In this short essay I summarize a not-so-positive view on ICT diffusion and the impact it might have on developing countries in non-western contexts. I also, briefly, discuss the situation in the Middle East.

The American president Ronald Reagan was, in the years following his presidency, convinced that the spread of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) were going to help bring down the Soviet Union, and prophesied “the Goliath of the totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip” (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Optimists take for granted that the introduction of communication technology leads to increased exchange of ideas and that mediation itself is constructive (Bohman 2004:47).

While the information revolution rapidly unfolds, governments around the world are affected by the profound changes that come with it. The advancement of technologies in general and of ICTs in particular, has been discussed in political circles for decades as a means to change the outset for political evolution. Often, a very optimistic view is heard from world-leaders and journalists, who believe that the internet will lead to salvation for the democracy-starved third world. Others mean that this view is simplistic, too positive and that there is no empirical evidence to support the claims.

Looking Beyond the Optimism
John McDermott (quoted in Wilson 2004:20) wrote in the New York Review of Books on subject, saying:

If religion was formally the opiate of the masses, then surly technology is the opiate of the educated public today, or at least its favorite authors. No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind […].

The technological evangelism, it seems, is not shared by everyone, but still the overly optimistic kind of thinking can be seen in most aspects of society; in politics – as shown in the quote from Reagan above, but also in the popular press and in the academic community. In the latter analysts display a mono-causal worldview, where the process often starts with the researcher describing the components of a new technology and its properties. Then, with the technology’s importance established, the researcher extrapolates its potential over the whole of society. For instance, if the technology is claimed to be participatory, the analyst clams that the whole world will become less hierarchical, as is the case with the internet. This way, impact flows from technology to society. (Wilson 2004:20)

Evidence shows that most regimes, desperate to retain status quo to ensure their own institutional survival, are indeed quite good at forming policies and plans to lessen the impacts of change – or at least the rate of the change. The powers of many of these governments are absolute, and they can successfully hinder development, if they chose to do so. At least for a while.

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom
In their book Open Networks, Closed Regimes authors Kalathil and Boas (2003) take on what they call the conventional wisdom: the “blind optimism” that links technological advances, in particular the rise of the Internet, to democratization and the fall of totalitarianism. Through eight case studies the authors attempt to show that the “widespread belief in the popular world that the Internet poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule” is incorrect. They conclude that while “certain types of Internet use do indeed pose political challenges to authoritarian governments,” other uses “reinforce authoritarian rule.” Several of the authoritarian regimes in their study were “proactively promoting” the development of tools designed to let them control and manipulate Internet use by their citizens, to allow them access only to “an Internet that serves state-defined interests rather than [one] challenging them,” as Kalathil and Boas say.

First of all, they say (2003:137), governments build on a legacy of ICT control. In most countries where the internet is now being repressed and controlled, the challenge to constrain use that is deemed dangerous or inappropriate, is a battle fought for a long time. The legacy of maintaining a grip of inter-personal communication often extends to everything from mass media to telecommunications and has been done for decades. Although the academic and scientific communities are often first to adapt Internet technology, the state is usually the player who diffuse the technology into the broader population. When doing do, they take their time to ensure that they remain in control over the infrastructure – and hence in executive control over the information that passes through the cables. Examples of this are centralized points-of-access though which all traffic is routed before it is passed on into the open network. This leaves the regime with the (theoretical) power to cut access if needed (although Kalathil and Boas points out that most states would probably refrain from doing so other than in exceptional circumstances, due to economic reasons). This network topology also gives the government an easy way of setting up censorship measures with centralized filtering, such as is The Great Firewall of China.

Kalathil and Boas (2003:137), points to the fact that many governments are not oblivious to the technological developments, and have devised a national ICT plans in order to put the technology to good use – for their own purposes. China’s strategy, for example, is to use the internet to compete the informatization of the Chinese to fuel modernization. When drafting these plans, it’s obvious that the regimes look to each-other for inspiration and best practices. Cuba, is both working with the Chinese and looking to them for inspiration when it comes to their ICT plan, all while China themselves – along with the United Arab Emirates – draws inspiration from Singapore’s successful combination of a modern, technological friendly society while still maintaining tough social controls.

