A State Run Internet: Developing an Authoritarian Internet Ontology of Control

Posted in The Gnovis Blog


For the better part of the last two decades the rise of the global networked Internet was met with a profound idealism for a media on a scope and scale never before seen.  Arguably, the most enthralling tenet of new media has rested on a set of technological affordances predicated on few barriers for participatory entry and point-to-point lateral communication, a concept which seemed nearly diametrically opposed to traditional gatekeeper mass media model.     For prominent Internet innovators and theorists such as Tim Berners-Lee, John Perry Barlow, Yochai Benkler, Nicholas Negroponte and Lawrence Lessig, the initial properties and principals of the Internet represented a major epistemological break in media, one based on democratic ideals and an empowered public sphere.  In addition, every American president since from Ronald Regan has posited the fall of authoritarian governments as a direct effect of Internet technology(IT) usage by citizens inside repressive regimes.  These predictions appeared all the more prescient when the first social networks and blogs started to become information destinations for millions of users worldwide by the mid-2000s.  For a moment, it seemed as though the visions of egalitarian knowledge sharing could indeed have revolutionary potential the world over.

While it is easy to relate the concepts of open source architecture and net neutrality as logical corollaries for the transformative and liberal possibilities of the Internet in the developed Western world, a vastly different Internet has begun to emerge during the last decade inside authoritarian societies. I argue this provides yet another major turning point in our understanding and conceptualization of the Internet.  No longer must the Internet be seen as a media with a specific set of inherently democratic values, but instead as a broader socially constructed global technology strongly dependent on individual state’s ideological sovereignty.  Simply put, the authoritarian Internet provides a turning point in how we are to understand and conceptualize the Internet as a whole.

Ultimately, I believe the development of IT in the authoritarian world provides a working ontology for understanding how a variegated technology can function and evolve alternatively around the world.  If we can better understand the ontology and power structure of authoritarian Internet control, we can possibly use that information in order to undermine it or at least understand how governments are able to leverage power online.

While the Internet is often associated with a free and open ontology adopted from its genesis and development in research and universities in the United States, the technology has proven be surprisingly malleable in its many global incarnations.  Cyber-optimists and technological determinists argued that information wants to be free and that the Internet’s inherent powers possess revolutionary capabilities in authoritarian societies. However, the coexistence of an authoritative government and the Internet does not presuppose that the citizen has gained enough agency to topple the social and political will of their government. Thus, I believe it is instructive to frame the ontology of the Internet through a social construction of technology (SCOT) lens as opposed to a deterministic or a Western progressive idealist model.  By examining the authoritarian Internet, following Pinch and Bijker’s SCOT methodology (integrated from the Empirical Programme of Relativism) I believe we can begin to understand the technology as politically ambiguous, primarily institutional and effectively coercive.

If the Internet has one inherent value in the globalized, networked world it is that the architecture allows for a great degree of interpretative flexibility than once thought.  Just as Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch attributed the changes in bicycle technologies to different social groups shaping the tool based on their wants, we can understand the Internet as a communication technology that offers design solutions to any number of disparate problems.  These uses the technology affords depend greatly on how the society decides to interpret the technology.  Analyzing interpretive flexibility is the first stage of the SCOT methodology.  For Western liberal democracies who value freedom of speech and free market capitalism in their respective legislative codes, this can mean an Internet that evolves with net neutrality as a defining principle.  However, for countries with authoritarian or totalitarian regimes political and cultural censorship is a core values in legislation and the development of the Internet in these nations have evolved in accordance with these regimes.

Interpretive flexibility can be used to highlight how the history of Internet policy in Iran has changed dramatically in 10 years.  When the Iranian government first encountered the Internet it was left relatively open in order to align with the Shia’s ideology of scientific progress and the spread of Islam.  After the regime found the Internet to be too socially pluralistic, the country moved strategically to begin its extensive filtering policies and regulations on speech.  Similarly, Internet development in China developed much differently than Internet in the United States for example.  China saw the Internet as a chance to strengthen and empower the government and built an infrastructure that was suited to bureaucratic codes, surveillance, and data base gathering.  The Internet afforded China a chance to organize their government, monitor their own people, and compete in the global financial marketplace.  These alternative constructions and evolutions of a technology that many have viewed of as medium with a democratic predilection suggests that the Internet offers much more potential for meaning to be constructed by authoritarian governments than perhaps originally thought.

The second stage of the SCOT methodology centers around the concept of closure.  One type of closure mechanism that defines this stage is the SCOT “redefinition of the problem.”  It posits that design conflicts can often be seen as solutions to a new problem, often providing solutions that override the original problem.  Consider how the Russian government adapted to the robust blogosphere that developed in the 2000s.  While the concept of uncensored peer-to-peer communication might be seen as a threat in an authoritarian regime, the Kremlin’s astroturfing in the blogosphere provided a solution to another problem.  Namely by filling the Russian political blogosphere with pro-Russian mascots, the country was able to increase its own legitimacy and project an artificially inflated support to the rest of the country and world.  We see this explicitly in the example of bloggers who argued against Western portrayals of the South Ossetian War and used cyber-warfare to spin the debate into a deeply ambiguous and inauthentic online realm.  The redefinition of the problem allows for a temporary solution or closure in the issue of whether or not to overtly censor the Russian blogosphere.    A temporary closure through a redefinition of the problem shows that the ontology of the Internet is subject to a social construction of technology theory that allows for a unique set of principles that define the Internet in authoritarian countries.

Indeed, there is not one Internet, but many Internets dependent on a social construction of technology which is driven almost entirely by the state in many authoritarian societies.  The sociopolitical ambience in fact will define the technological artifact as shown in the third and final stage of the SCOT methodology.  Here, I believe the question is really made up of which social groups are given the authority to determine the design solutions.  And I believe it is here that we can really begin to see the Internet as being shaped according to either the government, private sector, or civil society, but ultimately subservient to the rule of law in the country.  As Daniel Drezner argues, “It would seem, therefore, that the Internet merely reinforces the pre-existing dynamics between state and non-state actors.  In societies that value liberal norms – democracies-the Internet clearly empowers non-state actors to influence the government.  In arenas where liberal norms are not widely accepted – interstate negotiations and totalitarian governments – the Internet has no appreciable effect.”

Thus, it is the government in authoritarian societies, and not the technology as such, that ultimately define how the technology is used in the mainstream society.  This is demonstrated in the technical censorship of the Iranian Internet, the centralization of the Chinese Internet and the hacker nationalism of the Russian Internet.   Finally, It is my sincere hope that these historically framed social constructions of the Internet in the authoritarian world provide a working ontology for understanding how exactly the state is able to leverage power and control through the medium.  This historical SCOT analysis upholds and aligns nicely with my three theoretical assumptions about the ontology of power through the Internet in authoritarian countries.  First, I believe it is precisely because the Internet does not inherently favor any particular political ideology, authoritarian governments are inclined to initially engage with the technology.  Second, I argue the contemporary authoritarian state has the technology, resources, and institutional support to remain the primary motivating actor in a new media environment.  This architectural support gives the government the means to move from engagement to control.  Finally, and most disturbingly, I understand the Internet is being used in authoritarian society as an effective tool of coercion and dominance that serves to reinforce and legitimize the state’s ideological goals.  This emphasis on manipulation and rule is seen as the shift in government actions online from control towards punishment.  (Figure One)

By further examining these theories and processes of control that make up the ontology of the authoritarian Internet, it is my hope that we can continue to develop new tools for subverting these principals and one day reach a global anti-authoritarian Internet dream which has been deferred for now.