This question has been hotly debated in recent years and for good reason. Access to the Internet fundamentally changes the way people obtain information and communicate with each other. Since authoritarian governments rely on controlling the information flow and restrictions on communication to stay in power, the introduction and proliferation of Internet access could either present a severe challenge to the foundations of their rule, or a promising opportunity to maintain and perhaps strengthen their grip on power.
In an article published in a new special issue of Journal of Peace Research, Nils B. Weidmann and I shed light on the issue. While previous research has shown that democratic leaders implement and expand the technology more readily than dictators, we still do not know much about why the Internet flourishes in some dictatorships and barely exists in others. Perhaps more surprisingly, we also do not know whether or how the Internet impacts a dictator’s staying power, despite the fact that strong claims are being made in the public discourse.
These claims go in opposite directions. Hillary Clinton and Mohamed El-Baradei have argued that the Internet fosters democratic change by allowing people in dictatorships access to both unfiltered information on political topics as well as a covert and effective communication channel. In stark contrast, less optimistic observers have argued that the Internet serve much more sinister purposes in the hands of dictators. Indeed, researchers and political commentators alike have noted that online content and communication is not free from censorship and surveillance, often using China and the global surveillance disclosures of 2013 as examples.
In order to assess the evidence for these claims, we analyzed data on Internet penetration, media censorship and political regime characteristics in dictatorships from 1993-2010. First, we were interested in which regimes provide and expand Internet access. Second, we looked at whether the provision of Internet access leads to democratic change.
Which dictatorships allow people to go online? Given the potential consequences of implementing Internet technology cited above, politics is likely to influence an authoritarian government’s decision to allow or deny access. If the Internet indeed allows for a freer flow of information and effective communication between potential dissidents, then dictatorships that go to great lengths to dominate and control the public sphere should be wary of introducing it. On the other hand, authoritarian governments that allow for some independent information and communication, should be more willing to also allow online access. Conversely, if more closed regimes expand Internet access this is likely because the technology provides ample opportunities to influence public opinion and to track members of the opposition.
Our analysis supports the latter assertion. The more concerned authoritarian governments are with curbing an independent public sphere, the higher the proportion of the population that has access to the Internet.
Saudi Arabia is an example of how carefully the most repressive authoritarian governments consider allowing people Internet access. The monarchy intentionally delayed public access until elaborate technological and institutional mechanisms for censorship were in place, and from the very beginning there was only a single government-controlled gateway through which Saudis could access online information. Knowing that, it seems no coincidence that more than 60 percent of Saudis are online, as it allows the government to repress opposition actors and promote regime-friendly religious policies. Similar patterns of expansion along with content filtering, promotion of regime-friendly material, and jailing of users based on Internet activity can be observed in many other countries as well, among them China, Vietnam, Iran, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Venezuela.
Given the finding that more closed authoritarian regimes have higher Internet penetration, it should come as no surprise that we fail to find any evidence of a positive link between Internet and democratization. But for the 1993-2010 period, the expansion of the Internet does not seem to reduce the possibility of democratic change either. If we only look at regime changes in the period of Web 2.0 and the proliferation of social media platforms (2006-2010) on the other hand, the results are tentatively in line with the first analysis. Here we find that movements toward democracy are slightly more frequent in countries with low Internet penetration. We also see that anti-democratic change only occurred in countries with high Internet penetration in the Web 2.0 period, contradicting the notion of Internet as a technology of liberation.
In sum, looking back at humanity’s first two decades of experience with Internet technology, there is no systematic evidence for the notion that the Internet has played a liberating role in dictatorships. If anything, the results indicate that providing Internet access benefits authoritarian governments, who are wary of the potential risks of the new technology and take appropriate measures before allowing the public access. Indeed, while controlling the Internet at first glance may seem like trying to nail Jello to the wall, many governments today exploit the tremendous potential for censoring, broadcasting, and surveillance that the technology offers.
Espen Geelmuyden Rød is a PhD student at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and affiliated with the Peace Research Institute Oslo as a researcher.