Dictators these days must resort to ever-trickier ways to prevent the truth of their failings from being made known via digital technology. Just one image in cyber space, such as the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan during Iran's protests, can plant doubts about a regime's claim to power – even among its supporters – and begin to erode its legitimacy.
At times, however, a regime's attempts to block online citizen activists are as desperate as its violent crackdowns are tragic.
Iran, for instance, reportedly used helicopters during the recent postelection protests to spot satellite dishes hidden on rooftops. The regime's thugs snatched cell- phones from protesters to prevent picture taking. And despite spending millions last year on European technology to control communications, the ruling mullahs fumbled in suppressing Twitter messages during the demonstrations.
In China, the Communist Party has ordered all new computers by July 1 to contain software designed to block anything from the Internet that might endanger the regime's "stability." Even though the public reason given for the software is to block pornography, key words embedded in the software (known as Green Dam) include Falun Gong, a banned religious movement, and Charter 08, a pro-democracy group, among other political identifiers.
Like water, information usually finds a way to seep out. So can these regimes win this war on digital dissent?
In many cases, yes. China, which now has the largest number of Internet users in the world, has an army of bureaucrats trained to control Web use. Most users simply go with the flow of censorship in a nation more interested in a rush to riches.
In Iran, which has only 23 million Web users, the government can easily keep a heavy hand on the Internet through a few central computer servers. The result is often a complete shutdown of access.
Still, new technical ways to evade censorship will be invented, as always. In China, Party chief Hu Jin-tao ordered the government last January to "purify the Internet environment" in order to protect party rule. Beijing has seen how quickly the Internet can be used to register complaints, such as during a recent scandal over poisoned milk that killed babies.
Censorship in China and Iran is rarely transparent – unlike attempts by governments in the West to restrain pornography and gambling on the Internet. But in ordering use of the Green Dam software on new PCs, China ran into a buzz saw of opposition from the foreign computer industry as well as the US government. On June 21, the US filed a complaint. While the official reason is restraint of trade, the US also said China would be hindering its own ambitions to become an information-based economy.
These regimes will find it ever more difficult to balance the benefits of the digital age with the capacity to challenge authority through technology. Their rulers are especially worried about their own security forces or top supporters turning against them in a fit of conscience or self-preservation if they are exposed to official atrocities, such as the killing of Neda.
Internet freedom has become the new rallying cry in many countries for those seeking political freedom. The digital tools for revolt against tyranny can be as mighty as the guns used to curb their use.
But not every digital battle for freedom will be won. China may yet get its software filter while Iran has largely suppressed both the protesters and most of their digital links to one another and to the world.
At least, though, the world now knows of this suppression of ideas and actions.