Keeping Out the Internet?
First Monday

Keeping Out the Internet? Non-Democratic Legitimacy and Access to the Web by Geoffry L. Taubman

Abstract
Keeping Out the Internet? Non-Democratic Legitimacy and Access to the Web by Geoffry L. Taubman
Non-democratic and democratic regimes alike have been attracted to the promise of the global information superhighway. However, the Internet contains a number of features which are potentially damaging to the legitimacy of incumbent non-democratic governments. The scope and ease of obtaining information on the World Wide Web provides the means for undermining one of the central pillars of non-democratic rule: centralized control over the domestic distribution of information and ideas. Furthermore, the communication capabilities available to Internet users assists in the creation of autonomous "public spaces" which can threaten the political preeminence of non-democratic authorities.

Unfortunately for skittish regimes, designing solutions to the make cyberspace "safe" for public use in order to preempt internal challenges to state authorities are hampered by the fact that the features which cause problems for non-democratic rulers are the same attributes which make the technology so attractive. I will examine several countries' history with the Internet, with particular attention paid to China, to illustrate the attractions of the Internet and the lengths to which officials have gone to make this technology politically reliable.

Contents

The Internet and Ideational Demand and Supply
Ideational Competition and Non-Democratic Rule
Types of Legitimation and Access to the Internet
Cases
Conclusion

 


 

The Internet is a powerful and vital economic, cultural and political resource, and non-democratic and democratic regimes alike have been attracted by the promise of the global information superhighway. The Internet may be as a critical tool for obtaining national wealth and power in the Information Age, but as an early observer of this technology has noted, "Access to alternate forms of information and, most importantly, the power to reach others with your own alternatives to the official view of events are, by their nature, political phenomena ... Undeniably, cyberspace has great subversive potential" (Swett, 1995).

Rulers in political systems of all stripes have identified negative consequences associated with this technology and medium (e.g., cyberspace pornography) but non-democratic regimes are particularly burdened with concerns about the internal political consequences resulting from unfettered domestic access to the World Wide Web and e-mail (Sussman, 2000; "The Internet in the Mideast and North Africa," 1999). The ease in obtaining a broader range of ideologies and information on the Web as well as the communication capabilities available to users provide the means for undermining the pillars of non-democratic rule. Almost without exception, non-democratic leaders have initiated concerted efforts to counteract the ideational consequences of this new medium.

Yet non-democracies have not acted in a uniform fashion towards this dual threat and opportunity. While almost no nations are fully delinked from the Internet, some of these leaderships have adopted a rigorous strategy that strictly limits access to a small number of individuals, usually associated with the ruling party, who then enjoy relatively open access to Web sites and e-mail. However, despite the risks associated with joining the global computer network, there also exists a number of non-democratic regimes who have encouraged broad access to the Internet while simultaneously devoting significant resources towards creating a tame, politically unthreatening version of cyberspace for the populace to log onto.

What accounts for variations in the treatment of the Internet by non-democratic regimes? I will argue that differences in legitimation strategies by non-democratic regimes - particularly whether they rely upon economic or ideological measures to justify their continued incumbency - account for the willingness, or lack thereof, by these rulers to make the Internet accessible to the public and the degree of freedom with which local surfers can investigate cyberspace.

To highlight the different strategies which non-democracies have employed, I will consider the efforts of two countries, China and Cuba, to demonstrate the different strategies, expected benefits and potential risks which have been entailed by the leadership by their Internet policies. The Chinese Communist Party, which tied its legitimation after the death of Mao to economic performance measures by way of the integrationist "Open Door" program, has vigorously promoted the expansion of the Internet into the country even while raising the risk of ideological "contamination" from abroad. On the other hand, reflecting a keener interest in maintaining greater control over the local supply of ideologies and information, Cuba, whose Communist leadership continues to validate its four-decade hold on power in terms of socialist and nationalist rhetoric, has minimized the presence of the Internet. Shielding the populace from linking to the global computer network may limit the country's economic possibilities but it also limits the possibility that Cubans will come into contact with viewpoints and norms which could provoke opposition to the Castro regime.

 

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The Internet and Ideational Demand and Supply

The Internet is well-designed for political actors to utilize for advancing changes in the domestic arena, given the core features of the Internet. One of the attractions of the Internet is the vast and ever-growing quantity of information located on the global computer network. A survey conducted in 2002 determined that there were more than 38 million Web sites on the Internet - a substantial increase from 1.6 million sites in 1997 and a mere 10,000 sites in 1994. Additionally, more than two billion Web pages could be found on the Internet (Google, 2002; Netcraft, 2002). And not only does a dizzying amount of content exist in cyberspace but users have easy passage to explore a realm where the credo is variety, openness and transparency. Numerous countries have tied their economic development programs to the Internet because of the availability of this immense amount of online data that can be mined [1].

