Why Tyrants Like Twitter

"By unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook," he wrote.

But the primary reason, Rahimi continued, was so authorities could show off their strength as a legitimate power.

"By conceding small amounts of liberty, the regime also hopes to gain approval for its 'progressive' nature," he said.

Morozov said that new media has also made it easier for repressive regimes to identify dissenters. Instead of employing hundreds of people to read published material, rulers can automate the process with computers programmed to search for keywords.

The Beijing-based TRS Information Technology, a search technology and text mining company, helps China control public opinion by using keywords to search for subversive content, the Financial Times reported earlier this year.

A marketing manager for the company told the Financial Times that it was starting to sell services that allowed monitors to track comments and forecast public opinion. He also said police use the technology to focus attention on certain groups of people, such as university student forums.

'Cat and Mouse Thing' for Activists to Stay Ahead

Though there are risks to opening up public spaces online, experts also say that with ongoing awareness of developments in new technology, progress is possible.

During last week's Helsinki Commission hearing, Nathan Freitas, an adjunct professor with the Interactive Telecom Program at New York University and developer of technology for protests, said there are numerous stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists being monitored via Skype, Yahoo!, e-mail and other online tools.

Still, he said that when activists protested for Tibetan independence during the 2008 Olympic games, China's efforts to block coverage didn't stop the protestors from broadcasting their activities. Digital video cameras, handheld computers and live streaming camera phones helped their protests succeed, Freitas said.

"It's a cat and mouse thing, staying one step ahead," he told ABCNews.com. Activists need to stay on top of a government's technical capabilities as well as its overall priorities. And the best use of new media for activists changes from country to country.

For example, given China's ambitious business aspirations, it can't block as much of the Internet as countries with more humble goals, Freitas said.

But a government's grand plans can also provide exploitable opportunities.

Although China may crack down on Skype, e-mail and other communication channels, because it wants to encourage small businesses, Freitas said devices like BlackBerries work well in China.

"The irony of the world is that everyone wants a piece of the Internet commerce cookie? These countries are promoting the people getting computer science degrees, so you're seeing the rapid rise of intelligence and capabilities within the countries themselves," he said. "If you can find the loopholes that tie in technology with commerce, it's kind of a sweet spot."

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