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The Internet, Free Expression and Authoritarianism

Earlier this week at Georgetown University's Mortara Center, I participated in a conference on issues of authoritarianism and the Internet. Headlining was Open Society scholar Evgeny Morozov followed by a panel with NPR's Andy Carvin, Human Rights Watch’s Arvind Ganesan, World Bank's Shanthi Kalathil, and George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch.

Morozov's presentation focused largely on authoritarian regimes’ use of the Internet to control and censor populations. He shared a multitude of examples from China, Iran, Russia, Nigeria and Burma. You can watch his PowerPoint here. The general theme of the talk was a reminder to take a step back and see the larger picture of what's happening with networked participatory systems globally, "Just because its decentralized doesn't mean its hard to manipulate." noted Morozov.

The panel that followed Morozov's presentation shared a similar sense of realism. Shanti Kalathil reviewed her work over the past ten years in the field and agreed that there is an increasing awareness on the part of hate groups and authoritarian regimes about how to use these tools. However, Kalathil went on to warn of the black-and-white terminology used when reviewing this trend. She offered up the example of Freedom House's Internet Freedom Index--The Freedom House has indexed countries Internet accessibility based on a sliding scale of “free” to “not free.” Kalathil suggested that framing trends of Internet usage in such a way (as either markedly good or bad) can be dangerous and misrepresent the true diversity of the nuanced developments that are taking place.

Marc Lynch described the entire list of presenters, including himself, as Internet pessimists --those who do not believe the Internet is contributing significantly to the opening of global society. He followed this up with a call to move past the "debunking phase" and use more qualitative evidence to talk about specific trends and memes. He also made the important point that as Westerners living in a relatively open society, we need to be very careful about the kind of messages we send to our friends who live in authoritarian regimes. What may sound like a good idea from our comfortable lives can have life-changing repercussions for those living day to day under a repressive regime. A particularly good example of this is the recent two year prison sentencing of bloggers Emin Mili and Adnan Hajizade from Azerbaijan. While I imagine Mili and Hajizade would have done this important work regardless of Western support, it is clear this same Western support served to exacerbate their situation.

Andy Carvin shared some domestic success stories, mentioning Twitter Vote Report and Inauguration Report (You can read an in-depth analysis of both of these projects that we wrote a few months back.) He also suggested a new trend called “trust maps.” Trust maps are based on real human-to-human connections and can enable increased legitimacy online, which has been lacking in networked participatory projects thus far. The potential here is to identify spoilers in online organizing campaigns.

Arvind Ganesan from Human Rights Watch made a distinction between the Internet as a medium vs. the Internet as a tool for social change. He argued that the Internet as a medium holds the greatest potential for individuals living in closed regimes.

While the majority of the examples and ideas shared presented a negative picture of the role of the Internet to create change, it was clear all the individuals present --audience and panelists-- were united in a common desire. Equipped with the understanding of the larger implications and reverberations taking place, we can then come up with appropriate responses and reorganize strategies accordingly.