Weaving the Authoritarian Web by lca18343


									          “Authoritarian countries such as China and Saudi Arabia are employing both
          technological and institutional means to control use of the Internet while also
          encouraging its growth. In doing so, they stand as counterevidence to much of
          the optimistic thinking about the Internet’s effect on democratization. . . .”

                     Weaving the Authoritarian Web
                                                      TAYLOR C. BOAS

    n preparatory meetings leading up to the Decem-                      their policies with those preferred by the interna-
    ber 2003 World Summit on the Information Soci-                       tional community, many scholars have assumed
    ety in Geneva, the delegations of several                            that the only effective way to control the Internet is
authoritarian regimes reacted negatively to the                          to limit its growth or even keep it out entirely.
hands-off approach to Internet regulation promoted                          They are wrong. Contrary to the assumption
by the United States and other advanced democra-                         underlying many of the studies of Internet policies
cies. Saudi Arabia proposed that the development of                      among autocratic regimes, governments can in fact
                             the information society                     establish effective control over the Internet while
    TECHNOLOGY               “shall be done without                      simultaneously promoting its development. Indeed,
    The World, 2005          any prejudice whatsoever                    China and Saudi Arabia are two of the most promi-
                             to the moral, social, and                   nent examples of this phenomenon. Far from try-
religious values of all societies”—values to which                       ing to regulate the Internet by merely restricting its
the Saudi government has appealed when justifying                        diffusion, authoritarian countries such as China and
its censorship of the Internet. The Chinese delega-                      Saudi Arabia are employing both technological and
tion campaigned vigorously against a statement of                        institutional means to control use of the Internet
support for the principles of free speech enshrined                      while also encouraging its growth. In doing so, they
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ulti-                      stand as counterevidence to much of the optimistic
mately, the summit’s final declaration disregarded                       thinking about the Internet’s effect on democrati-
the objections that these and other authoritarian                        zation that pundits and politicians voiced during
regimes had voiced during the negotiations, but                          the net’s early days and the technology boom of the
their positions stand as a vivid reminder that not all                   late 1990s.
countries accept a laissez-faire vision for the future
of the Internet.                                                         CONTROLLING       THE INTERNET
   At first glance, the negotiating positions adopted                       The Internet was initially designed as a technol-
by China and Saudi Arabia might seem to consti-                          ogy that would not lend itself to centralized control.
tute evidence for the common belief that the Inter-                      The original engineering decisions that gave rise to
net presents authoritarian leaders with a stark                          this characteristic were a product of the specific eco-
choice: either promote the development of an Inter-                      nomic, political, and social environment in which
net that remains free from extensive government                          the Internet was created. In part, the technological
control, or exert control over the technology by                         characteristics of the early Internet derived from the
restricting its diffusion within their borders.                          norms of its designers and initial user community—
Whether because of inherent technological charac-                        a small group of engineers and academics who were
teristics that complicate efforts to censor the Inter-                   wary of bureaucracy, trusted each other, and worked
net, or because countries are under pressure to align                    well through consensus rather than a centralized
                                                                         hierarchy. In light of this culture, they made specific
                                                                         choices about the design of the technology that ren-
TAYLOR C. BOAS is a doctoral candidate in political science at           dered the network resistant to efforts at centralized
the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor, with Shan-         control. An even more important influence on the
thi Kalathil, of Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact
of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule (Carnegie Endowment                technological configuration of the early Internet
for International Peace, 2003).                                          were the military imperatives for its development.

