Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Strength of Internet in Fight for Democracy

Just recently I have realized to what extent Internet can make real differences in the lives of millions of people. At the International Student Festival in Trondheim, 2007, the report presented by the young lady Cham Tonng, whose struggle against oppression in Burma continues for years, made be cry. Her report was about Burmese military government and the frequent violation of human rights there. In fact, from 2002-2005 173 incidents of rape and sexual violence involving 625 girls and women in Shan were investigated (Noel, 2005). It is petty that Burmese government is not taking any considerable actions towards this situation. In fact, military officers who do not get punished by any governmental institutions commit most of the rapes. In cases, when women tried to sue they were tortured or even killed by officers.
Here, it is important to note that the meaning and the function of the Internet for different people around the world is not the same. For some it is place for various types of entertainments, for others it is search engine for any kind of information. For some it is a simple way of connecting with people from most remote parts of the world. For others Internet is an opportunity to express their thoughts, to learn totally new things and to challenge their lives. But, for the societies, where people oppressed by their governments and where the violation of human rights is in its highest point – Internet becomes the only source for delivering and speaking out ones troubles and concerns. In such societies Internet becomes an instrument of the last resort that gives people hope for better life and for possible changes in the future. In such cases as Burma, Internet with its tremendous power becomes a real tool for fight! Cham Tonng is the best example of the person who found courage and strength to report on Burmese government to the International Society.
The first part of the research paper will give general information about the Iranian government and its policies towards Information Technologies. The evolvement of the Internet, the rising interest of public and the government’s reaction to it also will be discussed. As the tensions between government and public is getting more harsh, a lot of researches have been done to explain the state and civil sector relations and the role of IT in the Middle East. Next, theories that were applied to the Middle East case will be discussed. Relying on this theories and the specific environment of the Iranian government arguments will be provided. In the last part of the research paper, I will try to answer the main question of the research paper, whether Internet is strong enough to fight with the authoritarian and Islamic state of Iran.

History of Internet in Iran

Islamic Republic of Iran on the one hand, adopted constitution, which represents some of the basic democratic principles. There is a division of power and, most importantly, people elect the Revolutionary Leader, the President and representatives of the Parliament. At the same time, Iran is considered to be an authoritarian regime, where power is mostly vested on the hands of the Revolutionary Leader. Even though the structure of the constitution was made according to some democratic features, the law of Iran is totally rests on the Islamic principles. Such regimes are vulnerable and very critical to any gentle hints of opposition. Internet, which is growing in its importance and use in Iran is seen as an open challenge and even threat to the government. Moreover, Internet became a new way of ongoing struggle for democracy on Islamic Republic of Iran. Logically, one can expect the government to infringe upon the basic rights of people to express their views, ideas freely. In fact, it is true about the current situation on Iran.
For most of its short history in Iran, the Internet has been free of control and regulation. However, Rahimi (2003) says that since 2003 the Iranian government produced systematic strategy to block Internet websites or filter its content. There are two main reasons for why Internet was not censored during Rafasanjani’s regime. These reasons will be explained in details further in the research paper. Moreover, it is surprising to note that State actually was using Internet to promote Islamic ideology. Nevertheless, today Iran is known for its censorship policies towards the Internet use. The population, especially youth are becoming more and more concerned about state policies towards the Internet use, which is getting more harsh and restrictive day after day. One can observe two sides of this situation. On the one side, there is a conservative, authoritarian, and powerful state, which sees the potential threat from the civil sector and recognizes that more actions have to be taken in order to keep the durability of the current regime. On another side, there is an opposition mostly educated and oppressed youth raised under the strict Islamic laws, who has desperate wish to fight for their rights.
The main question I would like to raise in this research paper is to what extent Internet can challenge the Iranian government. Moreover, can opposition dissidents and citizens use the Internet to fight for Democracy? Or does the powerful state will successfully resist the attacks of the ‘virtual enemy’? These kinds of questions are raising debates among researchers. Different theories are used to explain whether Internet can empower civil society or the strong government will regulate it. Let us look which theories are related to the research topic of the paper, before going into detailed discussion?

Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism

There are three main theories (Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism) of International Relations that try to explain the function and the impact of Internet in society. These theories use two major state and non-state actors to examine the potential role of Internet to transition the current authoritarian and Islamic regime of the Middle East region. There is a difference between Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism. The focus of Constructivism is centered on normative principles and identity formation, including ethnic bonding and religious activism (Salhi, 2006, p. 8). Though, all three theories agree that state remains the most important agent of social, political and economic change in the Middle East. This claim leads to the conclusion that state is a major actor that predetermines the ‘destiny’ of the Internet.
The school of Realism asserts that states of the Middle East region are already equipped with the necessary tools to deter any threat (Salhi, 2006, p. 8). On the other side, Liberalism believe that states are trapped in a web of international transformation beyond their control and that globalization will ultimately force the entire Middle East to open its societies and polities to the opposition (Salhi, 2006, p.8). Influenced by the International Society, these states will have no choice but to shift their policies from authoritarian to democratic. Cyber optimists (liberalism) believe that the fact the role of Internet is raising is a step for further developments. But, cyber pessimists (realism) doubt on the transforming power of the Internet, stating that strong governments will do their best to protect its current regime, thus their interests. Cyber skeptics (constructivism) do not take either of these sides, claming that states can adopt and allow IT to function and still exercise control over IT. They simply say the role of the IT is neither good nor bad. The Internet is seen as a tool for spreading their cultural and more, specifically religious ideas, which is not threatening the interests of the state.
These three schools also have differently assigned the role to the non-state actors. Realists put in some doubt the strength of non-state actors to engage opposition activities or to mobilize masses. They argue that even Internet is used more in Iran compared to previous years; economic conditions will be an obstacle for the masses to be involved in the opposition. We should admit that Iran faces economic difficulties and most of the population is still concerned about the basic needs. It can be observed that there is a clear-cut difference between realists and liberalists when it comes to the role of the non-state actors. Liberalists taking into account the influence of globalization and the raising awareness among Iranian population believe that non-state actors do have potential power in their hands to challenge oppressive regime of their government. For example, analyzing the situation in Tehran, Human Rights Watch (2005) predicted, “Iran has the potential to become a world leader in information technology. It is a rapidly developing its telecommunication infrastructure. Attempts to restrict Internet usage violates Iran’s obligation to protect freedom of expression and foster popular mistrust of the government”.
If to analyze current situation of Iranian government these two competing theories (Realism and Liberalism) are both to some extent applicable and justifiable.
To answer these questions, I would like to give some arguments that justify both claims about to what extent the claim that Internet, as a tool for fight for democracy is fear? The first argument stresses on the role of Iranian youth and use of Internet for fight with Iranian repressive government. The second argument is about the role of political institution that restricts or even prohibits the functioning of Internet in Iran, thus outplaying the role of Internet as a tool to fight with Iranian current regime.
Iranian youth as a main opposition group will lead to Internet revolution
There is a notion that one of the main reasons for increased interest in Internet in Iran is its young population. After the 1979 Revolution the Iranian population increased dramatically, more importantly today 70 % of its population is youth. Within this fact, it is believed that Iranian youth, as a main opposition group will use Internet as a tool to fight with the conservative government. Here, it is very important to note that Iranian youth have been always politically active, even in the years when Internet was not so popular. Logically, one can expect that with the introduction of Internet in Iran and with new possibilities of delivering concerns to the public Iranian youth will show greater political participation in the affairs of the state. For example, in 1999, Internet played an important role in the uprising when students mobilized against the conservatives in chat rooms, organized meetings, interacted and communicated electronically, as the state continued to close down public places of political interactions (Rahimi, 2006). Rahimi (2006) in his article also underlines this fact saying that the Internet has become a powerful tool for grassroots democracy advocates, which in Iran have become synonymous with the student movement.
Let us look, at how Iranian youth can effectively use Internet to fight for democracy.
Maarek (2006) brings several points about the role of Information and Communication Technologies by saying, “ICT’s facilitate the process of political mobilization allowing people who share common interests to get in touch despite distance or social boundaries” (p. 109). It is already known that once an individual gets online he or she has a great opportunity to meet people with the same interests, goals, and perspectives. Internet enables to reach people both within the region and abroad. In both cases exchange of ideas and experience sharing becomes one of the important features of communication. Communication with people from abroad even more crucial, since it allows to explore new cultures, ideologies, principles of human rights, basic ideas on democracy, which in return makes people think critically about their own governments, especially if this government is oppressive and where the basic humans rights are violated.