In addition to functioning as a repository of ideologies, images and information, the Internet possesses communication capabilities which permit interactions between modem-equipped users by way of e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging. Additionally, Internet users experience no geographic barriers or cost differential whether conversing with someone located in the next cubicle, across the country or halfway across the globe. These qualities - the amount of content which can be accessed, the ease in disseminating that content and the limitless interpersonal communication capabilities - facilitate exposure to a much wider array of ideologies and information into the domestic arena.

To discern how ideational factors affect government attitudes and actions towards the Internet, we must begin by identifying the conditions where new ideas are likely to be more influential and guide efforts to foster internal change. Domestic exposure to an expanded range of ideologies, information and images in itself does not mean that political actors will be provoked to demand changes to the policies or policy-makers which guide the economic, political and social practices of the nation. Novel ideas will receive greater consideration from ruling and/or non-ruling actors in situations where perceptions of the failure of existing policies are rife.

How are those judgments of failure derived? They often stem from knowledge of comparisons - assessments of "better" or "worse" - composed by an observer of one's political, economic and social lifestyles versus someone else's that are powerful spurs to action against the existing state of affairs. As Lawrence Stone observes, "Human satisfaction is related not to existing conditions but to the condition of a social group against which the individual measures his situation" [2]. Awareness and resentment of relative deficiencies of material goods or political freedoms, and so forth, contrasted with that of counterparts living under different administrations, eras or countries has generated interest into why these failings exist. Ultimately, feelings of relative deprivation have fueled the anger and grievances which nurtures domestic upheaval (Urry, 1973). The Internet, which is bursting with sites containing data and observations of socioeconomic and sociopolitical conditions across the globe, greatly assists agents in efforts to formulate thought-provoking comparisons.

Assessments of failure will lead to a breakdown of domestic consenses about the belief systems and shared values upon which those discredited policies are founded, which provides the impetus for the evaluation by agents of other, "untainted" ideas (Kingdon, 1995; Walker, 1981; Goldstein, 1993). Thus, perceptions of failure feed the demand for ideas by agents. As ideational demand increases, so does the likelihood that agents will search for alternatives to existing intersubjective understandings. In other words, if it's broke, fix it, with the latter "it" referring to the norms and worldviews underlying those flawed programs. And once actors develop reasons to think in "novel terms" [3] and identify taken-for-granted norms and practices which have perpetuated unfavorable outcomes, actors will then consider, debate and establish new intersubjective understandings, which will eventually be translated into different, "better" policies.

The manifestation of heightened domestic interest in new ideas, though, does not address whether that demand is being satisfied nor imply that the breadth of ideational supply is uniform across state borders. The size of that domestic supply is of considerable importance since the larger the ideational supply which can be examined by agents, the greater likelihood that political entrepreneurs will become familiar with alternative ideologies and norms that could form the basis of new domestic policies and practices. Domestic groups armed with powerful alternative ideational frameworks will be more able to mobilize support and eventually force policy shifts and even leadership changes to take place and the Internet is suffused with content, easily disseminated, which draws attention to optional pathways to the status quo (Przeworski, 1991; Stepan, 1990).

The conventional wisdom maintains that state and society benefit from the fullest exposure to an extensive range of information, perspectives and belief systems and that periodic reassessments by actors of the guiding normative principles of the nation are necessary for its renewal and revitalization. John Stuart Mill [4] has vigorously articulated this perspective, commenting that, "There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinion and practices gradually yield to fact and argument but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it."

In a richer ideational setting, it is presumed, more information is obtainable to evaluate fairly claims of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of present-day policies. Arguments can be investigated more closely with logical contradictions disclosed. Myths, under the harsh light of public scrutiny, can be effectively discredited by revealing factual inaccuracies (Snyder and Ballentine, 1996). Scholars and philosophers investigating the relationship between ideas and domestic change generally concur with Mill's assessment of the desirability of a competition of beliefs and worldviews in the domestic arena.

 

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Ideational Competition and Non-Democratic Rule

However, Mill's conditions for evaluating the effectiveness of present-day policies and scrutinizing myths and arguments have not always been met and unhindered competition in the "marketplace of ideas" is not guaranteed to occur as illustrated by analyses which focus on domestic structure. These explanations center upon the role which domestic institutions - embodying administrative agencies, laws, norms and operating procedures - play in establishing the parameters of domestic ideational competition. Within a given set of rules and bureaucratic constraints, different actors (e.g., policymakers, epistemic communities, non-governmental organizations) of domestic and foreign origin are identified, who evaluate and debate those ideas and translate them into policy (Goldstein and Keohane, 1993; Yee, 1996; Evangelista, 1995).

Yet as Thomas Risse (1994) succinctly notes, ideas do not flow freely. Particular arrangements of political and societal institutions are less amenable to advancing ideational flows in the polity by impeding access to novel ideas and information. Domestic structure can discourage or prevent actors from launching challenges against the prevailing orthodoxy while governing norms may sharply delimit the scope and diversity of public discourse and the discussions of alternatives to the existing order (Risse-Kappen, 1995). Political systems differ in the latitude granted to the public to reconsider the intersubjective underpinnings of the status quo as well as in their ability to transmit novel ideas and countervailing information to well-placed political and societal elites and/or the general public.