                                                                              Weaving the Authoritarian Web • 439

The US Department of Defense was the sponsor and            of the Internet was not optimized for any particu-
progenitor of the Internet’s precursor network, the         lar service. At the time of its creation, there was lit-
ARPANET, and the packet-switching technology on             tle sense of what services the Internet would need
which it was based was designed to frustrate                to support in the future, so the network’s core was
attempts at centralized control so that communica-          built as a set of simple, flexible tools. Any service
tions capacity could not be disabled by an enemy            that conforms to the published protocols for
attack on a key portion of the network.                     addressing and transmitting information can be
   The particular characteristics of the Internet that      implemented at the ends of the network without
served to frustrate attempts at centralized control         altering the center. The Internet’s central mecha-
involve what is called the “end-to-end arguments”           nisms simply move information indiscriminately;
in network design. As guidelines for the design of          the core of the network does not need to know if it
computer networks, the end-to-end arguments state           is transmitting packets from an e-mail, a website,
that complexity and control should be implemented           streaming audio, or some as-of-yet uninvented ser-
at the ends of the network (the multiple computers          vice. Thus, the characteristics of the Internet as a
and individual users that are interconnected); the          whole can be altered by adding new protocols that
core of the network performs simple data transfer           will help the technology meet the needs of operat-
functions that do not require knowledge of how the          ing in new environments.
ends are operating. Because the Internet was built
around an end-to-end design, one cannot control             CENSORS     AT THE GATEWAYS
the entire network through control of a small num-             The Internet is much less a single network of
ber of centralized nodes. Control can be exerted at         individual users than a network connecting sepa-
the ends of the network, but as these ends multiply,        rate computer networks. Networks are intercon-
controlling the entire network by controlling the           nected through a gateway; behind the gateway, each
ends becomes less and less feasible.                        individual network can be configured in any num-
   While a control-frustrating technological archi-         ber of ways. Conceptually, therefore, it may well
tecture suited the needs and preferences of the Inter-      make more sense to think of the Internet’s compo-
net’s designers and initial user community, the             nent networks as its ends than to view individual
technology has since spread into a number of envi-          users as the outer edge of a single, seamlessly inter-
ronments in which centralized control of informa-           connected Internet.
tion is a more desirable feature. One of the most              Controlling the entire Internet by controlling
important of these major shifts involves the global         each of its component networks would remain a
diffusion of the Internet. With Internet use in the         nearly impossible task. But no governing authority
developing world growing rapidly, the Internet is           realistically seeks to control the whole Internet in
moving into a number of authoritarian countries             this fashion. Rather, authorities attempt to control
where standards of information control are quite dif-       a relevant subset of Internet users. The administra-
ferent from those in the United States. The leaders         tors of corporate computer networks, for instance,
of these countries generally recognize the tangible         often monitor employees’ usage and block certain
benefits that the Internet has to offer, such as the        types of non–work-related traffic. Users who have
promotion of economic development and the pro-              a choice of networks will always be able to switch
vision of online government services. Yet they worry        to a more liberal environment. For those with no
that Internet use might pose political threats, chal-       realistic choice, however, the distinction between
lenge state control of economic resources, or offend        control of the entire Internet and control of a net-
local cultural sensitivities. To reap the benefits of the   work attached to the Internet is largely irrelevant.
technology while avoiding what they see as negative         For them, the choice is between access to a
ramifications, some leaders would prefer to exert           restricted Internet and access to nothing at all.
greater centralized control over Internet use.                 Such is the situation in many countries where
   The idea of an inherently control-frustrating            the authoritarian regimes are developing national
Internet rests on the assumption that the network’s         computer networks with connections to the Inter-
architecture is incapable of fundamental change.            net. While in most democracies a number of indi-
But many of the same characteristics that made the          vidual Internet service providers (ISPs) maintain
Internet hard to control make it a flexible technol-        separate links to the global Internet, under author-
ogy as well. Unlike the telephone network, which            itarian regimes all Internet users may effectively be
was designed specifically for voice traffic, the core       members of a single national network. Even where
440 • CURRENT HISTORY • December 2004

there are multiple ISPs within a country, interna-         pass through a gateway maintained by the Internet
tional connections to the global Internet are often        Services Unit (ISU) of the King Abdulaziz City for
channeled through a single government-controlled           Science and Technology, the Internet’s governing
gateway. Indeed, the image of the Internet’s global        authority in the country. Effectively, all Internet use
diffusion, in which a single transnational network         within Saudi Arabia can be thought of as taking
makes inroads into countries around the world, is          place within a single national network.