Maarek (2006) also points out, “ICT’s generate new ways of interactions between individuals, which in return produce qualitative effects on political activism” (p.109). Further, Maarek (2006) explains, “ICT’s contribute to intensify the actor’s sense of involvement, since it gives individuals or organizations to feel themselves as a powerful and efficient agent, who is able to exert influence on its environment” (p.109). It is especially true for societies as Iran, where freedom of expression is prohibited, where people get imprisoned for pointing out drawbacks of repressive policies. Internet becomes a tool to speak out their sore problems without more or less fear of government’s repressive measures.
Another important point made by Rahimi (2006), “The rise of Internet provides opportunities for integrating democratic habits and the opportunity to improve one’s life chances into ordinary people’s lives, even in the face of persistent authoritarianism”. Here, the idea of ‘integrating democratic principles’ is very important, which underlines the potential role of Internet as a democratizing force. A person learns certain things related to democracy, to human rights, freedom of speech both directly from people abroad and by accessing international websites. International websites, especially with news coverage, as BBC provide objective information on real affairs of their home countries. Once individuals get used to Internet, they will engage more and more in virtual activities to stay in track with the changes that are occurring both in their home countries and abroad. This makes people to be more conscious about political events occurring in their countries, about the role of leading figures in the government, moreover, they start sorting information by distinguishing whether leaders act either for their own interests or for the sake of the population.
The last, but not the least important point Rahimi makes (2006), “New experiences have direct spill over effect on off-line behavior”. It sounds logically, that once people acquire basic knowledge of democratic principles and ability to differentiate reality from idle talk made by politicians they will try to use acquired knowledge in real life. First, I think the very fact they people, especially youth in Iran are getting acquainted with democratic ideas will make them to rise various questions related to political issues in their home countries. Of course, we should take into consideration that most of the Iranian population does not have access to the Internet, but youth can convey acquired knowledge by direct discussions, conversations, or even can organize some gathering, debates in real life. The claim made by Rahimi (2006) basically says that once people get politically conscious online, it will inevitable lead to political conciseness in real life.
Now if we integrate these three ideas we get following picture: more informed, educated Iranian youth, who are politically active and conscious about their civil rights with democratic habits acquired online will mirror this in the real life. Internet make Iranian youth more educated, better informed, and, moreover, politically conscious about affairs in their countries by directly engaging in talks with people abroad or visiting international websites that provides with more or less objective news. Once this group of people gets politically active and educated about democratic ideas, principles they can trace their knowledge to real life as well. The simplest way is to share with their knowledge with those people who do not have an access to the Internet, or to communicate online in chat rooms, in blogs with people, who share the same ideas, goals. Thus, finding people with the same perspectives make them to build the same goals, or even to build plans for future actions.
You have witnessed one side of the story, where for Iranian youth the Internet becomes a tool in fight for civil rights and reform in the country. But, what is the other side of the story? On the other side of the story one can observe a strong government, which is successfully exerting its power to control the function of the Internet in society. The claim of two schools of International Relations Realism, Liberalism is that the state remains a central actor in determining the destiny of Internet can be confirmed with the current situation in Iran. Iranian government and ruling elites ensure that the Internet will not become a threat to their interests.
Let me now provide you with the second argument, which underplays the strength of Internet in fight for Democracy. The second argument sounds as following, the strength of the Government will not allow Internet to become a threat to the current regime. Acemoglu and Robinson (2003) proposed, “the ‘political looser” hypothesis, which claims that the effect of technological changes on the political power of groups is the key element in predicting whether innovations will be adopted” (p.109). This means that as long as ICT’s do not become a threat to the economic well being and political prestige of ruling elite or other governmental officials Internet can successfully function in the society. In fact, the more interested groups have to loose, the more restrictive and harsh policies and activities towards the Internet are produced and implemented. Also Drezner (2006) underlines the strength of state power, “Beyond information, authoritarian governments have been wiling to make life uncomfortable for the citizens who try to generate or exploit information that threatened the regime in power” (p.3).
Here, it is necessary to remember that day by day public interest, especially among Iranian youth is arising, so does the policies of the state are getting more harsh and restrictive. The OpenNet Initiative country study found the following:
There is a broad set of media-related laws, especially Press Law of 1986, which includes licensing and substantive regulations. Individuals who subscribe to Internet service providers must promise in writing not to access “non-Islamic” websites. The law requires ISP’s to install filtering mechanisms that cover access to both Websites and e-mail. (p.2).

