Internet penetration is never correlated with increasing power to dictators, and is often correlated with increased freedom


Philip N Howard wonders if there are any countries that have, on balanced, suffered as a result of the coming of the Internet -- say, because improved networks created so many opportunities for dictators to spy on dissidents that it swamped any free speech/free association benefits that the Internet delivered. So he scatter-plotted PolityIV’s democratization scores from 2002/2011, and cross-referenced them with World Bank/ITU data on internet users. The conclusion: by this method, no country experienced a decline in its overall levels of a democracy as it attained widespread Internet penetration, and almost all many countries experienced a rise in democracy levels that correlated to a rise in Internet penetration.

Are there any countries with high internet diffusion rates, where the regime got more authoritarian? The countries that would satisfy this condition should appear in the top left of the graph. Alas, the only candidates that might satisfy these two conditions are Iran, Fiji, and Venezuela. Over the last decade, the regimes governing these countries have become dramatically more authoritarian. Unfortunately for this claim, their technology diffusion rates are not particularly high.

This was a quick sketch, and much more could be done with this data. Some researchers don’t like the PolityIV scores, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike the internet user numbers. Missing data could be imputed, and there may be more meaningful ways to compare over time. Some countries may have moved in one direction and then changed course, all within the last decade. Some only moved one or two points, and really just became slightly more or less democratic. But I’ve done that work too, without finding the cases Morozov wishes he had.

There are concerning stories of censorship and surveillance coming from many countries. Have the stories added up to dramatic authoritarian tendencies, or do they cancel out the benefits of having more and more civic engagement over digital media? Fancier graphic design might help bring home the punchline. There are still no good examples of countries with rapidly growing internet populations and increasingly authoritarian governments.

Are There Countries Whose Situations Worsened with the Arrival of the Internet?