The Democracy of the Internet

Written by Andrew Kneale, Cultural Relations Project Manager, British Council USA

Photo by Svadilfari

Today, Egyptians will take to the streets in their fourth day of protests against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.  Yesterday, thousands of Yemenis rose up in anger over the rule of their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.  And for the last month, Tunisia has endured a state of unrest over its leadership with Algeria, Lebanon and Jordan experiencing similar turbulence.  While all these nations share certain geopolitical traits, other themes connect their conflicts.

In all these cases, citizens are demanding more from their government. Whether they want a reduction in unemployment levels or an end to pervasive government corruption, whether they want less political oppression or more access to food, they all want a political system that works for them.  They all want a democracy.

In addition to this theme of democracy, another thread has woven its way through the story line – that of media.  As Yasmine Ryan writes in her article, “protestors took to the streets with a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other.”  Indeed, thousands of Tunisians used social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to apprise their friends and family of the situation.  But these updates weren’t just for their followers.  Protestors used social media to tap into another market – mainstream media.   Social media didn’t just give these people a voice, it gave them a microphone.

One year into her post as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton outlined a specific initiative for the State Department.  Her goal?  Internet freedom.  As part of this goal, she wanted to achieve five objectives: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to connect.  Many have criticized this policy.  The transnational nature of the Internet dissolves a state’s sovereignty.  Using the Internet to spark revolt increases citizens’ vulnerability to crackdowns by authoritarian regimes.  Social media tools can be hijacked by those very dictators revolutionaries are trying to overthrow.  As with every policy, there are a few weaknesses in the plan, but there is one great boon.  The promotion of Internet freedoms aids in the proliferation of democracies.

For all its ills, the Internet still remains a neutral technology.  It does not have an ideology or a political party, it does not have a gender or an ethnicity.  It represents a pure marketplace of ideas where all thoughts can be expressed and tested.  It offers users knowledge and the opportunity for self-improvement.  Most of all, it lends users a voice.  It is the purest form of democracy.

Some people take issue with attaching a political goal like democratization with such a potent tool as the Internet.  To me, this is beside the point.  In her policy, Secretary Clinton isn’t manipulating the Internet in an effort to foster democracy throughout the world.  She is simply promoting the American ideal of free speech through one of its greatest avenues – the Internet.  The fact that the Internet inadvertently, or perhaps naturally, produces users with democratic leanings is a by-product.  Perhaps Clinton understood this.  Perhaps that’s why these citizens are drawn to the Internet and social media in the first place – it provides for them the democracy they so desperately crave.

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