"Can authoritarianism survive the Internet? Yes it can"- Presentation by Rebecca Mackinnon

Rebecca Mackinnon, co-founder of Global Voices (which I'm a big fan of, actually of both Rebecca and GV!), recently gave a presentation about Chinese censorship of the Internet at the World Press Freedom Committee in Washington, D.C. An edited transcript of the presentation has been compiled by the WPFC and posted here. But if you have time, you should view Rebecca's interesting slides (which includes youtube videos of the Chinese Back Dorm Boys and Chinese officials' tourist videos) and listen to her presentation, which I have embed at the end of this post.

Essentially, she is challenging our (Western) assumption that the internet will promote openness, democracy and freedom in autocratic regimes.
So where is the world going from here? We Americans, especially, are inclined to assume that thanks to some magical combination of capitalism, the Internet, and Twitter, authoritarian countries will all eventually evolve in the democratic direction. But can we be so sure? Might we all meet in the middle?
At least in China's case, she believes that China's regime will remain intact despite the internet. Reasons (this is my summary of her presentation, with her transcript in block quote):

  • Most Chinese citizens do not have incentives to challange the government
    • Unlike, say, the USSR based regime, Chinese citizens are in general fairly satisfied materialistically and opportunistically. So there is no real incentive to disrupt the status quo
    • The Chinese, aside from being unable to use the internet as a tool for political dissent, pretty much in general has the same opportunities offered the internet (perhaps except for access to porn or excessive violence). So the general population is not experiencing the control, ie curbing of their freedoms.
  • The Chinese government has developed a system of control that nibs almost all voices of dissent in the bud, before it can gain popularity and momentum:
The censorship system (works) by deleting or preventing publication of writings that cross over the line. Here is what happened when I logged into one Chinese blog-hosting service, called Tianya, and tried to post something about the mothers of people killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. When I clicked on the “publish” button, I got this error message telling me my post is being held for moderation. It never appears. For most bloggers, that’s a warning you’ve crossed the line, and you know better than to try to write about that subject if you want to stay out of trouble. This kind of censorship —preventing content from being published or deleting it from the Internet completely soon after a user publishes it— is done not by Internet police. Most of it is done by private sector employees of Internet companies. This is all thanks to a legal situation which the lawyers will recognize: INTERMEDIARY LIABILITY. Internet service providers, web hosing companies, social networking services, and anybody who hosts user-generated content is held legally liable for everything their users do. Therefore they have to devote considerable overhead to hiring entire departments of employees to monitor and censor their customers. A lot of Western companies are lobbying lawmakers in Western democracies for greater intermediary liability of Internet service providers and social networks in order to fight copyright violation, and some family protection groups want more intermediary liability in order to fight criminals. But China serves as a warning to all of us for where things can end up if we’re not careful. 
  • Other autorative regimes want to follow China's example:
 What is emerging in China is a new form of networked, Internet enabled authoritarianism, which I’ve started to call “cyber-tarianism.” ...This is an example of what political scientists call “authoritarian deliberation.” It’s based on the idea that an authoritarian state can actually have a lot of give and take with its citizenry —especially in the Internet age— but show no signs of democratic reform when it comes to multiparty elections, separation of powers, rule of law... (Why would other regimes want to follow China?) China points the way for how it’s possible to hook up your economy to the global network and still maintain one-party rule.
  • At the same time, China-type control is also favored or supported by certain interest groups like child protection, and even some countries that seek to enhance security.

Watch and listen "Can authoritarianism survive the Internet? Yes it can..."

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