Oppression is Stronger Than the Internet: Study

A May 2011 protest in Istanbul against Internet censorship and surveillance.


A May 2011 protest in Istanbul against Internet censorship and surveillance.

The Internet can serve as potent a tool to oppress a national population as it is a way for those oppressed to communicate secretly and foment rebellion against dictatorial authorities, according to a new study.

Widespread assumptions and anecdotal evidence that democratic movements are made stronger by the ability to use Internet technology to share information and communicate covertly are over-optimistic and ignore the Internet’s ability to act as a stick as well as a carrot, according to political-science researcher Martin Karlsson of Orebro University in Sweden.

The ability of an oppressed population to access the Internet is, at best, an inconvenience to governments that don’t allow their populations to vote or have any overt role in governance, according to Karlsson’s study “Carrots and Sticks: Internet governance in non-democratic regimes,” which was published in the current edition of the International Journal of Electronic Governance.

Karlsson’s analysis is based on levels of “e-participation” – in blogs, micro-blogs such as Twitter, Web forums and other forums for online activism – from a host of authoritarian nations including Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Syria, Vietnam, and Iran.

He compared participation data in each country with information showing levels of online surveillance, content-filtering and censorship to form a picture of the level of Internet freedom he characterizes as the “carrot,” with punishment or enforcement techniques he calls “the stick.”

Many non-democratic countries, including China, tightly restrict the kinds of content residents can access, and monitor their activity online to seek out and punish those who break the rules.

Even countries that allow relatively open access to Internet resources, however, typically monitor that activity closely, using the façade of openness to draw out potential opponents, who can then be either more easily monitored, or arrested and punished.[Read full study]