in Vietnam. I would want to be relatively unconstrained in my business activities -- and this would also be advantageous to my employees -- but I would want to operate where there is political stability. My employees would also benefit from political stability; they are willing to forego political liberalization if they have good-paying jobs in a safe community and stable economy. If a country has a relatively liberal economic policy, but relatively authoritarian political system (the bifurcation we were considering), then as long as the country is relatively stable I will not care that much about whether the political system is authoritarian, and neither will my employees. In fact, I and my employees may applaud an authoritarian regime -- as long as it maintains a "liberalized" economic policy -- if that regime is able to provide security, e-government services, and access to advanced telecommunication services. If I am a wealthy business owner, I personally may decide to live in a country that is not authoritarian. I can then personally reap the political benefits of a democratic regime and the economic benefits of an authoritarian regime. And, living in a democratic country, I may be able to influence that democratic government to bring pressure on the authoritarian government more easily than I can influence the authoritarian regime directly.

My employees -- the newly emerging middle class -- may more fully appreciate the cultural and political values found in their authoritarian regime. Their privileged economic position may be advantaged by maintaining the political status quo, so they may be naturally inclined to support the authoritarian regime [3]. This is advantageous to me, since I can show the authoritarian regime how my employees are their allies [4]. I certainly would not say "no" if that regime wished to purchase my products and services [5].)

The point of the "what if" scenario is to show that bifurcating "economics" and "politics" may be a viable strategy for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. This will be quite disturbing to those who wish to see an end to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. Perhaps even more troubling is that something like this bifurcation may already be underway in the U.S.A. For example, some of the proposed or current policies in the U.S.A. could be seen as efforts to shore up security (both economic and political) but at some cost to an open and democratic society: the closing of the cyber commons, (Lessig, 2001), past limits on exportation of encryption technology, the Clipper Chip, Carnivore, and the PATRIOT Act. Is it possible that rigid authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes are both migrating toward "soft" authoritarianism and that advanced telecommunications technology facilitates this migration? Could it be that a strong middle class might even welcome this?

Kalathil and Boas have written an important book. Their multi-faceted analysis of a variety of regimes convincingly substantiates the conclusion that they reach. Advocates of open and democratic regimes will have to do a lot of pushing and pulling to get the dinosaurs into the tar pit. They cannot just simply hope that the Internet and other advanced telecommunications will work in only one direction: to push the dinosaurs toward extinction. They should also be aware of how the changing information ecology could facilitate the devolution of democratic regimes into more authoritarian regimes.

1. Bimber cites Levy's Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace.

2. Another term that could be used is "information ecology." Nardi and O'Day (1999) have written a useful book on information ecologies. See also Wikipedia’s definition of information ecology.

3. "In the cases we examined in this study, the most common uses of the Internet by domestic CSOs [Civil Society Organizations] are either nonpolitical or likely to support state policies" (144).

4. "Foreign investors also tend to cooperate with authoritarian regimes, even if it means contravening the principles of online privacy and freedom of expression that they ordinarily support in their home countries . . . A country’s attractiveness as an investment destination often determines the extent to which foreign investors are willing to comply with a government's wishes" (147).

5. The Chinese government prefers Linux to Microsoft (24-25); Microsoft has provided services to the Egyptian government (124). In China, "fairs organized by the Ministry of State Security have attracted many large multinationals peddling such products as blocking and antihacking software [citation omitted]" (26). "Foreign firms (including many from the United States) have been eagerly competing to provide hardware and software for Saudi Arabia's censorship efforts [citation omitted] (115). Finally, "encouraging foreign investment and e-commerce will not on its own engender a positive environment for political change in authoritarian regimes" (151).

Bimber, Bruce. 2003. Information and American Democracy Technology in the Evolution of Political Power. Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lessig, Lawrence. 2001. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House.

Nardi, Bonnie A. and Vicki L. O’Day. 1999. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press.

Ronfeldt, David, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, and Melissa Fuller. 1998. The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. Santa Monica: RAND.

Arthur L. Morin:
Arthur L. Morin is Director of the Master of Liberal Studies Program and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Justice Studies at Fort Hays State University.  <amorin@fhsu.edu>

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