Democratic political systems encourage or tolerate heterodoxy and allow individuals to explore, test and operationalize of a wide range of ideas, including those which modify or reverse current policies, foster a climate in which governments can survive and even thrive in the midst vigorous ideational competition. The losing side in these contests, at worst, may lose influence and status but retain the ability to remain in the debate and subject the winning side to its own critiques, which may eventually initiate a new round of change and leadership turnover. The United States' political system, premised upon such tenets, can broadly be characterized by flexible and relatively free-wheeling debates which have repeatedly occurred throughout the past two centuries, under markedly different administrations and sociopolitical settings.

In non-democratic settings, however, governments who have created or taken over institutions designed to sharply delimit access and inflows of a broader array of ideas are ill-equipped to embrace the emergence of ideational pluralism in the domestic arena. In these polities, ruling elites are usually not amenable towards allowing the citizenry to independently "express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state and hold state officials accountable" with some leaderships perceiving any challenges to ruling orthodoxy as a mortal threat [5]. The legitimacy of non-democratic rulers is grounded in their conviction that they best understand the needs and circumstances of the nation and, therefore, represent the only agents who can effectively govern, requiring no tangible or autonomous forms of public expression of their continued incumbency.

Crucial to the legitimacy of a social system, as David Lane [6] wrote, "is the extent to which the elites remain confident in their exercise of power and maintain the myths enshrined in its ideological charter." Ruling elites who have long operated in political structures which have suppressed ideational competition and forbidden dissent are generally unwilling or unable to countenance any public expression of resistance. The loss of this elite confidence plus a shattering of faith in the underpinnings of the regime's ideological charter are critical ingredients for the emergence of a "legitimacy crisis" which will erode widespread acquiescence towards the continued rule of the leadership.

Nonconformity is neither desired nor eagerly sought by most non-democratic leaderships, who would prefer to see such heretical thinking banished from the domestic arena and, unlike democratically-elected rulers, have responded by actively manipulating the degree of ideational demand and supply. In particular, they have pursued strategies designed to shield the population from ideologies and information which could engender active opposition to their rule. As noted previously, the demand for ideas is stoked by knowledge of failure, which leads agents to reevaluate the norms and values underlying the existing order in response to some recognition, driven by objective or subjective factors, that something is "wrong" with the status quo. Consequently, the enthusiasm exhibited by non-democratic ruling elites towards the Internet should dissipate after reflecting upon the political impact stemming from decreased state control over the domestic supply and dissemination of ideologies and information that expanded access to this technology can foster.

The Internet, as previously noted, not only expands to an almost exponential degree the amount of ideational material accessible to technologically equipped individuals but also assists in the distribution of those ideas, information and images to a larger national and international audience by way of e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging [7]. The subversive potential of the Internet stems in part from the undeniable fact that the Internet contains more than scientific and business data but it is also a global repository of banned texts, a forum for wide-ranging political discussions with unlike thinkers and a vast source of information, ideologies and images accessible to any user [8].

When it becomes commonplace for the citizens of a particular state to have access to a greatly expanded quantity of data, facts and perspectives, governments will face greater difficulties in maintaining their hegemony over the distribution of information and ideologies in the domestic arena. Some countries, such as the United States, Japan and most European nations, which embrace or are at least tolerant of ideational competition and dissent, have followed policies of integration. Subsequently, state authorities in these polities have encouraged access to the Web and logged-on individuals face few official barriers (though some exist) on the content which they can survey [9].

However, most non-democratic governments, given their difficulties with managing pluralism, engage in considerably broader efforts to regulate who can gain access to cyberspace and what content can be legally viewed in contrast to their democratic counterparts. Societies governed by non-democratic regimes generally face greater hurdles compared to those living in democratic countries in terms of the freedoms granted to surf and chat. Rankings by Freedom House in 2001 capture this relationship, as nearly every one of the eighteen countries ranked "most restrictive" in terms of their Internet policies also receive "not free" scores in terms of political and civil rights [10].

 

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Types of Legitimation and Access to the Internet

Non-democratic rulers have invariably imposed restrictions on access to the World Wide Web within their borders, yet they have not pursued identical strategies for managing the Internet. Notably, a sizeable number of these regimes have not implemented what should be the "safest" strategy, that is to curb overall access to the World Wide Web [11]. If individuals are unable to gain access to connect with cyberspace, the government is in a much stronger position to ensure that provocative online content does not enter into the local "marketplace of ideas."

Instead, they have focused upon reducing exposure to undesirable sources of ideologies and information available on the Internet but without blocking wholesale access into cyberspace. In fact, some non-democracies have made it easier for the citizenry to log onto the Internet even while simultaneously regulating what content can be created, viewed and disseminated. These state-imposed barriers - including the establishment of site bans, the installation of filter software on Internet service providers and the promulgation of criminal penalties in order to encourage self-censorship - are designed to create an accessible and politically-reliable cyberspace, devoid of stimulating news and norms which could provoke a complacent populace.

