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Can information technology transform authoritarian regimes?

SMS messaging, blogging, Twitter, and other new media platforms are tools frequently employed by citizens in authoritarian regimes to share information, voice alternative opinions, and circumvent censorship. Scholars and activists have described them

 "We have brought together an outstanding and diverse group of people on a theme that is of growing interest to scholars, activists, and policymakers around the world."
-Larry Diamond

as "liberation technologies," for their potential to advance freedom in the face of oppression. During periods of election-related political unrest in Iran, Kenya, and Moldova, these tools have been used to challenge electoral fraud, mobilize protest, and fill the gap in credible, independent information. In closed societies like China, the Internet has provided a platform for free speech and a lifeline to the outside world (for those able to access it). Not surprisingly, the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to challenge authoritarian regimes and undermine their monopoly on information has recently become a popular topic in the field of democracy studies.

This subject drew over 35 activists, scholars, and practitioners from around the world to Stanford University on October 11-12, 2010 to share their research and discuss strategies to utilize liberation technologies to promote democratic change in authoritarian regimes. Co-sponsored by the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), this was the inaugural conference for the Program on Liberation Technology, which was launched in 2009 to examine how ICT is being used to defend human rights, deepen democracy, improve governance, empower small producers, and enhance economic development. In his welcoming address, CDDRL Director Larry Diamond thanked Steve Kahng, a technology entrepreneur, for his generous support of the conference, along with the Bradley Foundation and Google Inc. for their broader support of the Liberation Technology Program. Diamond highlighted the timeliness of this subject, "We have brought together an outstanding and diverse group of people on a theme that is of growing interest to scholars, activists, and policymakers around the world." The conference papers are being edited for publication in a Journal of Democracy book volume, to be published in the Fall of 2011.

Panelists included representatives from Google, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and Freedom House, along with academics from Stanford, New York University, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto. They were joined by democracy activists pioneering new ICT tools and approaches in Iran, China, the Arab World, North Korea, and Cuba. They provided original voice and perspective to the challenges and

Larry and Nicole
Nicole Wong, Google, Inc.
Larry Diamond, Stanford University
opportunities facing this emerging field. Panels allowed for both a theoretical and practical analysis of three different themes-how liberation technology is used by activists, censored by authoritarian states, and regulated by the international community. One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner where Google's Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Nicole Wong, addressed the challenges confronting Internet freedom and Google's commitment to this principle.

Conference papers explored case studies of Ushahidi, the crowdsoucing tool that maps social activity in real time; evasion techniques employed by Chinese activists to circumvent the "Great Fire Wall;" and the Internet's use as a vehicle for social mobilization during the Iranian Presidential election in 2009. Participants from North Korea and Cuba discussed the limitations of technology in their closed societies, where computers and the Internet have only recently been introduced but are stoking the flames of social activism. 

Methods used to censor, monitor, and punish the use of ICT were discussed by panelists who introduced the techniques employed by authoritarian regimes to stifle Internet freedoms.  Rebecca MacKinnon explored China's "Networked Authoritarianism," how China is using the Internet (including private companies) to monitor and censor content and control flows of information. Other papers examined the punitive measures employed by regimes to exercise control over Internet users and the international bodies established to set norms and standards that govern Internet policy and security.

NED President Carl Gershman discussed the backlash against Internet freedom (and civil society more broadly), as authoritarian regimes have developed sophisticated methods to monitor online activity, targeting civil society activists worldwide. Representatives from Russia and Iran discussed their government's strategic use of propaganda campaigns to combat online information sharing and the role private corporations, such as Nokia and Ericcson, play to stifle freedom of expression through the sale of tracking and filtering technology.  

Another session highlighted the new software developed to circumvent online censorship, such as the Al-Kasir web-based service that allows users to access blocked websites featuring political news and blogs. This has expanded access to 'dissident websites' in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen. Nathan Freitas, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, presented the new security tools for cellular phones he has developed to black out the faces of protesters recorded on cell phone cameras. 

The shortcomings of these short-term fixes prompted a larger discussion of how to regulate the ungoverned realm of cyberspace. Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, discussed the challenges confronting US Internet policy when competing political and commercial interests may take precedence over Internet freedom. Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communications at Google Inc., spoke about the role of the private sector in this space, citing Google's decision to pull their operations out of China. Boorstin emphasized that private companies cannot cause major shifts in policy as evidenced by the fact that no firms followed Google's example of ending operations in China.

Participants also considered concrete recommendations to transform ideas into action. Several noted that liberation technologists often work in isolation and would benefit tremendously from a practitioner's network to share information, offer advice, and discuss current challenges. This informal group can consolidate its expertise to more effectively defend their network and servers against the frequent attacks that are increasing in scale and intensity.  The conference concluded by suggesting that Stanford University has a role to play in hosting future discussions that focus on building this emergent institution to support liberation technologists.

This event unearthed both the opportunities and challenges of liberation technology to defend democratic norms and advance freedoms where they are threatened the most. Bringing together this diverse group introduced innovative models, generated new ideas, and provided evidence of the transformative potential of liberation technology.