The states success in implementing ICT policies is varying due to difference in the states capacities (Kalathil and Boas 2003:138). An inefficient bureaucracy makes it difficult for a country to efficiently make policies, and in the worst case scenario the outcome can even sometimes be conflicting. Kalathil and Boas compare Vietnam and Singapore as examples of two extremes, where the former’s inefficient and reluctant leadership makes it difficult for the country to modernize, while the latter’s corruption-free government (and lack of opposition) was quick to implement quite efficient policies. Even external factors, such as the geographical conditions of a country, is also important – China and Singapore differ greatly in size, and the latter was rapidly wired in pursuit of building the “intelligent island”.

The states plans, besides policies on the macro level, often include use for ICT in everything from e-services to propaganda (Kalathil and Boas 2003:139). E-services can be used, just like in the west, to make affairs between citizens and the states easier, which saves money for the state while hopefully also makes the life easier for the citizen. In Singapore, the transition to an e-government has been particularly swift, and the country stands model for many other countries in the world – both democratic and authoritarian. This introduction of e-services also boosts the legitimacy of the governments, as well as consolidating the states power. In Singapore, where the ruling party, the PAP, retain much of its popularity through maintaining a very high standard of living for the country’s citizens, it also deepens the power base and increase popular support due to the fact that citizens experience a positive change from the use of different e-services.

The aspect of propaganda is that the state-run newspapers and television channels often take quite an active role on the web. These new channels are then used to fine-tune an ideological message to the general public, under the pretense of free expression. In China, for instance, the publishers of China Daily use the web’s interactive functions to provide forums and chatrooms where the readers can discuss issues with a nationalistic sentiment and help to enforce the official position with subtlety. The forums are moderated and kept within a tight leach, but it gives the mirage of an authentic grass root effort.

Censorship and Control
The authoritarian governments often use censorship or access control as a means to constrain politically sensitive or morally questionable material from getting to the general public. This is most often done by software in the central routing node (the national IXP), where all traffic pass through. The censorship is often achieved by combining firewall software, with or without keyword search, and lists of blocked sites. The strategies differ from one country to another, but the most common censored material world-wide is pornographic material. This kind of censorship is not only dictated and enforced against the will of the people, but enjoys substantial support among populations in many countries, particularly in the Middle-East. In countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia considerable public constituencies would probably object strongly of the blocks were discontinued. The real reason behind the censorship, however, often goes beyond pornography. The Vietnamese government, while stating immorality as its prime reason is prone to such blatant over-blocking that it’s easy to see that, in reality, it’s meant to remove opposing voices – particularly from exiles (Kalathil and Boas 2003:140).

No measure to censor can be foolproof, and circumventing the firewalls can be quite easily done by web-savvy surfers. This however, is of less concern for the state in reality, since the order the blocks are usually enough cumbersome to go around to hinder mass spread of information.

Another option for the states to remain in control is less technological: restrictions of physical access. On Cuba, for example, internet is not available to everyone, but restricted to elite groups and individuals. This way, auxiliary filters are not needed and if they are in place at an institutional level, they do not need to be air-tight (Kalathil and Boas 2003:141). These states often opt to nation-wide intranets in an attempt to take advantage of the added efficiency of a networked society, while harnessing the dangers of the global free flow of information. The problem is, like China has discovered, that once the global internet is in place, people are not satisfied with a lesser version, and therefore this strategy must be pursued in an early stage of modernization – at a time where governments often are less prone to understand what is about to happen.

Also, citizens of countries where censorship is common often have a good understanding of what is acceptable use. The limits and the boundaries of society have been fed to them for decades. So, even without being physically hindered to access information or without mechanisms that prevent people from expressing themselves freely – in an absolute meaning of the word – people often know exactly how to act and what to say. The governments take advantage of this shared understanding to create an environment where a tougher control at the individual level is not as necessary. This has, and other political processes, makes for only limited use of the internet by opposition parties, where they exist. Among the countries studied by Kalathil and Boas (2003:142), only Egypt and Singapore had any organized use of the internet by the opposition parties. In Singapore, the opposition was quickly removed from the internet by regulations and laws.

