Caught in the Net
By Damian Tambini
Almost 600 years on, it seems clear that Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was a crucial factor in the rise of democracy in Europe and the decline of the old order of church and monarchy. Movable type and mechanized printing led to an explosion of free expression that was key to the emergence of modern pluralist democracy. Many claim that the historical impact of the Internet will be of a similar magnitude, that it will lead to an inevitable undermining of authoritarian regimes and the spread of democracy around the globe. In the words of early enthusiast John Gilmore, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” (1).
But judging by the research and contributions gathered in Access Controlled, we will have to wait many more years before the nature of the impact of the Internet on dictatorship and democracy becomes clear. The authors provide an alarming range of evidence to support the view that authoritarian regimes are becoming ever more adept at controlling and censoring Internet communication. The volume raises a chilling possibility: that the early commentators were correct about the magnitude of the impact of the Internet on democracy—they just got the direction wrong. Could authoritarian regimes, and also democratic governments working with private companies, be perfecting a new form of authoritarianism, working with the grain of Internet communication and exploiting the intimate entwining of online communication with the everyday lives of citizens?