The prohibition of access to “non-Islamic” cites brings a lot of concerns, since they are the most popular and most frequently visited ones. As I have mentioned before, for Iranian youth international websites provide them with objective news of their countries, they also educate them and integrate democratic habits. And if access is denied to such sites, it basically means that one of the essential attributes of Internet was taken away from people, especially for politically active citizens.
One can argue, that economic conditions and other social factors can also determine the spread or function of the Internet in society. In fact, the claim that economic conditions matter greatly is one of the most popular arguments. This is true, but there are number of examples of states with poor economy but with high use of Internet. One such example is Latvia. Milner (2003) in her article also argues, “The role of political institutions, specifically regime time in comparison with economic and technological and sociological influences play greater role on determining the Internet’s function in the country”. As we already know Iran is considered to be an autocratic country, where leaders use their positions and power to satisfy their personal needs and met personal interests. In such societies, very few people can enjoy all goods that state can provide. In Iran most of people are still concerned about their basic needs. Moreover, these leaders have a power to control the society through the media, press and now Internet as well. They build an illusionary image of a good government, which is doing all possible to improve the quality of life. Bunce (1996) has noted, “People come to accept the existence of problems like poverty, crime, war, and political apathy as facts of life rather than as the tragic results of the concentration of political power, the exploitative nature of economic relations, and the cynical uses of political communication”. In such societies most people loose their hope for better future, since there are no ways to influence political decision making and other policy making procedures. In such society people, as their leaders themselves have to find other alternative means to feed themselves. Under such circumstances people are very vulnerable because of poor economic conditions, so any hint for better changes or to reforms may seen as a great opportunity for people. Leaders are aware of such outcomes from an uncontrolled flow of information that Internet provides, that is why they do all they can to manipulate news, and to control the function of the Internet in their society.