What accounts for the variations in policy towards the Internet? In particular, why would governments who are wary of ideational competition provide the populace with the means to come into contact with a much broader range of ideologies and information which can be found on the content-rich realm of the cyberspace? The willingness to either embrace the Internet, with reservations, or shun the Web more thoroughly stems from evaluations by leadership of the strengths and weaknesses of their legitimation.

Ian Hurd [12] wrote that "legitimacy as a device of social control has long-run efficiency advantages over coercion in reducing some kinds of enforcement costs" and its absence should be detrimental to maintaining incumbency. Without "a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions," rulers gain compliance from the populace by the use of coercion and the fear of retribution [13]. The greater the lack of deference or acquiescence displayed by the public, the costlier it becomes for ruling elites to remain in power since leaders will have to devote more resources and energy towards asserting domestic control and enforcement.

To understand how "acquiescence motivated by subjective agreement with given norms and values" [14] can erode, we must identify whether incumbent officials perceive their legitimacy as grounded in economic or ideological rationales. Moreover, since the Internet is both a pivotal instrument in modern economies and a potent medium and mechanism for disseminating norms and beliefs, government policies which affect the domestic degree of access to the Web will impact upon their long-term prospects for political survival.

Governments whose justification for continued rule is based upon exclusivist ideological mandates are generally less tolerant of dissent to ruling norms and values. Juan Linz [15] observes that leaders who derive their "sense of mission, their legitimation" from a commitment to some holistic conception of man and society face significant political problems when they lose "full control over the formulation or interpretation of the ideological heritage or content" in the polity. Lacking that control, ruling elites have feared their vulnerability to opposition movements galvanized by a different and alluring set of beliefs and norms. Once political entrepreneurs become cognizant of the existence and feasibility of a broader supply of alternative political and social models, they will drawn upon those ideas to guide their own efforts to foster changes (O'Donnell and Schmitter, 1986; Przeworski, 1991).

However, discredited practices and leaders are less likely to be replaced with something "better" if they are unaware of options to the status quo. In order to create an artificially reduced supply, concerned ruling elites have responded by deliberately raising the costs of access to alternatives to the norms and belief systems which can shape policies and practices. In the absence of a coalescing counter-ideology, Adam Przeworski [16] contends that even discredited regimes will stay in power until "some alternative is organized in such a way as to present a real choice for isolated individuals."

Thus, the risks associated with exposure in the polity to an expanded range of norms and data outweigh the economic benefits associated with becoming more wired and instead favor strategies entailing limited connectivity. While governing elites in these lands are certainly not interested in depressing living standards or stymieing innovation, their authority derives from maintaining a rigid and unchallenged interpretation of ruler norms and justifications. Their continued incumbency requires the retention of rigorous limits upon the scope of political dialogue and the Internet is a technology well-equipped to undermine those limits. To minimize the absolute size of the domestic audience, a limited number of entry points to the Internet are created, with few public locations (like schools and government offices), Internet cafés, and private homes wired for access.

However, while eschewing the creation of a large online public, state authorities will generally permit a trusted minority with access to the realm of cyberspace, whether to advance efforts at influencing foreign audiences, facilitate domestic research or satisfy some other goal which involves limited involvement with the general public [17]. Of course, this strategy is not without costs as well, most notably in the opportunities for economic and intellectual advancement which are foregone due to a lack of access to this global computer network.

Yet some non-democratic leaderships have calculated that their incumbency depends upon possessing those material benefits which should ideally result from the efficiencies and economic opportunities associated with the Internet. In other words, rulers who have pinned their political survival on performance legitimacy measures cannot afford to be without this vital, risky technology. Domestic perceptions of economic distress have proven to be quite corrosive to the authority of regimes as traditional rationales for maintaining incumbency without public accountability have been eroded by the pervasiveness of democratic norms since the second world war (Huntington, 1991; O'Donnell, 1986; Waller, 1993).

The Internet, besides acting as an economic catalyst, has a bearing on a regime's performance legitimacy in a second fashion by facilitating the formulation of socioeconomic comparisons which assist in judgments of failure, which increases the demand for new ideas which challenge the status quo. Socioeconomic and sociopolitical comparisons have often drawn upon foreign sources of information and opinion and Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink [18] noted that "increasingly, citizens make judgments about whether their government is better than alternatives (in the international and regional arena) and by seeing what other people and countries say about their country." Similarly, Liah Greenfeld (1992) and Mark Katz (1999) explicitly linked perceptions that one's nation is "falling behind" other nations to domestic upheaval, leadership turnover and the adoption of militant foreign policies. Thus, the foundation of a government's legitimacy can be shaken by greater domestic awareness of unflattering socioeconomic comparisons.

For leaderships characterized by the need to buttress their performance legitimacy will result in state-sanctioned surfing. Recognizing that the Internet is an irreplaceable tool necessary to craft a competitive economy and technologically-literature populace, incumbent officials will act to facilitate public access onto this global computer network. However, they are also cognizant that there exists an almost limitless supply of provocative material along with "useful" content in cyberspace. So while these non-democratic regimes support the growth of Internet usage, they simultaneously initiate an expanding range of tactics to control what sites are viewed and discussed by individuals.

