Does Internet Freedom Lead to Democracy?

Internet usage in the Middle East has increased 1,825% since 2000, compared to 432% across the rest of the world. Many have argued the proliferation of the Internet would usher in a new era of free speech and democratization across the region; however, this has not been the case.

On the contrary, Saudi Arabia and numerous Gulf States have designed an Internet infrastructure capable of filtering out nearly 100% of censored content. This is truly an astonishing feat given the sheer volume of “unauthorized” content available online.

In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized, according to Human Rights Watch's account, “that an open internet is not just a matter of human rights, but integral to economic development and political stability”. Intuitively, I agree.

When governments heavily regulate Internet content, they dampen ingenuity, cultural richness, and entrepreneurialism. Arab nations are in need of innovative minds. Water shortages, dwindling oil reserves, over-population, and international business competition are among the pressing issues facing the region today.

Who isn’t curious how technology policy in the Middle East will adapt to a population hungry for the Internet? If the region opens the doors of free communication, a new era of innovation, collaboration, and economic prosperity could emerge. We could all witness Arab collaboration bring to pass innovative enterprises the likes of Twitter, Skype, Facebook, or Groupon.

However, history has shown that a shift towards the proliferation of communication tools does not necessarily promote democratization. As far back as 1940 it was commonly speculated that the innovation of long-distance calling would usher in an era of equality, peace, and democracy. However, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War shortly followed. The flaw in this theory is that all types of groups and institutions can benefit from the Internet, not just democratic ones.

Is democracy the natural evolution of Internet freedom? No. Societies have different needs and priorities. Some face high rates of violence and corruption, thereby valuing security over freedom of speech. Others may look upon the excesses of capitalism with disgust. While others may simply be appeased – or even prefer – command-capitalism, socialism, or another hybrid political or economic system. In the end, I argue that democracy is not the natural evolutionary end-result when societies procure the benefits of Internet freedom.

Join the conversation: what are your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Joseph Martin

Joseph is a Policy Fellow at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an organization focused on building a free and democratic Syria. He is a second year MA Middle East Studies candidate at George Washington University. Previously, he served in the Marine Corps Reserves for eight years and has lived in Egypt, Oman, South Africa, and Botswana. When he is not planning his next big adventure, he loves to mountain bike, backpack, and climb.

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