There is a clear-cut line between these two arguments. One the one side Liberal School of International Relations believes that under influence of globalization states will not be able to control the functions of ITC’s. We should admit that even under authoritarian regimes as Iran has, Iranian youth still has power over its government. It can use Internet to connect with people from their region or from abroad. Communication with people from various countries with different backgrounds will allow them to explore new things; most importantly they will acquire knowledge about certain democratic principles. This is a very crucial idea, since once a person knows that there are democratic states he will start thinking why his government cannot provide the same rights as democratic ones. Even though most of the Iranian population does not have an access to the Internet, those who are online will share their knowledge with others in real life. This is how political mobilization can happen even in the societies, where either Internet is unevenly spread or where it is highly censored. On the other side Realism argues that state as a main actor, which determines the ‘destiny’ of Internet is enough powerful to control and even prohibit the function of Internet in the society. This argument also sounds fair in the case of Iran. Iranian government successfully was controlling media and TV, and now it is controlling the Internet as well. A lot of bloggers, who accused Iranian government or certain officials, were put into prison. It is known that one of the advantages of Internet is its ability to provide with some degree of freedom in virtual world. This fact makes a person to express his opinions freely and without fear being accused or punished by the repressive government. Unfortunately, this character of Internet is fading away in Iran because of its oppressive government, which is becoming more restrictive as public interest in Internet is rising day after day. It is known that control of Internet is more complex and expensive, but when personal interests of certain groups of people are at the stake nothing can stop them to implement restrictive policies on Internet use.
I think before answering the question of this paper, it is necessary to make it clear what fighting for democracy means. If one thinks that to fight for democracy means to overthrow the government than the potential role of Internet comes under question. Here, I would like to say that the very fact that Iranian youth in spite of restrictive policies of the Government continues to struggle for their rights means that Internet has strength to fight with the oppressive government. The very fact that people continue to use Internet as a tool to reach the government and demand reforms, putting their lives under threat of being imprisoned or even killed makes one to hope that Internet can survive under harsh circumstances. At the same time the fact that means, tools for surveillance are getting more advanced and governments adopt them very fast makes the previous statement weak.
It is interesting to observe this battle between two powerful players, state and Internet. Each of them is trying to survive under harsh conditions using different means to achieve their objectives that are also differing. Each of the players has their own supporters, self-interested elite and citizens, who are also enough powerful to impose their own objectives and underplay the role of an enemy. The battle seems will last for a long time, since at the stake of the problem is a particular ‘interest’ of each side. It is very difficult to come to certain agreement when two sides have different interests that are vital for each of them.
It was discussed earlier that political institutions, specifically regime type matters greatly in deciding the role of Internet in society rather than economic or social factors. It means that elites or other high officials in the government decide whether to spend money for building infrastructure for Internet or investing the same amount of money for other purposes. Moreover, governing elites are in charge of IT companies. It is also the Iranian government, which adopts and passes laws on ICTs. Transparency, accountability, division of powers can be forgotten when evaluating Iranian government and its overall function. Legislature, judicial powers are under the control of Iranian Leader, who has ultimate power on decision-making process. All these factors indicate that government and ruling elite are strong enough to control its population in order to avoid any threat to their power. The main interest of political elites is to remain in office, which means an access to state resources. So, do you think that these officials would easily give up their power?
I think that the Iranian government will further succeed in restricting the function of the Internet, because it has all means and strength to do so. There are number of autocratic governments that are determining the destiny of Internet in the society. For example such countries as China, Turkmenistan and most of Middle Eastern countries from the very beginning of Internet’s function in their society have been successfully controlling and imposing restrictive policies. I should admit that Internet has power in the hands of Iranian youth to fight for Democracy. As I have mentioned before, I think that the Internet has power in terms of delivering certain problems to the government, but this power falls short when one tries to use it to transition the autocratic regime to the democratic in Iran. Taking into account the raising interest of youth in Internet in Iran, development of political consciousness, improvement of education, and access to new types of information leaves a great hope that the strength of Internet in Iran will enhance and have enough power to influence the government’s regime, but meanwhile repressive policies of the government remain very strong.


Bunce, B. (1996). The politics of Illusion. USA: Longman Publishers.

