Internet isn't the agent of regime change some hoped for

Experts say the Web has limited power in fomenting political shifts, and dictators have learned how to use the Internet for their own ends.

For years, technologists have predicted the Internet would provide the masses with free speech that would challenge totalitarian regimes. But so far the Web has been a weak tool in the fight against censorship, technology experts said on Monday.

One of the most commonly cited examples of how citizens have used the Internet to challenge a government occurred after the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009. Despite news accounts of protests being organized through the text-messaging service Twitter, Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, said he has grown skeptical of the Web's power to foster democracy.

Morozov, a native of Belarus who studies the Internet's effect on authoritarian states and a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, noted the evolution of social media actually has aided oppressive regimes. The Web has given dictators the ability to mine contents of social networking sites to identify dissidents and to pay bloggers for spreading propaganda. "I wasn't really sure that the good guys were winning," he said.

Morozov spoke at an invitation-only meeting on Monday hosted by Foreign Policy at the magazine's Washington office. More than a dozen government officials, academics, industry executives and journalists attended the get-together to discuss an article by Morozov in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy that refutes the theory the Internet can encourage democracy in repressive regimes.

Attendees at the meeting included officials from the Defense and State departments; Google; Microsoft; the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group in Washington; the human rights organization Freedom House; and several journalists.

Retribution against bloggers and other open-minded Internet users in foreign countries has become a growing area of concern for the United States. The State Department this year named one of its strategic priorities, Internet Freedom, the human right to access networked technologies without restraints.

But activists are beginning to understand the shortcomings of networking tools for bringing about changes in regimes. Robert Guerra, Internet freedom project director at Freedom House, said democratic activism spurred by the ease of blogging and other Web 2.0 communications has limits. "Governments have reacted with repression 2.0," he said.

Authoritarian regimes have learned how to block certain computers from accessing the Web, Guerra noted. One of the more effective ways to overcome these obstacles is to educate citizens on how to safely use Web circumvention tools such as proxies that hide citizens' locations, said Guerra and Daniel Baer, State's deputy assistant secretary for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor.

The Internet is not the first free speech facilitator to fall short of expectations. "I've had the sense that I've been here before," said Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of public affairs at Defense. Since the Cold War, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S.-funded broadcaster, has used shortwave frequencies to report news to countries that ban free press. But throughout history, oppressive regimes have countered with espionage and misinformation campaigns to discredit the broadcasts, according to Radio Free Europe.

"The Soviet KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence services penetrated the stations, jailed sources and even resorted to violence in attempts to intimidate RFE and RL staff," the broadcaster's website noted.

Part of Price's job is to promote a policy issued in February to open Defense networks to social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube, which previously had been off-limits. "In the Defense Department, there was a move to block access to all these things," he said. "But it's now not blocked. Is there anything different?"

Government officials and tech companies can only do so much. Although the Obama administration is helping developing countries such as Cuba and Haiti build telecommunications infrastructures, neither U.S. policies nor IT firms can make anti-censorship a precondition of doing business with the United States, most experts acknowledged.

"If you stamp it in any way as American, you're asking for it to be rejected," said Bob Boorstin, Google's director of public policy.

Dictators always will be able to find a countermeasure, such as the Internet-filtering tools that China uses to exert control over its people, some participants said.

Google recently decided to divert users of its search engine in China to Hong Kong's Google search service, when the company discovered that hackers allegedly from China had attempted to penetrate the Web mail accounts of human rights activists.

NEXT STORY Attracting Gen Y