Democracy, it seems, is resurgent. Yes, it is too early to tell whether the winds of change that have been blowing in the former Soviet republics and the Arab world in recent months will result in sustainable gains for freedom and liberalism. But the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, tentative steps toward a multiparty system in Egypt, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, a revolt against authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan -- these are not insignificant events.
After this dizzying succession of revolutions over the last few months, the question on many people's minds -- scholars, pundits and polemicists alike -- is "Why now?" What, indeed, accounts for this worldwide loosing of popular democratic sentiment within the space of a few months?
Many answers have been proposed. Some point to international causes: the military overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq was shock therapy for a stagnant Middle East and Central Asia; the Iraqi elections inspired others who are living without the benefits of democracy; the latest developments are just a continuation of the "third wave" of democratization that began at the end of the Cold War. Other answers to the "Why now?" question relate to the conditions within societies that lead to the successful mobilization of democratic sentiment -- the factors that allow unified oppositions and disciplined political movements to form.
There is, of course, no single answer to this question.
However, the role of information and communication technology in these recent revolutions is one prominent factor that is utterly new, as the amount of attention this phenomenon has received suggests. Indeed, the Internet, blogs, cell phones, and satellite television have been prominent players in democratic movements from Egypt to Ukraine, and these technologies have served as both international and intra-national catalysts for political change.
Since the beginning of the "information revolution," it has been frequently predicted that technology would free mankind from the shackles of authoritarian government. "Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive," Ronald Reagan said way back in 1989. "The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip." While political scientists who have studied the issue in recent years are cautious about the liberating effects of the Internet and other so-called information and communication technologies (ICT in poli-sci jargon), the evidence of their role builds.
Satellite television has led the way in bringing millions living in closed societies closer to the rest of the world. Though radio and television have been around for decades, limited broadcast ranges allow easy state control of those media. Although Western-funded broadcast outlets like Voice of America and the BBC historically provided alternatives to state-controlled media, satellite television has opened the way for the emergence of regional, privately funded channels to broadcast to audiences that share a common language and culture -- as the success of Arab satellite television demonstrates. Some lament what they see as the radicalizing influence of Arab channels such as al Jazeera and al Arabiya, and certainly their one-sided reporting on the most recent Palestinian intifada and the U.S. invasion of Iraq were not models of moderation. However, these channels also provided wall-to-wall coverage of the Iraqi election, giving millions their first look at Arab democracy in action. And, as The Economist said recently, the most popular programs on Arab satellite TV are "those whose interest in posing questions, and stimulating appetites for change, is pretty frank." Talk shows on these channels have given many Arabs their first exposure to Israeli views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Satellite television has also been politically important outside of the Arab world. In Georgia, which, a year before Ukraine, was the first former Soviet republic to experience a democratic revolution, satellite television played a direct role in fueling the uprising; opposition parties and non-governmental organizations like George Soros' Open Society Institute used satellite television to publicize democratic grievances and boost the campaign of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
But television is a one-way medium. Technologies that not only provide access to information, but also allow communication among individuals have the potential to play a greater role in world politics, and they are beginning to do so.
In Ukraine, where Internet access has exploded in the last couple of years, independent Internet news sites were "an integral part" of exposing the corruption of the government of Leonid Kuchma and thus fueling the Orange Revolution, according to a report by Adrian Karatnycky in Foreign Affairs. Among other news, these sites disseminated audio recordings -- captured by Ukraine's security services -- of Kuchma staff members talking about plans to fix the election. Karatnycky says civic protest was the most determined in areas of the country where Internet access was most widespread.
In Egypt, Lebanon and Ukraine, activists have used text messaging by cell phone and other mobile devices to organize anti-government demonstrations. That tactic was first demonstrated on a large scale four years ago when the People Power II movement in the Philippines -- sometimes called the "pager revolution" -- used well-coordinated public demonstrations to oust corrupt president Joseph Estrada.
Egypt provides an example of the role technology can play in nascent democratic movements. In mounting opposition to Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian democratic leader Ayman Noor has made extensive use of the Internet. Noor has built a sleek Web site, and the moment his Party of Tomorrow was legalized it sent thousands of e-mails and text messages to potential supporters. Egypt's "kifayah" movement (kifayah means "enough"), which unites democrats like Noor and Islamist followers of the Muslim Brotherhood in opposition to Mubarak, also uses a sophisticated site to get its message out. One Egyptian blogger I talked to, who asked not to be identified by his real name, said blogging in Egypt has not yet become widely popular. But he pointed to developments like the Egyptian Blog Ring and this Egyptian blog aggregator, which features both English and Arabic blogs, as evidence that this is changing. Iran, where the explosion of Web logs has been widely documented, is another country where technology is likely to contribute to the development of a viable democratic opposition.
