BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Back in 1989, years before the internet infiltrated Iraq and Google got to China, President Ronald Reagan cheerfully predicted that quote, "The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip." Not necessarily, says a recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Shanti Kalathil, co-author of the new book Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, says that authoritarian regimes use a variety of technical and legal tools, from firewalls in China to computer bans in Burma, to control public access to information in the internet age. And it's not just governments that are quick to restrict access, she says. In some nations, citizens are helping shut the door. Shanti, welcome to On the Media!
SHANTI KALATHIL: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: Now there were two very interesting findings in, in Singapore and Saudi Arabia. In Singapore where there's a kind of social compact where the populace accepts a certain amount of authoritarian government in exchange for a very stable way of life, and in Saudi Arabia where conservative social values have actually caused individual citizens to actually volunteer to the government information on sites that have dangerous or subversive material. To what extent does the public actually participate in its own political repression?
SHANTI KALATHIL: Well that, that's a really interesting point. I mean I think that there's often an assumption that if only the public can get access to the internet and to these liberating technologies of information, they'll automatically demand political reform from the government. And what you see, particularly in the case of Singapore, is that that's not necessarily true. You know, in this case the government's really pushed the internet on everybody. They've not only allowed access but they've really used it to modernize their bureaucracy -- to create a lot of government-citizen services that improved the quality of life for their citizens. And in that case what you do see is a lot of popular support for the government that's managed to use technology to their benefit and to the population's benefit. In Saudi Arabia, it's the public that's, that's spearheading some of this censorship effort. They're the ones that don't necessarily want a lot of what might be perceived as immoral Western images penetrating the country. One of the government censors has said that for every 100 unblock requests that they get in, they get something like 500 block requests to the government's censorship site.
BOB GARFIELD:One of the more disturbing observations in your report is that Western companies, including American ones, are selling the software in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that permits the government to, to filter and otherwise censor information on the internet. How do they justify this kind of behavior? Isn't it kind of like selling illegal weaponry to Iraq?
SHANTI KALATHIL: In the private sector I think the general feeling is that some of these governments are just their customers and they don't inquire what they do with the technology once it's been sold. You know a company that sells blocking technology, for instance, can argue that it can be used by schools to block out pornography. But I think that it is a bit of a disconnect, because many of these companies do go out there and sort of paint themselves as these proponents of free speech abroad, but when they're actually operating abroad they don't necessarily live up to that.
BOB GARFIELD:Well the conclusion of your study is that Ronald Reagan may have been speaking too soon in mouthing the conventional wisdom that the internet was going to eventually be the salvation of all free peoples everywhere. But in the end, isn't the history of political action in totalitarian societies that freedom-seeking people eventually harness the tools available to them no matter how much the government is snooping on them, no matter what laws are imposed. I, I'm thinking of the Berlin Wall. I mean there were soldiers in turrets with rifles shooting at people trying to get out, but they couldn't keep information from coming in, and it was the information as much as anything else that eventually sent the wall tumbling down.
SHANTI KALATHIL: Yeah, I think that information can be very powerful. In the case of a, a crisis, for instance, it is possible that the internet may be able to focus public opinion in a certain way and really exacerbate a political crisis. And we've actually seen this happen already with certain domestic incidents in China where a very small, local incident happens. The government tries to cover it up, and because people get on the internet and circulate their version of events, eventually it becomes a national scandal and the government has to respond. But to say that you know it's inevitable that people will rise up and use these tools -- I don't necessarily think that it's inevitable.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Shanti Kalathil, thank you very much!
SHANTI KALATHIL: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD:Shanti Kalathil is an associate in the Information Revolution in World Politics Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She and Taylor C. Boas are the co-authors of the book Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule.