The Internet and state control in authoritarian regimes: China, Cuba and the counterrevolution

Shanthi Kalathil, Taylor C. Boas


It is widely believed that the Internet poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule. But political science scholarship has provided little support for this conventional wisdom, and a number of case studies from around the world show that authoritarian regimes are finding ways to control and counter the political impact of Internet use. While the long-term political impact of the Internet remains an open question, we argue that these strategies for control may continue to be viable in the short to medium term.
Many authoritarian regimes translate a long and successful history of control over other information and communication technologies into strong control of Internet development within their borders. Potential challenges to the state may arise from Internet use in several areas: the mass public, civil society, the economy, and the international community. Authoritarian states will likely respond to these challenges with a variety of reactive measures: restricting Internet access, filtering content, monitoring online behavior, or even prohibiting Internet use entirely. In addition, such states seek to extend central control through proactive strategies, guiding the development of the medium to promote their own interests and priorities. Through a combination of reactive and proactive strategies, an authoritarian regime can counter the challenge posed by Internet use and even utilize the Internet to extend its reach and authority.
In this paper we illustrate how two authoritarian regimes, China and Cuba, are maintainng control over the Internet's political impact through different combinations of reactive and proactive strategies. These cases illustrate that, contrary to assumptions, different types of authoritarian regimes may be able to control and profit from the Internet. Examining the experiences of these two countries may help to shed light on other authoritarian regimes' strategies for Internet development, as well as help to develop generalizable conclusions about the impact of the Internet on authoritarian rule.

Full Text:



A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.