Drezner, D. (2006). Weighing the scale: the Internet’s effect on state-society relations. Retrieved February 07, 2007 from Political Research Online

Grigorescu, A. (2004). Assessing Transparency of International Organization. Retrieved April 22, 2007 from Political Research Online

Human Rights Watch. (2005). Iran: False Freedom Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa Iran. Retrieved April 22, 2007 from

Maarek, P. and Wolfsfeld, G. (2003). Political Communication in a New Era. New York: Routledge Press.
Milner, H. (2003). The Diffusion of the Internet Globally: The Role of Political Institutions. Retrieved April 23, 2007 from Political Research Online
Noelle, S. (2005). Burmese Women Expose rapes by Military Regime. Retrieved March 23, 2007 from

OpenNet Initiative. (2006). Country Study: Internet Filtering in Iran in 2004-2005. Retrieved February 8, 2007 from

Rahimi, B. (2003). Cyberdissent: The Internet in Revolutionary Iran. MERIA (Middle East Review of Revolutionary Iran). Retrieved April 23, 2007 from Political Research Online

Salhi, H. (2006). Theorizing about North and South relations in the digital age: building theory of information technology and security for the Middle East. Retrieved February 07, 2007 from Political Research Online

Wheeler, D. (2006). Empowering Publics: Information Technology and Democratization in the Arab World – lessons from Internet Cafes and beyond. Retrieved April 23, 2007 from the Political Research Online

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The third blog assignment

Are the concerns of a “surveillance monster” expressed in the ACLU report exaggerated?

Stanley and Steinhardt define “surveillance society” as a society, where every facet of private lives of ordinary people are monitored and recorded. There are various high-tech ways on doing so starting from face recognition techniques ending up with implantable microchips, data mining and DNA chips. There are also different types of surveillance: video, data and governmental. Stanley and Steinhardt say that the biggest threat to privacy is coming from the government. Government is seen as a “surveillance monster”. For example, president Bush beginning in 2001 secretly authorized the NSA to conduct electronic surveillance of US citizens without warrant. This case is a clear example of how the government, first of all, impinges upon the rights of citizens for privacy, and, secondly, how it violates the legislation of FISA, which requires the executive branch to warn the citizens before any electronic surveillance.

I do not think that authors exaggerated concerns about “surveillance monster”. There were given enough examples of how private lives of citizens are monitored and recorded. Here, I would like to mention two important points that authors made about government surveillance. First, the justification for surveillance as combating enemies, terrorism does not seem to help. Second, surveillance systems, once installed, rarely remain confined to their original purpose. In short, I think that as long as surveillance effectively promotes security for citizens and serves for the public interest then there is not much to woory about. But, the whole problem here is whether government surveillance effective and serves for the security provision.

Is Rajan perhaps more than a bit naive when she states "technology and the growth of a post-authoritarian generation may help the positive aspects of internationalization to be more widely felt among Russians in the new future"?

In her article, Rajan gives several reasons why Russian legislation on privacy does not work properly; moreover it fails when it comes to implementation. Basic reasons are complexity of legislative regime, inadequacy of administrative framework for implementation of laws and absence of judicial involvement in the privacy regime. Also one of the important reasons is highly politicized approach to information policies. Despite these facts, there is an optimistic estimation of the privacy regime. As Russia is open to international influence, it is believed that young generation may change current situation concerning the privacy regime in the country by standardizing Russian legislature or its information culture according to Western patterns.

On the one hand, we can assume that Russian youth is able to bring certain positive changes to its information culture, especially when it comes to the implementation of laws. On the other hand, having in mind its authoritarian regime it is to some extent naïve to think that International influence and the role of youth may change the perception of the government about privacy rights of individuals.

Are issues of surveillance, privacy, and democratization relevant at all for understanding Kyrgyz or regional (Central Asia) politics?

Turkmenistan is an obvious example, where there is no either the right for freedom of expression or right for privacy. I think the term used by Stanley and Steinhardt “surveillance monster” perfectly fits to the repressive regime of Turkmenistan.
Situation in Kyrgyzstan is slightly different. During the events of 11th of April, KTR was showing rally as a gathering of homeless and alcoholic people. This channel has shown plots, where the opposition organizers were giving money to protestors. At the same time they avoided showing reports of provocations by unknown men who were trying to disrupt the rally. It is known that KTR is pro governmental and for this reason the information provided during the rally was not objective. This fact tells us how government uses its power to restrict free and objective flow of information, which is violation of democratic principles.