A significant consequence of this strategy, though, is that the often-exponential growth in the number of people who are logging online and the equally rapid growth in content sites and chat rooms may overwhelm regime efforts to keep cyberspace under control. Furthermore, even if the embrace of the Internet generates more absolute economic gains for non-democratic rulers dependent upon performance legitimacy, widespread access to the Web also increases contact with accounts of life beyond their borders not available in the official media, which may not wish to draw attention to superior lifestyles in lands run under different political principles. Thus, the Internet facilitates the ability to contrast local and foreign conditions and negative evaluations can shed a harsh light upon the tenets and norms which non-democratic leaderships have utilized to justify their policies and their incumbency. Nonetheless, leaders have assumed the risks of ideational pluralism in the polity which expanding Internet access can facilitate in the course of crafting a modern economy compatible with the demands of the Information Age.

 

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Cases

In the following section, I will examine how the economic or ideological basis of an incumbent regime's legitimizing strategy shapes the Internet policies of non-democratic leaderships as well as the differences which emerge in their treatment of this tool and medium. I will begin by exploring the state-sanctioned surfing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instituted, as they have tried to balance their needs to widely diffuse the technology into the country while trying to prevent an ever-growing local audience from becoming exposed to a broader and potentially subversive range of norms and ideas. Contrasted to the seemingly paradoxical treatment of the Internet of the CCP will be the efforts of Fidel Castro's regime, which has largely minimized its involvement in the global computer network. The Internet, while not completely absent in Cuba, is largely inaccessible to most of the populace as the Cuban Communist Party has accepted the tradeoff between the potential economic benefits lost by limiting the modernization of the country's economy in return for ensuring greater control over the local marketplace of ideas and domestic political dialogue.

State-Sanctioned Surfing in China

China linked up to the Internet in 1994 as government officials eagerly expected that their investment in computers, modems and high-speed connections would permit the country "to share information freely and enable the country to fully join in the worldwide sharing of information and high technology" ("Global Computer Network Set Up," 1994; "Beijing To Build Education 'Information Highway,'" 1994). By advancing an "information revolution" which would " ...help China skip over some of the stages which have been experienced by other developing countries," the ruling Chinese Communist Party hoped that the economic modernization and improving socioeconomic living standards generated by the hugely successful "Open Door" market-oriented reforms would continue [19]. Consequently, they enthusiastically funded the rapid expansion of the Internet into China, investing considerable resources into linking a growing number of domestic educational institutions, urban centers and scientific establishments into this global computer network ("CAS Institute, Other Units Hold Internet Seminar," 1994; "Academic Institutions Form Link With Internet," 1994; "Internet to Officially Open to Public in April," 1995).

The push by Deng Xiaoping and his successors to integrate China into the global economy had stemmed from his plan to address abundance of pressing economic and political problems which the post-Mao CCP faced. They were aware that as a consequence of the disruptive policies of the late Mao period and the "leftist clique" which ruled - particularly the legacy of the Cultural Revolution - the standing of the ruling Communist Party, along with the beliefs and worldviews associated with the incumbents, had been damaged (MacFarquhar, 1997; Teiwes, 1984).

In other words, if the reforms worked as expected, the ideological basis for their dictatorship would be downplayed while the post-Mao leadership would retain the acquiescence of the populace due to their improved socioeconomic circumstances, even though they were premised upon notably non-socialist principles. Thus, the classic party line which called for protracted class struggle was officially exchanged for one promoting the "Four Modernizations" with the attainment of economic goals now representing success or failure of the CCP [20]. The fortunes of the Party were thus tied to performance legitimacy measures, which necessitated an acceptance, sometimes grudgingly, of policies which fostered greater openness to the outside world, which subsequently entailed domestic political risks as well [21].

The nonchalance initially exhibited by Deng Xiaoping's government towards the expansion of Internet into Chinese society dissipated by mid-1995 as the CCP began to ponder more deeply the internal political consequences of introducing this novel "window to the world" into the hands of more and more of the population. Though it was not known exactly which sites were being visited by the growing Internet population in China, the CCP was increasingly concerned about how public exposure to a broader range of online viewpoints and information sources - which often diverged from official media accounts - could undermine state-sanctioned rationales for ruling norms and practices.

Furthermore, the Internet provides societal entrepreneurs with the means to reach, interact with and mobilize sizable audiences without government assistance or forewarning via e-mail, chat rooms, Instant Messenger and other modes of interpersonal cyber-communication. Perhaps more worrisome to the CCP, students and scientists, who have a long and trying history of challenging the status quo and the Chinese political leadership, were the most likely groupings in the country to have access to the content and communication-expanding qualities of the Internet [22].

