- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

The world's tyrants are proving surprisingly Net-savvy.
Touted as unstoppable forces for free expression and democracy, the Internet and the World Wide Web have so far compiled an unimpressive record for political change in some of the world's most authoritarian regimes, according to a new study released by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"People have made a lot of broad assumptions that closed regimes could never tame the Internet, that it was just technologically impossible," said Shanthi Kalathil, a former Asian Wall Street Journal reporter and co-author of the study. "We found that a lot of those assumptions don't hold up, certainly in the short term."
Focusing on China and Cuba, Miss Kalathil and fellow Carnegie researcher Taylor C. Boas found that one-party states have become increasingly sophisticated in controlling political expression on the Internet and limiting access to the Internet for hostile domestic critics.
Chinese chat-room administrators, for example, routinely employ monitors known as "Big Mamas" to screen and purge politically sensitive material.
While Fidel Castro's regime has strictly limited who can own a computer and who can obtain an Internet account, China's rulers have tried to tap into the commercial potential of the Web while strictly patrolling the flow of information.
The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing even hosted a "Security 2000" trade fair in November for U.S. companies that specialize in blocking and anti-hacking computer software.
T. Kumar, director of Asia policy at the Washington office of Amnesty International, said his organization's Web site is routinely blocked in China.
China's Internet explosion has produced only a mixed result for human rights groups, he said, and other authoritarian regimes are closely watching China's example.
"For the time being, the government has been very successfully blocking critical discussions on the Internet inside China," Mr. Kumar said.
"The danger is that if China can get away with this, other regimes will certainly follo," he said.
Miss Kalathil and Mr. Boas say the cheerleaders for Internet democracy have overstated their case.
"We do not claim that all authoritarian regimes will successfully control the Internet — or even that the successful regimes of today will maintain their control in the long run — but we do argue that at present effective control of the Internet is much more prevalent than conventional wisdom would suggest," they write in their study.
Not everyone agrees.
Dissenters point to the success of student protesters in Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, who used the Internet as an effective early organizing tool in the campaign that finally ousted the Balkan strongman late last year.
Even in China, where Internet users now number an estimated 22 million and are expected to quadruple by 2004, the Falun Gong spiritual movement stunned the Beijing regime with public protests in April 1999 coordinated almost entirely over the Internet.
Intense Internet chat room criticism is also credited with forcing an unprecedented public apology from Chinese President Zhu Rongji in March after an explosion at a schoolhouse in rural Jiangxi province killed almost 40 children and wounded dozens more.
But the Carnegie study found the Beijing has subsequently cracked down effectively on domestic Falun Gong Internet use, staged show trials of dissidents who published over the Internet, and is weighing "proactive" measures including a national Intranet designed exclusively for domestic use and thus more susceptible to central state control.
Cuba, the authors found, has taken a different tack, using its decades of experience controlling traditional mass media outlets to confront cyberdissidents.
Internet access is strictly controlled, and the country's only commercially available public Internet service is a single, expensive cybercafe in Havana.
"Cuba has been extremely effective in pretty much stopping the Internet as a political tool entirely for now," said Michael Wilson, director of Latin American and Caribbean programs at the D.C.-based International Republican Institute, which promotes democratic movements abroad.
"The average citizen in Cuba caught with unauthorized access to the Internet almost surely faces political repression," Mr. Wilson said.
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are also developing censorship programs for Internet use.
The military junta in Burma is following the Cuban model in sharply limiting who can even own a computer and an Internet account.
The Carnegie authors note that China sent a delegation to Singapore in 1995 to study technology that prevents access to external Web sites not sanctioned by the government.


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