Egypt revolution and rise of internet democracy

2011 has been another very interesting year.

Just when you thought global economy is expected to gear from this year, we have many interesting developments in countries having dictatorships. Starting with Egypt, we have Tunisia, Libya and many more countries in middle east and north africa (MENA region). Apart from many geopolitcal concerns, it has led to serious risks over prices of oil and inflation going forward.

Economists have jumped into the debate in interesting ways.

  • Rodrik said growth alone cannot be sufficient for dictatorships to continue.
  • Eichengreen said Egypt should worry China.
  • Casey Mulligan says it is unlikely that next leader of Egypt would be a democracy. He shows research by Kevin Tsui of Clemson University which says more valuable a country’s oil resources, the less likely it is to become democratic. But Egypt does not have much oil resources so it does not fit in. But it has more muslims and high poverty, two important conditions for countries being non-democratic. So, overall Egypt been about as undemocratic as countries similar to it in terms of demographics and economic circumstances. And little is expected to change.
  • Arvind Subramaniam concurring with Mulligan, says economic prospects of the regions look grim. These economies rely on rent from oil and natural resources and have not developed institutions. So, even though there is political uprising economic uprising is far off.
  • There are many more and will add as I read more of them..

All these developments have brought questions over whether internet could be used to spread democracy. The role of facebook, twitter and google have come to limelight. So much so, Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive is being credited with starting the revolution in Egypt.

Economist has a superb debate on role of internet in democracy. Going by the events it might look internet is a powerful too to spread democracy. Evgeny Morozov provides a counterarguments. He has written the book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom”.

Were we to define “democratisation” in a narrow sense of improving access to information or facilitating civic engagement, there would be few doubts about the internet’s democratic bona fides.

However, liberal democracy—unlike anarchy—does not champion absolute freedom to access or publish whatever information we like, let alone form any civic associations we like. On the contrary, democracies have laws regulating libel and hate speech; their state institutions try to guard sensitive information that citizens disclose to them, from social security numbers to their health history; their governments rightfully ban groups promoting terrorism or child pornography, even though those groups can also be seen as promoting civic engagement and even some basic forms of civil society (perhaps of the uncivil variety).

Democracy is not just about granting freedoms; it is also about accepting responsibilities and erecting barriers. More often than not, the internet allows us to skirt these responsibilities and ignore the barriers all too easily. Anyone can shout fire in our crowded digital theatre without fearing the consequences. And many do: hate speech has flourished on the internet (thanks, perhaps, to the anonymous nature of many online conversations); sensitive personal information is stolen and traded over the counter; and all sorts of extremist groups have found a comfortable home online.

He says no doubt internet has ushered a revolution and has many +ves. But there is -ves as well. It is going to be used by both dictators and social mobilizers like Ghonim.

The debate about the impact of the internet on authoritarian states often falls into a similar intellectual trap, with cyber-pessimists assuming that the web is bound to favour dictators, who will use it for propaganda and surveillance, and cyber-optimists assuming that it is bound to favour their (usually democratic and pro-Western) opponents, who will use it for social mobilisation.

In reality, however, it will favour both sides: smart dictators would be silly not to use the web to strengthen their grip on power, while smart dissidents would be equally silly not use it to carve out more autonomy. But, sadly, that is all we know.

To argue that the internet is not an inherently democratic force is simply to point out that while it has the potential to both oppress and liberate, which of these two sides dominates depends on the social and political context in which it is used rather than on some internal “logic” that derives from its architecture or its culture.

For example, a strong authoritarian government that enjoys fast economic growth and domestic legitimacy would not be affected by the prospects of internet-enabled civic mobilisation to the same extent as a government that is weak and beset by unemployment. Likewise, a strong authoritarian government would be in a much better position to profit from online surveillance and propaganda than a weak one. But that no amount of internet control can contain the anger of unemployed youths does not automatically make the internet a technology of liberation, even if this is what these youths use to organise themselves.

In sum, internet can contribute but for this we need to do question its repressive side:

Does the internet have the potential to make a useful contribution to promoting democracy, despite all its flaws? Of course it does. However, to make the most of that potential we need to maximise its liberating side and minimise its repressive side. This will be a hard fight: there are too many Western firms eager to sell surveillance and censorship technology to authoritarian states, while the privacy and community policies of companies like Facebook leave much to be desired (many dissidents complain that Facebook does not allow them to use pseudonyms).

It is only by always doubting the inherently liberating nature of the internet that we will be able to subject those who prevent it from reaching its full democratic potential to the scrutiny they so rightly deserve.

Superb stuff.

These kinds of debate just force you to think about basics of human life…

Addendum:

  • James Hamilton calculates the expected losses in oil production due to these revolts. So far, it is expected to be limited and might shave a 0.5% of GDP growth. This is lower than previous shocks. But for this, the revolution should stop at Libya. If it extends to other oil producing economies, then the impact could be higher..
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