something of an inaccurate picture. What has                   This concentrated network structure has facili-
occurred historically is the development of national       tated the technological control of Internet content,
computer networks (typically under the guidance            a goal about which Saudi authorities have been
of the state) that are then connected to the Internet.     quite open. Since the debut of public access in
   Given the political, economic, and social condi-        Saudi Arabia, all traffic to the global Internet has
tions prevailing in many authoritarian-ruled coun-         been filtered through a set of proxy servers man-
tries, it is not surprising that their governments have    aged by the ISU, aiming to block information that
sought to establish technological measures of con-         authorities consider socially or politically inappro-
trol over the portions of the Internet within their        priate. Market conditions have facilitated this impo-
borders. Authoritarian regimes are typically central       sition of censorship, with Saudi Arabia outsourcing
players in the growth of their countries’ information      the provision of censorship software to foreign
infrastructures, and the                                                                  firms that specialize in
conditions under which                                                                    this area. Saudi author-
this technological devel-         In Saudi Arabia, the government has found               ities rely on a pre-set
opment takes place are                                                                    list of sexually explicit
                                    support for its censorship regime among
far removed from those                                                                    sites contained in a
that prevailed in the                  conservative Islamist groups that are              computer program that
early days of the Inter-            primarily concerned about pornography.                has been customized
net in the United States.                                                                 with the addition of
Rather than an environ-                                                                   impermissible political
ment in which military imperatives and engineering         and religious sites. In addition, the ISU’s website
culture demand a control-frustrating network,              includes forms with which the public can request
authoritarian countries are places in which political      that sites be blocked or unblocked; officials report
elites typically seek a fair degree of control over        an average of 500 block requests and 100 unblock
information flow. Given the flexibility of Internet        requests per day.
technology at the macro-level, one would expect
authoritarian regimes to build architectures of con-       CHINA’S INTERNETS
trol into their “ends” of the Internet.                        China in its approach to the Internet has sought
                                                           a strategy that will allow it to promote widespread
THE SAUDI CASE                                             market-based diffusion of the technology while still
   Saudi Arabia’s approach to the Internet has been        retaining government control. In contrast to Saudi
strongly influenced by the pressures of a conserva-        Arabia, in which all blocking takes place at a single
tive society, with significant public concern over         international gateway, Internet control in China is
pornography and material offensive to Islam, and           more diffuse. It is difficult to ascertain the specific
considerable societal support for censorship of this       technological details of this case because China has
type of content on the Internet. In addition, Saudi        been much less open about the configuration and
Arabia is a monarchy in which the royal family is          extent of its censorship regime. All evidence sug-
quite sensitive to criticism and dissent; it is particu-   gests, however, that China employs multiple, over-
larly cognizant of the threat posed by overseas oppo-      lapping layers of Internet control that have been
sition groups. Because of these conditions, Saudi          effective at limiting the access of the majority of
Arabia has moved very slowly in its approach to the        users. Blocking specific web pages on the basis of IP
Internet. The country’s first connection was estab-        address has been the most common; a similar pro-
lished in 1994, but public access was delayed until        cedure can block e-mails sent to or received from a
1999 while authorities perfected their technological       host computer. Beginning in September 2002,
mechanism for Internet control. Saudi Arabia has           authorities implemented a more sophisticated
chosen to permit multiple, privately owned ISPs, but       system capable of blocking pages dynamically,
all international connections to the global Internet       based on either keywords in the web address
                                                                            Weaving the Authoritarian Web • 441

(URL)—prohibiting Google searches on specific            implement their own technological measures of con-
terms, for instance—or keywords in the actual web        trol. It is likely that at least some filtering methods
page requested. These methods of blocking are a          are implemented by ISPs instead of (or in addition to)
step beyond previous strategies and mechanisms           the interconnecting networks. For their part, many
employed elsewhere, since they do not rely on a          Internet cafés have chosen to install blocking soft-
preexisting blacklist of prohibited websites.            ware to limit what their patrons can view, and chat
   At the level of the international gateway, the cor-   rooms use a technology that scans for potentially
nerstone of China’s Internet control has been its sys-   sensitive postings and sends them to a webmaster for
tem of interconnecting networks. While promoting         review. In addition to these filtering measures, ISPs
rapid proliferation of the ISPs that offer Internet      and Internet cafés have been required to implement
access to end-users, actual connectivity to the global   technological architectures that facilitate government
Internet has long been channeled through a small         surveillance. Regulations introduced in October 2000
number of interconnecting networks with ties to          require ISPs to keep logs of Internet traffic for 60 days
government ministries or important state compa-          and deliver the information to authorities on request.