The CCP could not permit this new access point to the outside world to be utilized in such a fashion which would call into question their legitimacy or supersede existing institutional mechanisms that limited the scope and nature of domestic political discourse. Alarm about the political consequences stemming from domestic exposure to an unchecked incursion of foreign ideas, information and images led the CCP to begin implementing measures in 1995 to tame this technology, though Beijing did not consider imposing a complete ban on public access to the Web or e-mail [23]. Subsequently, a broad and overlapping range of strategies have been employed to prevent the Internet from being used to discover information that could form the basis of unfavorable comparisons which would heighten interest in overturning the status quo. Furthermore, the authorities have tried to restrict exposure to Web addresses and discussion sites containing counter-ideologies that potential regime opponents could rally around.

Government policy quickly evolved into a delicate balancing act which aimed to filter objectionable content from the Internet and e-mail and restrict autonomous online societal organization even while simultaneously expanding Chinese access to the Internet. To dissuade the citizenry from inspecting forbidden sources of ideologies and information which could spark demand for new ideas and feed domestic ideational supply, the CCP tried to promote self-censorship by instituting and repeatedly increasing the criminal penalties for accessing an ever-growing list of forbidden sites ("Freedom of Expression and the Internet in China," 2001; "Enemies of the Internet," 2002) [24]. Over the past few years, the government has placed more the onus on Web site and Internet café operators to inform the police of users who access or share politically sensitive material, as defined by the authorities and/or make comments in chat rooms which "subvert the state" and assists in the "destruction of national unification" (Marquand, 2001; "Freedom of Expression and the Internet in China," 2001; Kalathil, 2001).

To reinforce these official boundaries on cyberspace have been the institution and enforcement of site bans and the placement of filter software on a state-run infrastructure to further ensure that the "infiltration of harmful information on the Internet" not take place (Lee, 2001; Gittings, 2001; Chandler, 2001). As these multipronged strategies indicate, the CCP has vigorously tried to maintain its ideational hegemony and deny the emergence of a popular counter-ideology which could fill the void which Deng Xiaoping's shift away from Marxist-Leninist doctrine has created.

Nonetheless, even though the Internet remains a potent and easily disseminated source of "spiritual pollution," the regime has not slowed its efforts to expand the reach of the global information superhighway in China. The number of users in China, estimated 20 to 26 million, has doubled every six months with a projected 60 million users by 2005, and this sizeable group, because of government policy, possesses the means to evade institutional controls on dissent and dialogue (Mufson and Pomfret, 2001; Marquand, 2001). The aforementioned tactics do circumscribe the scope and variety which Chinese surfers may view but the CCP has still weakened its own monopoly on information and ideas, permitting (and funding) the emergence of a more freewheeling ideational climate than existed in the pre-Internet era.

The growth in the number of Chinese users and the subsequent increase in cyber-traffic threatens to outstrip the regime's capacity to monitor users and observe whether they are visiting forbidden sites or e-mailing "disruptive" individuals, all of which could erode the Chinese Communist Party's ability to manage ideational demand and supply. Censors have been in a constant struggle to keep up with the growth in Web content, often making updated lists of banned sites obsolete soon after they are released as search engines and proxy servers (also a target of the CCP) make it easy for interested parties to find unblocked Web sites with the material of interest (Chandler, 2001; Palser, 2001; Gittings, 2001) [25].

Perhaps more worrisome for the authorities is the phenomenal popularity of chat rooms and bulletin boards. Though monitored (by employees known as "Big Mamas"), these lively online forums "remain a privileged place for Chinese people to exchange their political opinions, criticize governmental action or circulate information on corruption cases." For instance, a popular thread on Chinese discussion sites in 2000 detailed a financial scandal implicating political leaders and military officers, which eventually was picked up by the local press and pressured the CCP to act (Palser, 2001; "Enemies of the Internet," 2002; "China Web Bulletin Board Closed, Students Angry," 2001). Thus, a growing segment of the populace now has access to networks where they engage in - are becoming accustomed to - relatively freewheeling dialogues and political discussions as well as exchange information.

While references to democracy, human rights, Tibet and Falun Gong are filtered out by the authorities, impassioned nationalist discussions have been more difficult for CCP officials to quash. The government has, at times, struggled to suppress discussions accusing the CCP of not standing up to foreigners. One of the first, serious Internet-based domestic political challenges, ironically, involved an issue on which the protesters and the CCP were largely on the same page. In 1996, a Chinese student posted a message on a computer bulletin board calling for a protest at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to protest Japanese actions concerning the Diaoyu Islands (or what Japan refers to as the Senkaku Islands), a chain of small islands whose possession is disputed. The message, which was posted at 200 Chinese universities, quickly spread and lead to a petition drive on numerous campuses as well as demonstrations in Hong Kong. While the Party leadership likely agreed with the sentiments of the student activists, they were taken aback by the independent show of protest arranged by computer means. They had no desire to be portrayed, implicitly, as somehow appeasing the Japanese and the student leaders of this unexpected Internet-based political action were punished (Mufson, 1996; Lam, 1996).

More recently, the authorities have been subject to criticism, which would never be heard in the "real" world, that have been posted on government-monitored Internet after events such as the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the accession to membership in the World Trade Organization and the collision between an American spy plane and Chinese fighter craft. And after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the government, which expressed sympathy and offers of cooperation to the Bush Administration, issued a chagrined "urgent notice" ordering the media, including Internet portals, not to publish anything that gloated about the attack or seemed to insult the United States (Pomfret, 2001; Palser, 2001; Kalathil, 2002).