The implication of a digital public sphere for the civil society is also described by Kalathil and Boas (2003:142) as being problematic. The conventional wisdom, they say, is that internet access is easily available for a large or significant portion of the population. This is often not the case, and access is not seldom reserved for elites. These groups can be either academic or economic elites, depending on the type of strategy imposed by the government. The elites are less likely to use internet for dissenting purposes, since they are – in one way or another – more involved in the dominating hegemony.

Besides, even when there is use by people outside the elites, people in these countries tend to be prone to risk-aversive use. People use the internet for the same things as in the west, chatting and emailing with friends and family; reading easily accessible news. The people, disillusioned by a life-time of relating to propaganda, are also very skeptic of any news source they come to come across. Therefore, Kalathil and Boas (2003:143) say, it is questionable if mere exposure to news from the outside can sway opinions and sentiments in an authoritarian country.

Process of Negotiation
Much of Kalathil’s and Boas’ findings can be confirmed in other studies, such as in Wilson’s (2004) The Information Revolution in Developing Countries, where he looks at the strategic ICT restructuring in three developing countries. He concludes, among other things that (2004:391):

  • Links between structures and institutions play a determining role in the development of ICTs.
  • Multi-national corporations play a surprisingly little part in the success of ICT projects, while national “ICT champions” who can inspire and make strong policies are of more importance.
  • The infrastructure is very complex and achieving effective access to ICTs is much harder than achieving formal access.
  • While ICTs have yet to show a large impact on societies at a whole, it is certain that it is crucial for certain national elites.

Wilson argue strongly against technological determinism and come to the conclusion that much of the success of internet and other ICT projects are determined by the different actors capacity to negotiate their different agendas with one-another.

Where Does this Lead Us?
There is no question that the western discourse debating ICTs have been simplifying matters up until this point. The use of technology is not discriminating, in the sense that it indeed also can be used to suppress or control citizens, if the governments are savvy enough to pick up on it.

Thus, for much of the Middle-East, the threat from the Internet use is by no means limited to forms of democratic expressions – the regimes also have to try to contain the threat of radical Islamism that threaten the stability of he current regimes. Many undemocratic and radical religious movements find new followers through the internet, now also being able to recruit far away from the local mosque they can land supporters and receive funding from international sources. One example is the Salafi movement, a term identical to Wahhabism – the flavor of religious interpretation that permutes the Saudi Arabian society who is, for instance, very present on the Internet. The Internet helps its’ followers to organize and there plan such things as suicide bombings (Halld?n 2003). This is, needless to say, something that is being fought vigorously by the states themselves. If not for the sake of the states’ own people, then because of pressure from the international community as part of the international “war on terror”.

The opposition to the Salafi, the Lebanon-based al-Ahbash movement advocates a radical neo-traditionalist version of Sunni Islam. Although numerically modest, it has established branches in several Western countries, where it continues the campaign it started in the Middle East against the Salafi trend. The group is very innovative in the ways they use the web and other means of digital communication, and clearly demonstrate that the strategic use of web-based interactive communication tools does not necessarily lead to the reinforcement of a culture of dialogue – a value so intimately associated with the Internet. Instead, the sites also serve as a means to achieve virtual ideological hegemony (Pierret 2005).

Thus, policy makers in the United States and Europe should be aware that all regime critical internet based activities in the region are not synonymous with wish for a democratic change. Indeed, a lot of the online diasporas are often nationalistic, and may well collide on a great many points with the interests of the United States or Europe and their policies for change. Conventional wisdom dictates, according to Kalathil and Boas (2003:151), the belief that “anything with an URL is more sophisticated than, say, a face-to-face meeting with key official” – and that might just not be true.


  • Bohman, J. (2004) ‘Expanding Dialogue: The Internet, Public Sphere and Transnational Democracy’, in P. Shane [ed.] Democracy Online: The Prospects for Political Renewal Though the Internet, New York: Routledge
  • Halld?n, P. (2003) ‘Salafi in Virtual and Physical Space’, in ISIM Newsletter (Leiden), no. 13, p. 38.
  • Kalathil, S. & Boas, T. (2003) Open Networks, Closed Regimes, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Pierret, T. (2005) ‘Internet in a Sectarian Islamic Context’, ISIM Newsletter (Leiden), no. 15, p. 50.
  • Wilson E. (2004) The Information Revolution and Developing Countries, Boston: MIT Press