nies. Four interconnecting networks were initially       Many Internet cafés have installed software that
established in 1996; the number has since grown to       allows public security bureaus to track user records
nine. As the Ministry of Information Industries has      and monitor Internet traffic remotely.
licensed additional networks, it has made certain           Evidence from the cases of Saudi Arabia and
they are under effective state control. Moreover, the    China confirms the view that the architecture of the
structure of this market is more concentrated than       Internet is not inherently control-frustrating, even if
the number of interconnecting networks implies; the      this characteristic was a feature of the early Internet
top two networks, ChinaNET and China Netcom,             in the United States. Rather, the logic of end-to-end
jointly control 81 percent of international band-        network design allows authoritarian governments to
width. Most national-level Internet filtering is         construct national computer networks attached to
implemented by the International Connection              the Internet in ways that facilitate technological con-
Bureau, based on a set of computers belonging to         trol. In Saudi Arabia, a single gateway to the global
ChinaNET owner China Telecom. And the major              Internet effectively creates a single national network
networks routinely exchange information about spe-       within the country. Even in the case of China, where
cific websites that they seek to block.                  infrastructure is more developed and international
                                                         connections to the Internet are more diffuse, influ-
IN  THE CAFÉS AND CHAT ROOMS                             ence over intermediaries through legal or market
   In addition to blocking mechanisms imple-             channels allows for the creation of control-facilitat-
mented at the level of the interconnecting network,      ing technological architectures.
China has extended its management of Internet
architecture by establishing control at the level of     PERFECT   VS. EFFECTIVE CONTROL
ISPs, Internet cafés, and chat rooms. These points of       Those skeptical of arguments about Internet con-
access to the Internet number into the thousands,        trol routinely point to the myriad ways in which
and most are thoroughly private entities without         determined users can circumvent technological mea-
the same ties to the regime as the interconnecting       sures of control. Indeed, evidence from Saudi Ara-
networks, so direct government imposition of tech-       bia, China, and many other authoritarian countries
nological control is less of an option here. At this     confirms that some individuals are finding ways to
more diffuse level, authorities implement an archi-      elude government censors. Saudi authorities have
tecture of control indirectly, through their legal       acknowledged that many users are finding ways to
influence over these intermediaries and their cre-       access forbidden websites, often through the use of
ation of a market environment in which coopera-          overseas proxy servers. Wealthy Internet users who
tion with authorities is good business practice.         find this avenue blocked can always dial into unre-
Technological measures of censorship at a central-       stricted accounts in neighboring Bahrain—a com-
ized level are thus augmented by additional filter-      mon practice in the days before public access was
ing at a level much closer to the individual user.       permitted in Saudi Arabia. Chinese Internet users
   China’s Internet regulations make ISPs, Internet      can attempt to circumvent controls in a variety of
cafés, and chat rooms responsible for online content,    ways, from the use of peer-to-peer file-sharing sys-
and the threat of sanctions (and occasional large-       tems to entering the URLs of blocked pages in ways
scale crackdowns) has encouraged these entities to       that may fool censorship mechanisms. In the Chi-
442 • CURRENT HISTORY • December 2004

nese case, ongoing arrests of online dissidents con-       access to officially sanctioned news sources; they
firm that people are successfully engaging in types        place a low value on circumventing controls, espe-
of Internet use that the government seeks to block.        cially with regard to political information. Similarly,
And in each of these countries, it is more difficult to    some percentage of users will always demand unre-
exert technological control over the use of e-mail         stricted access to the Internet even at extremely
than it is to filter access to international websites.     high prices; they will spend money for technology
    In addressing the implications of these inevitable     to circumvent censorship, engage in illegal political
cracks in national firewall systems, it is important to    communication at the risk of punishment, and
distinguish between perfect control and effective con-     ignore disapproval from members of society who
trol of the Internet. Ultimately, libertarian perspec-     frown on lawless activity. As these costs are raised,
tives on Internet control are concerned with the           however, demand for unrestricted Internet access
individual: will the government be able to prevent me      shrinks. The government’s goal is not to set the cost
from doing what I want to do online? For the most          so high that demand is completely eliminated;
determined and technology-savvy users, only perfect        rather, authorities seek to reduce this demand to the
architectural constraints will be able to control their    point of political insignificance.