Despite abundant anecdotal evidence of the impact of technology on democratization, however, many political scientists say further study is needed to determine if this impact is as significant as it appears. In their 2003 book, "Open Networks, Closed Regimes," published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas offer a decidedly cautious view of the liberalizing effects of technology. Examining evidence from China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the authors conclude that "the Internet is not necessarily a threat to authoritarian regimes." Their arguments are broadly similar to those of other skeptical scholars, and relate to issues of access, control and influence.
In fact, statistics for Internet access show that people in countries that are most in need of the Internet's liberalizing influence are the least likely to have access to it. A comparison of Freedom House's 2004 Freedom in the World study and the most recent statistics (from 2003) for Internet penetration published by the International Telecommunications Union shows that freedom and Internet access are almost perfectly correlated. Of the 173 countries for which Internet access statistics are available, there are just four countries ranked in the top quarter for Internet access that are not classified as "free" by Freedom House. Of these, just one country -- United Arab Emirates -- is "not free." The other three -- Singapore, Malaysia and Kuwait - are all classified as "partly free." Conversely, in the bottom quarter of the Internet access rankings, there are just three countries that are "free": Benin, Ghana and Mali. A study by scholars at Iowa State University and the University of Florida found this pattern held true even after controlling for economic development. This suggests that authoritarian governments have had success in limiting access to the Internet, observes Daniel Drezner of the University of Chicago in a recent paper.
Indeed, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Internet is uncontrollable by any central authority, some states have had success in controlling its use within their own borders. China is the most widely cited example. A new study by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge found that the Chinese filtering system "imposes strong controls on its citizens' ability to view and to publish Internet content." For example, "Web sites containing content related to Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Square incident, opposition political parties, or a variety of anti-Communist movements" are routinely blocked.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest ICTs can benefit authoritarian regimes as well as democratic opposition groups. Kalathil and Boas point out that when governments provide Internet access, this act can boost their legitimacy. In addition, successful e-government programs in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore have bolstered the popularity of those regimes by increasing government efficiency, Kalathil and Boas say.
Can these obstacles halt the spread of technology's benefits to those in non-free countries? The way in which the Internet and other ICTs take root in societies indicates it is easy to overestimate the significance of such obstacles. Though Internet access statistics appear to paint a bleaker picture of technology's ability to penetrate authoritarian states than one might expect, other measures tell a different story.
For example, although Internet access in the Middle East and North Africa, where authoritarian governments predominate, now lags far behind the rest of the world, it is growing extremely fast in that region. Investment in ICTs there grew 174.5 percent between 2000 and 2004, faster than anywhere else in the world, according to Rafal Rohozinski of the University of Cambridge. In a paper that will be published soon, Rohozinski says numerous other factors escape those "who count computers and calculate diffusion rates." For example, the Arab world has a median age of 20.5 years, which means its population can rapidly incorporate new technologies. In addition, the patterns of ICT use in the Arab world and other developing areas makes counting computers a dubious method for measuring ICT impact. "Internet cafes, some containing only a few computers, are in evidence from the refugee camps of Gaza to the suburbs of Tehran, each with their teeming mass of young men hunched over computer screens, downloading the latest music MP3, playing video games, chatting with unseen others, or, when no one is looking, surfing porn," Rohozinski writes.
The manner in which technology was used in the recent spate of democratic revolutions demonstrates another characteristic of information technology: a little goes a long way. When authoritarian control is fragile, a little bit of information can have a dramatic effect on the political behavior of citizens, according to Drezner. When citizens of an authoritarian state are reluctant to act against their government for fear they will not be joined by others, political scientists say an "information cascade" is at work. Because of this phenomenon, in authoritarian societies "citizens often acquiesce to government coercion, even if a broad swath of the public would prefer coordinated action," Drezner writes. Using the Internet and mobile phones to disseminate political information and coordinate opposition can reverse these "information cascades," as recent events demonstrate.
Technology provides such tools to empower citizens where none existed before. Government, by contrast, has an arsenal of repression and control to draw from with or without technology. Because of this, Drezner further concludes that citizens benefit more from ICT than governments. "The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the government's ability to coerce," he writes. "However, the size of pre-existing coercive resources means that the marginal benefit from the Internet is lower for governments than for non-governmental actors."
The scholarship pertaining to the political effects of ICT, then, is ambiguous. Obstacles to the spread of technology to closed societies undoubtedly exist, and authoritarian regimes are eager to use technology to maintain legitimacy while preventing its use as a tool of opposition. But the political movements of the last few months indicate these difficulties have not prevented the use of technology as a force for liberation. Furthermore, because of the incredibly fast pace of technological change, to attempt a definitive examination of the effects of technology on international politics is to constantly be overcome by events.
What is known for certain is this: Technologies such as satellite television, the Internet and mobile telecommunications now have a foothold in the non-free world, and, barring extraordinary measures by those in power, that foothold will grow. In light of this, the evidence political scientists continue to gather likely will only confirm what intuition already tell us: The free flow of information that is enabled by modern technology cannot possibly be a good thing for those who remain in power by suppressing liberty.
Hampton Stephens, a freelance writer, is the former managing editor of Inside the Air Force and a graduate student at the Institute of World Politics.