Thus, the Internet represents a potent organization tool for political change in China though not necessarily be a force for liberal democratization, which will be available to future opponents of the regime, particularly if there is an erosion in the CCP's performance legitimacy. Yet the CCP cannot reverse its ambitious, pro-expansion policies towards the Internet since without a more wired China, the CCP cannot maintain its successful efforts at economic modernization and socioeconomic improvements, upon which its continued incumbency rests.

Limited Connectivity in Cuba

The Castro government recognized the double-edged nature of the Internet, with one official observing that, "The Internet is a Pandora's Box, with many good things and many bad things, (and when) we believe it necessary we are going to filter in order to minimise risk ..." (Grogg, 2000). To minimize the political threats which the Cuban ruling elites believed they face from heightened ideational competition, the regime has rigorously limited the number of access points of the Internet into Cuba in order to protect the increasingly outmoded ideological rationales upon which Castro and his Party derives its legitimacy from alternatives located and diffused in cyberspace.

If a limited number of people are able to surf freely in cyberspace and communicate what they find to a larger audience, the likelihood of exposure to unwanted ideas into the political arena as well as their translation of those alternatives into political opposition should be reduced as well. Consequently, in marked contrast to the CCP, Cuban leaders have not followed the path of the Chinese Communist counterparts in encouraging the broadening of access to the Internet.

Of course, the Internet is not entirely absent in Cuba as officials in Fidel Castro's government have stated that the country "is ready for the Internet, for widespread computerization, far beyond what our infrastructure allows" (Acosta, 2001). The Communist regime has voiced interest in employing the Internet to diffuse propaganda to domestic and foreign audiences as well as to promote tourism and improve the efficiency of Cuban medical services (Kalathil and Boas, 2001). However, while there has been growth in both the number of local users and the extent of the island's Internet infrastructure, the Internet still has a minute presence in Cuba, even in contrast to other non-democracies.

The limited connectivity which characterizes Castro's Cuba is partly a consequence of the American economic embargo and legislation forbids American investment in the country's telecommunications sector as well as hampers the island's ability to acquire Internet Protocol addresses (Scheeres, 2001; Acosta, 2001). Furthermore, non-American foreign investment and domestic private entrepreneurship has been hindered by unaccommodating economic policies of the Castro government, which subsequently lacks many of the resources necessary for connecting the island's homes, governmental and educational institutions and businesses with the Internet. As the director of the state Internet service provider Teledatos acknowledged, "Cuba is a poor and economically blockaded country that rations its food and has shortages of medicine. How could citizens' access to the Internet not be limited?" (Snow, 2001)

Yet the political survival of the Cuban regime has not been tied to the kind of performance legitimacy measures, including the vigorous expansion of the Internet into the country's social and economic fabric, upon which the Open Door-era CCP grounded its legitimacy. That is not to claim that socioeconomic improvements have been absent over the course of Castro's uninterrupted four-decade rule, as observers have noted improvements in medical coverage and literacy. Nonetheless, the island remains poor, with a per capita GDP of US$1560, a condition which has only been exacerbated by the discontinuation of Soviet aid and the government's commitment to economic measures largely discredited around much of the globe.

Nonetheless, Castro has used the American embargo to not only deflect attention from the internal causes of country's depressed living standards but to lower popular expectations of what material gains the embattled leadership can deliver to the public. The legitimacy of his dictatorship instead relies upon the maintenance of a combination of nationalist, anti-American pronouncements and socialist ideology. It is through these selective and self-serving interpretations of these guiding ideologies and of world events by which the regime has justified its continued grip on power. And to ensure that challenges to the regime's heterodoxy do not emerge, the Cuban government has maintained rigid controls over the scope of domestic political dialogue and information, which, as one observer of Cuba's Internet situation notes, "One of the secrets of the Castro government's longevity has been its ability to effectively restrict the flow of information and ideas to its citizenry" (Hildreth, 2001).

Consequently, while the Cuban government understood the Internet to be a potentially useful tool for satisfying some of their domestic and foreign policy aims, they have had little incentive to allow this tool and medium to become widely available to the public. In the words of one party official, "There's bad information on the Internet as well as good information," and Castro's internal political difficulties would likely intensify if he governed a populace cognizant of a broader range of norms and data (Hildreth, 2001). The emergence of ideational competition in the polity, fed by the near-limitless amount of content and chat sites in cyberspace, could provoke the emergence of organized opposition or at least unwanted questions about the norms and belief systems which the Cuban government has rationalized its four-decade rule.