online activity. But the perspective of authoritarian          Law, social norms, and market forces that raise
governments, or of any authority seeking to exert          the cost of unrestricted Internet use allow for a
control over the Internet, is different. For them, the     much more effective implementation of control
goal is almost never perfect control, attempting           than architectural constraints alone. Arguably, the
to thwart the evasive                                                                     establishment of per-
maneuvers of every                                                                        fect technological con-
enterprising individual.         China employs multiple, overlapping layers               trol is impossible short
Rather, authoritarian                                                                     of cutting off access to
leaders seek to exert
                                of Internet control that have been effective at           the global Internet.
control with an exter-            limiting the access of the majority of users.           For this reason, coun-
nal criterion of suc-                                                                     tries such as Cuba and
cess—control that is in                                                                   Burma have chosen
effect “good enough” to serve any number of objec-         control of access rather than extensive content cen-
tives, including regime stability and protection of        sorship as their strategy for Internet regulation. For
local culture. Effective control of this sort may not be   countries that promote widespread access to the
capable of changing the behavior of the last tenth of      Internet, however, filtering alone is insufficient. In
a percent of Internet users, but this small number is      the absence of perfect architectures of control, tech-
rarely enough to seriously challenge the goals that        nological constraints are most effective when they
most authoritarian regimes are trying to pursue.           interact with alternative, institutional constraints.
                                                           If firewalls can be circumvented with sophisticated
THE COST OF CIRCUMVENTION                                  technology or international phone calls, the high
    It is in establishing and enforcing effective rather   price of these activities helps to render this archi-
than perfect control over the Internet that institu-       tectural constraint effective. If tech-savvy patrons
tional constraints on Internet use come most clearly       of Internet cafés can configure their browsers to
into play. In contrast to the architectural character-     access pornographic or dissident websites, they will
istics that render certain types of Internet use easier,   be stopped only by the ingrained knowledge that
more difficult, or impossible, institutional con-          such behavior is socially unacceptable, or that café
straints consist of the legal regulations, market con-     managers may be observing their Internet use and
ditions, and social norms that exert an influence on       could report their transgressions to authorities.
