The recent spread of new information and communication technologies has fueled a surge of hope and a lot of rhetoric about how it can be used as a “liberation technology” to support poor and disenfranchised people all over the world. Social media has been dubbed a “liberation technology” that empowers ordinary people, holds governments accountable and speeds up democratization in repressive states.
The new tools and technology provide unrivaled opportunities for linking and organizing. However, restraint should be exercised when reproducing technologically determinist and moral claims that are often devoid of clear scientific data or comprehensive study. The risk is that such determinism collides with lawmakers’, policymakers’, and construction practitioners’ enthusiastic anticipation that the developments can provide instant and drastic effects.
While such “liberation technology” was instrumental in the liberation of Egypt and Tunisia, other examples, such as China and Iran, show that totalitarian regimes can use it just as easily to censor the Internet, stifle opposition, and target dissenters. This two-sided dynamic has sparked a technological arms race between “citizens” who want democracy and authoritarians who want to keep control. We live in a wired environment: social media sites that didn’t exist a decade ago today have hundreds of millions of subscribers, and smartphones are ubiquitous in even the poorest and most distant parts of the world. Are these inventions, which have transformed millions of people’s lives, a catalyst for political change or a modern global panopticon from which governments will spy on and manipulate their citizens?
These issues were primarily theoretical in 2007, when Larry Diamond coined the word “liberation technology,” and was explored in-depth in a series of papers in the Journal of Democracy, which was recently revised and re-released in a book of the same name. Although, four years later, as revolutionary movements engulfed the Arab world, fueled by Facebook and broadcast live on Twitter and YouTube across the world, it appeared that the Internet had actually arisen as a catalyst for progressive political reform in even the most authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian nations, on the other hand, are learning how to strike back with some of the same weapons. The Internet has become an interactive frontline in many nations, where authoritarian governments are using more advanced censorship and deception tactics.
According to the Freedom on the Net study published by Freedom House on September 24, Internet freedom is under attack all over the world. Many authoritarian regimes, especially in the Middle East, have strengthened controls on online expression, censored blogs, circulated propaganda, and threatened individual activists and bloggers for coercion, detention, or prosecution in response to the events of the Arab Spring. Internet technologies have proven to be a powerful tool for political change, but in the wrong hands, these “liberation technologies” may even become repressive technologies. “If you are a dissident in a certain sort of world, the Internet remains a profoundly dangerous place,” said Bob Boorstin, director of public policy at Google, which helps sponsor the Freedom on the Internet Summit.
People will voice their viewpoints, organize demonstrations, and broaden their horizons of democracy using the Internet, cell phones, and other means of “liberation technology.” Autocratic governments, on the other hand, are learning to master these innovations. In the end, the fight between democrats and autocrats will come down to political organization and policy, not just technologies.