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Palfrey, Etling and Faris -- Why Twitter Won't Bring Revolution to Iran
In China, the government has helped train and finance a group that infiltrates Chinese chat rooms and Web forums to combat anti-party discussions. Dubbed the "50-cent party" for the payments they reportedly receive for each pro-government post, these Internet thought cops seek out popular bulletin boards and try to turn around discussions that might be critical of the Communist Party or government policy.
And yet the Twittering goes on. As states such as Iran crack down on online speech and organizing, clever netizens find ways around the controls. In Iran as well as in China, Burma and parts of the former Soviet Union, there's an on-again, off-again process of citizens speaking out and states pushing back.
Of course, governments always have the nuclear option when it comes to the Internet: They can shut it down and keep it down. It's what Burma did when monks took to the streets in 2007. It's the policy of North Korea and Cuba, where only very few people can access the Internet, usually for very narrow purposes.
But most hard-line governments appear more ambivalent. They fear the political repercussions of widespread Internet use, but they may fear the economic and political consequences of banning it even more.
Consider the repeated blocking and unblocking of Facebook over the past year in Iran. When the site is up, citizens use it as an effective organizing tool for an opposition candidate -- in this case, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's 65,000-plus Facebook group. The state then gets nervous about the force of this collective action and blocks access to Facebook. After a while, enough people complain that the ban is lifted, only to be reimposed.
The same thing happens in China, where in each of the past four years, Wikipedia has been blocked and unblocked, and where Twitter and YouTube were shut down recently during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
So who will prevail? Are authoritarian regimes willing to grant their people the autonomy that comes with unfettered access to the Internet? Or will these regimes bend the network to their will through censorship, surveillance and propaganda?
With so many individuals overcoming government efforts to block online communication, particularly via Twitter, it is notable that the Iranian government has not shut down Internet access completely. Similarly, as we discovered in our recent study of the Arabic blogosphere, the Egyptian government tolerates extensive blogging by the Muslim Brotherhood while outlawing its other activities. The Chinese often ease the harshest of their Internet regulations over time. And the military junta in Burma didn't keep the Net down for long. Ultimately, almost all such regimes choose to leave the Internet more open than closed, then move to regulate specific activities that they deem worrisome.
After all, it appears that people living under authoritarian regimes such as the one in Iran are as addicted to the Internet as the rest of us are. Even though states push back, they can't keep the Internet down for long without serious blowback from their citizens. Iranian officials have the power to shutter the Internet just as they once clamped down on reformist newspapers, but they may be more concerned now about any move that pushes those watching -- or blogging or tweeting -- from the sidelines into the throngs of protesters already in the streets.
The authors are researchers at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.