The Old Republic

The Old Republic

: The New Republic’s cover story —, Why the Internet Won’t Topple Tyranny — is a load of naysaying, stick-in-the-sludge, cynical, behind-the-times, underreported, snotty crap.

TNR foreign editor Joshua Kurlantzick argues that because the Internet has not yet toppled a dictatorship and because some dictatorships have lately become more dictatorial, the Internet has failed and it cannot change the world.

For years, a significant subset of the democratization industry–that network of political scientists, think tanks, and policymakers–has placed its bets (and, in many cases, its money) on the Web’s potential to spread liberal ideas in illiberal parts of the world. Whereas once American politicians and democratization groups focused on older technologies, such as radio, today their plans to spread democracy rest in considerable part on programs for boosting Internet access….

But world leaders, journalists, and political scientists who tout the Internet as a powerful force for political change are just as wrong as the dot-com enthusiasts who not so long ago believed the Web would completely transform business. While it’s true that the Internet has proved itself able to disseminate pop culture in authoritarian nations–not only Laos, but China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere–to date, its political impact has been decidedly limited. It has yet to topple–or even seriously undermine–its first tyrannical regime.

Well, how long did it take radio to topple a regime? Did radio ever topple a regime? Did TV? It didn’t tear down the Wall (see below); as communism teetered, isolated Moscow was more progressive than media-bombarded Berlin. Though, let’s also add that the spread of culture instead of just politics did have an impact on the pent-up demand for freedom in Berlin (the lusted-after commodity of the West wasn’t political debate; it was bananas… and rock ‘n’ roll). And besides, who set that as the pass-or-fail test of a medium as a catalyst of change: start a revolution or give up? Let’s also remember that the Internet is new and is not widely available in such places as Cuba and North Korea.

The story is shamefully ignorant of the medium and the inroads it has made. There isn’t a mention of Iran, the situation I know best, where 100,000 weblogs are reporting news that can’t be reported and scaring the mullahs and even making them join in.

There isn’t a sense that what makes it possible for the Internet to make inroads is its distributed structure: Yes, China can cut off a site here and a site there. But a thousand, then a million webloggers and expats and citizens can repeat information and news and opinions that have been forbidden. It takes time — damnit — but these seeds will grow. Yes, China has jailed some Internet writers but, as I heard from a sociologist from China a few weeks ago, Internet access is handled by pay-as-you-go cards and most users are, in the end, anonymous and can’t be hunted down. He also said that China has failed at blocking Google and its caches of pages. (Ditto Iran.) Seeds will grow.

There isn’t even a sense of what the Internet can do in the United States and Europe.

Another shortcoming of the Internet is that it lends itself to individual rather than communal activities. It “is about people sitting in front of a terminal, barely interacting,” says one Laotian researcher. The Web is less well-suited to fostering political discussion and debate because, unlike radio or even television, it does not generally bring people together in one house or one room.

Well, tell that to Howard Dean or OK, so that’s in a free nation where we do have a right to gather. But we’ve seen the Internet bring people and opinions together in Iran (and, again, I’ll apologize that I’m not more up to date on other nations but Iran is, at least, a proof of concept). The writer is woefully ignorant about the basic and proven capabilities of the medium.

The TNR story further ignores the power of the connected expat community. I just got a contact from someone who is trying to bring Turkmenistan expats into weblogs for human rights organizing and activism.

There’s some strange, jealous agenda coming out of TNR: an old, fuddy-duddy activist viewpoint that says this new-fangled Internet thang can’t be as good as old-fashioned pamphleterring and armed insurrection.

Would Che blog?

No one says the Internet is going to rebuild the world overnight — especially in countries where technology and connectivity and openness exist in inverse proportion to oppression. Repressive regimes will try to block the Internet just as they try to block news from getting in or out and just as they try to block all other media and communication. But the Internet can spread news and connect people and let the world watch tyranny and organize protest and resist repression like no other medium before.

The Internet is subversive.

In the last century, Coke meant freedom. In this century, the Internet means freedom.

[Thanks, Oliver, for sending the story.]