A proper government fights the problems faced by the people, while a government of idiots fights the people themselves. The French Revolution, February Revolution, as well as many independence wars fought against colonial overlords — all of them started because of the governments ruling over people in the way that was easier for them, but not for the people. The slow-paced fight between the governing and governed is still present in many countries where a lack of proper democracy is observed.
Even when a government gets full control over its people, its control cannot last forever. Technological progress always makes sure that the ordinary human’s life gets better. However, progress becomes a headache for the government, especially for authoritarian countries. They see progress as a source of unknown danger. It is something they do not know and thus cannot control. In the absolute ruler’s scariest nightmare, this “something” becomes the reason they lose their power. The Ottoman Empire banned the printing press, fearing that the Christian minorities would spread information without the knowledge of the government. Such was the case with the Austria-Hungarian and the Russian Empires, whose emperors opposed industrialization, particularly the development of railroads. They saw the latter as a source of unwanted social mobility, which could “encourage unnecessary travel from place to place”, as Georg von Kankrin, the Russian financial minister at the time, expressed his concerns to Tsar Nicholas I. Kankrin’s fears came true: Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks arrived to Petrograd on a train, thus starting the October Revolution.
While railroads and factories used to scare absolutist monarchs, the Internet is the trouble for authoritarian leaders today. Fearing it will severely limit their power, or even deprive them of it, these elites try to control the Web. They have a proper reason to do so. The Arab Spring would not have happened without social media, which allowed protesters to efficiently coordinate their actions and spread information across the world. Refusing to share the fate of the dethroned leaders of Arab countries, other authoritarian rulers have started tightening their control over the Internet.
China’s Communist Party established the Great Chinese Firewall, which blocks a majority of Western websites and censors local social networks. In these conditions, China allowed the emergence of local alternatives to popular social networks and messengers, such as Baidu and WeChat. These services, unlike their Western counterparts, have no choice but to comply with the “requests” of the Communist Party on monitoring data.
North Korea’s Internet is actually the Intranet: only a few hundred state officials are able to visit only the local websites. Even though it is said that members of the party’s elite have access to the global Internet, the rest of the population do not have access to computers at all. By preventing access to the Web, the North Korean government ensures it will stay in power.
Even in less authoritarian countries such as Russia and Turkey, signs of increasing control over the Internet are obvious. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Internet control agency, is notorious for excessive banning. The agency recently banned Telegram, a messenger app known for extreme privacy and security, for refusing to share encryption keys with the intelligence services. Last year, Turkey banned Wikipedia for no apparent reason, causing a massive reaction among the population. During the 2016 purges after the failed coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, four news agencies, 15 magazines, and 45 newspapers along with their websites were shut down. Websites like Twitter and YouTube have been banned in Turkey several times, too.
A Soviet political joke goes that if both the US and the USSR guarantee the freedom of speech, America also guarantees the freedom after the speech. Banning websites, prohibiting VPNs, and jailing people for visiting unwanted websites are not the way to deal with the Internet. One could say that China, Russia, and others should guarantee freedom for Internet users. Speaking realistically, it is not possible due to the nature of those governments. Weakening the control over the Web will cause a domino effect. Public outrage on social media would lead to cooperation between the citizens, or even protests on the streets, which is something these governments do not want.
There is no sense in waiting for the Internet to suddenly become free in authoritarian countries. To get freedom online, the citizens need to protect their freedoms in real life. But it will need a serious political drift towards democracy, which is not going to happen anytime soon.