what individual users do with the technology. To
understand the interplay of these two categories of        “BIG MAMA” IS WATCHING
constraints, an economic interpretation is useful,             The cases of Saudi Arabia and China illustrate
with unrestricted Internet access thought of as a          how governments can leverage institutional con-
good demanded by different numbers of users                straints in combination with technological filters to
depending on the price.                                    establish effective control over Internet use. In
    In this economic model, most consumers are             Saudi Arabia, the government has found support for
quite happy using the Internet for entertainment,          its censorship regime among conservative Islamist
online games, communication with friends, and              groups that are primarily concerned about pornog-
                                                                             Weaving the Authoritarian Web • 443

raphy. Social norms against viewing material              private sector to comply with the state’s broad goals
deemed offensive to Islam encourage self-censor-          for the Internet. Doing business in China means
ship among users, as do legal prohibitions on             maintaining good relations with the government;
accessing forbidden content and the possibility that      for Internet-related businesses, this means comply-
surveillance mechanisms can identify violators.           ing with the state’s overall designs for the technol-
Attempts to view blocked sites are greeted with a         ogy, both written and unwritten. In early 2000, for
message that all access attempts are logged; ISPs are     example, more than 100 of China’s major Internet
required to keep records on the identity of users         entrepreneurs signed a pledge to promote self-dis-
and provide such information to authorities if            cipline and encourage the “elimination of deleteri-
requested. In addition to these legal and normative       ous information [on] the Internet.”
sanctions, market conditions (such as the high
price of dialing into an ISP outside of the country)      JUST   A TOOL
have also discouraged those who would seek to                Ultimately, the Internet is a tool, a medium of
obtain unrestricted Internet access in Saudi Arabia.      communication much like any other. It has no
    In China, the use of institutional constraints on     inherent political logic. As a tool, its political
Internet access has been even more extensive, prob-       impacts will depend largely on who controls the
ably a result of the greater challenge of exerting        medium and in what manner they seek to use it. In
purely technological control over a broader and more      countries such as Mexico and Indonesia, where
diffuse Internet. One major way that China promotes       authorities have taken a more hands-off approach
self-censorship involves regulation of users. Author-     to Internet regulation, protesters and civil society
ities have engaged in high-profile crackdowns on var-     groups were able to use the Internet for organiza-
ious dissidents and individuals who run afoul of the      tion and pressure politics in ways that may have
regulations by engaging in politically sensitive com-     contributed to regime change. There are few such
munication. Examples include Huang Qi, who oper-          opportunities in Saudi Arabia and China with their
ated a website with news about the Tiananmen              extensive government control of the Internet by
massacre, and members of the Falun Gong, who dis-         both technological and institutional means.
seminate their materials online. Sentences of several        In speculating about the longer-term prospects for
years in prison are common for such offenses,             the Internet under authoritarian regimes, one should
undoubtedly deterring others who might have the           recall that accurately predicting the impact of a flex-
inclination to engage in similar activity.                ible technology is an inherently difficult enterprise.
    Periodic crackdowns on the Internet cafés and         However, given the flexible nature of Internet tech-
chat rooms that allow patrons to engage in prohib-        nology, its specific design will reflect the social, polit-
ited activities have encouraged these intermediaries      ical, and economic environment in which it is
to police their own users. In addition to imple-          developed. Where these conditions do not favor a
menting the technological measures of censorship          liberal technology, it is unlikely that one will emerge.
and surveillance, China’s Internet cafés have added          Of course, the institutional constraints that influ-
elements of human control to comply with regula-          ence Internet use—law, the market, and social
tions. Managers tend to observe closely their users’      norms—are similarly capable of change over time
surfing habits, especially after a series of crack-       even when they exhibit a certain degree of sticki-
downs and closures of Internet cafés in 2001. Sim-        ness. To say that China’s laws and market environ-
ilarly, most chat rooms employ censors known as           ment or the social norms prevailing in Saudi Arabia
“big mamas” who screen postings and delete those          currently support government control of Internet
that touch on prohibited topics. The operators of         use does not mean that they will continue to do so
major Internet portals, who are forbidden to post         50 years hence. While it is not an automatically
information that “undermines social stability,” have      control-frustrating technology, a more liberal future
steered clear of anything potentially sensitive, offer-   for the Internet is certainly possible. But that future
ing primarily entertainment, sports information,          will depend largely on the institutional variables
and news from official sources.                           shaping the evolution of Internet technology and
    Even where regulations do not specifically            the manner in which it is used—not on any inher-
require it, market conditions have encouraged the         ent characteristic of the Internet itself.              s

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