The Net effect

Open your e-mail inbox any day of the week and you'll find half a dozen messages trying to sell you something. Most often it's a product, but sometimes it's an idea - an antiwar pitch, a soothing speech from a life-style guru, a political diatribe.

The Internet, after all, was also supposed to sell democracy.

As Ronald Reagan once predicted, "The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip."

But a new book suggests that this early euphoria about electronically liberating the world is being tempered in practice. "Open Networks, Closed Regimes," by Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas, looks at eight regimes from Cuba to China to Saudi Arabia and finds the Internet's presence alone isn't enough to chip away at authoritarian rule. In fact, if carefully managed, it can reinforce those in power.

In socially conservative Saudi Arabia, for instance, the ruling royals delayed introduction of the Internet until sophisticated, Western-developed censorship software could be used to keep the West at bay. The government then solicited the public's help in selecting sites to be banned - 500 suggestions pour in a day, along with 100 proposals for sites to unblock.

And by using the Internet to trim bureaucracy and deliver services, the ruling elite enhances its perceived legitimacy, the writers say.

At the same time, Islamic fundamentalists have found a fluid forum in which to spread their ideas, which poses a more delicate censoring exercise for the Saudis.

Dictatorships have always kept tight control on the media, the writers point out. Now, they're managing the Internet to add sophistication to their propaganda.

The Net effect, it seems, is a work in progress.

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