November 11, 2014

Don’t Like it? Then Don’t Read it: Free Speech on the Net and the Democratic Process

By: Lauren C.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the Microchip”-Ronald Reagan, 1989

An open and democratic government with citizens who are free to express their opinions is predicated upon education, information, and a fearless ability to express political beliefs. Many of our politicians forget that everything they say can be checked and double checked by conducting a quick Google search or viewing a YouTube video. Even in a country like America, where freedom of expression is fundamental to our traditions, there are still those in the government and media who forget that news stories can no longer be controlled by a few sources. An open Internet promotes democracy, but an open Internet only exists in a society that values individual rights and freedom of speech.

Internet that is easily accessible amongst the general population has several advantages for a democratic society. Namely, there is a wider range of information available to the masses, it allows citizens to have a voice and participate in the democratic process, and it helps create transparency and accountability amongst governing bodies. On the other hand, there are countries such as North Korea, which have censored Internet access let alone newspaper and television access save for government propaganda. Furthermore, some regimes like Iran have suppressed online revolutions, while others like Egypt had enormous changes as a result of them. What then, is the determinate factor in whether or not the Internet promotes democracy, and why is this important to freedom around the globe? The answer lies in the amount of freedom that already exists within the country itself.

Examples Where the Internet Positively Influenced Democracy

In 2009, the Communist party lost power when protests were organized by text messages, Facebook, and Twitter after an election ripe with fraud. Though there were many arrests and threats from the government, officials decided to eventually recount the votes. These series of protests not only affected the country of Moldova, but also the neighboring country of Romania, who was accused of being behind the protests, a claim which Romania vehemently denies.

Six days after the fall of Tunisian President Zine al-Albidine Ben Ali, a group of Egyptian youth took to the streets and protested the Mubarak government. Most notable about the beginnings of this revolution was that much of the organizing started through Facebook. Upon realizing the effects of the online rallying, Egyptian officials quickly blocked access to social media sites and finally, the Internet. However, corrupt politicians did not prevail, and the Egyptian people eventually overthrew Mubarak. After much internal struggle and the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Egypt now has a President and is on the path towards democracy.

Examples Where the Internet Hasn’t Influenced Democracy

China’s history of censoring the media predates the Internet. In the early 80’s, ruler Deng Xiaoping reiterated the dangers of the public having access to too much information. He claimed, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” China created some rules under Firewall, which include banning Internet speech that threatens to overthrow the government, anything that incites political division, speech that spreads rumors, or speech that injures the reputation of state organizations. Though China has moved from a Communist regime to a more market- friendly economy in recent years, its stance on the Internet has changed very little.

North Korea
Reporters without Borders asserted in 2006 that North Korea was the “world’s worst Internet black hole,” and listed it as second to last among all countries with Internet freedom. All internet access is strictly monitored and the only ones with access to Internet freedom are high ranking individuals. Any written or spoken speech against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea regime is met with punishment, imprisonment, and even death.

A free and open Internet seems to only have influence when the incumbent government is unstable and the people already have a basic understanding of freedom and democracy. Countries like North Korea that have experienced little freedom and have suffered under despotic rule for a long time can have governments that thrive on controlling the Internet and the information flow. Regardless of the society at hand, it will be interesting to see the effect an open Internet or censored Internet has on future generations and societies to come.

What do you think? Does an open Internet pave the way for democracy, or does it just depend on the country and circumstances surrounding the society? Please comment below!

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