To ensure that the ideological rationales of the Castro regime are safe from scrutiny from Cubans armed with alternative ideologies and information, few entry points exist which connect the island to Web sites and chat rooms. The lack of connections is in part driven by economic realities, since given the restrictions on foreign trade and investment along with the limitations of the wobbly Cuban economy, the Castro government lacks the resources to provide individual Cuban households with Internet access (Grogg, 2000; Kubisch, 2001) [26]. Along with those material constraints, though, has been the paucity of communal centers which would expand the availability of the Internet to the populace. The government has concentrated its wiring efforts to selected government ministries, educational and research institutions and joint ventures as well as a few hotels and businesses frequented by foreigners. And, in marked contrast to China (and most Latin American countries), the country possesses a single Internet café which Cubans are allowed to utilize (Hildreth, 2001; Doggett, 2000). And even for those Cubans who do possess the resources to purchase their own machine, the Cuban government moved in March 2002 to ban the sale of computers and computer accessories to the general public (Scheeres, 2002).

Furthermore, e-mail accounts are granted by the government primarily to selected academics, scientists, state officials and members of Young Communist Youth computer clubs. Of the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Cubans (out of a population of 11 million) with e-mail accounts, only half enjoy full access to the World Wide Web. Furthermore, only 6,000 computers in Cuba are linked to the Internet, a minimal number which reflects in part state regulations which require citizens who wish to purchase a computer - which are generally not equipped with modems - to apply for government permission (Kerry, 2001; Kubisch, 2001; Snow, 2001; Grogg, 2002) [27].

To reinforce measures to maintain the dominance of the ruling orthodoxy, the few conduits to cyberspace which exist in Cuba are tightly monitored by the state which check the flow of information and ideas available to an online audience. Filter software is employed on the country's state-run Internet service providers, which all of the country's Internet traffic runs through, in order to prevent exposure to "subversive" or "fascist" sites (Snow, 2001; "Enemies of the Internet," 2002; Acosta, 2001). Reflecting the need to maintain strict ideational controls, the director of the state Institute of Scientific and Technology Information stated that, "In one way or another every country decides to what degree you can access the Internet and what you can't do and where you can go and where you can't. I think Cuba also has a right to at least think about how to protect its culture, its society, and its people from things that could be damaging to them" (Hildreth, 2001). The "things" - beliefs, norms and data which contradict the official line and counter the government's interpretation of world events - which are referred to are not only found on Web sites but in e-mail as well, which is scrutinized by police agencies searching for evidence of "anti-revolutionary activity" ("Enemies of the Internet," 2002; Scheeres, 2001).

Thus, the Castro government has warily led Cuba into the Information Age, allowing a small but dependable number of Cubans (many of whom are affiliated with the ruling Party) onto the Web. However, the Internet infrastructure of the island remains primitive, which not only reveals the country's economic limitations but the political benefits to be had from preventing the bulk of the populace from any means of exploring and sharing the provocative content of cyberspace. As a result, Cuba has largely missed what some have termed the latest industrial revolution - but that is the cost that the Communist leadership has been willing to pay in order to ensure the predominance of the norms and belief systems with which Castro regime's anchors its legitimacy.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

Most non-democratic rulers are neither comfortable with nor prepared to handle challenges from domestic actors armed with counter-ideologies and countervailing information. The vast assortment of online outlets, including Web pages, chat rooms and e-mail, provides modem-equipped political actors with the means to gain exposure to a much greater range of ideological alternatives and socioeconomic comparisons than can be found in the state-run media and political institutions in these political settings.

However, while the Internet rarely escapes government scrutiny, the ability to access cyberspace varies considerably, as we have seen in the preceding cases. The legitimizing strategy upon which a ruling leadership has based its incumbency is a key factor in determining the availability of access points to the Internet with those non-democratic regimes who rely upon performance legitimacy measures being more open towards allowing a greater presence of the Internet, despite the ideational risks. Measures are still undertaken to limit the diffusion of unapproved ideologies and information into the polity. But the authorities, like those in China, which are following strategies of state-sanctioned surfing recognize that, in order to facilitate economic performance, they are making their goal of preserving the political status quo more difficult by simultaneously expanding the number of individuals and locations which contain potentially provocative material.

In contrast, the Castro government has eschewed significant integration with the Internet, stemming primarily from concerns about losing control over the domestic marketplace of ideas. The Cuban regime, reliant upon a dated ideological framework, could ill afford to create a domestic audience well-versed in alternatives to the Party line. Though the government considered some uses for the Internet and slowly has been creating an Internet infrastructure in the country, they have largely forgone material gains associated with the technology since their legitimacy is not so closely tied to performance legitimacy measures. Thus, the incentives for creating a wired populace, with millions possessing the ability to circumvent government censors and media controls are considerably lower for the regime and, subsequently, the Internet continues to be inaccessible to most Cubans.

More broadly, as the volume of interactions between societies has grown, so has the reliance upon global markets, foreign capital, worldwide communication networks and other taken-for-granted qualities of everyday life to satisfy national welfare and security goals. And it is not simply that there are more transnational transactions but that the sum total of individuals involved in these activities has grown markedly as well. Coming into contact with foreigners and visiting foreign lands for business or pleasure is no longer an activity limited to a select few, as in previous eras, due to technological and transportation innovations which have greatly lowered the costs of such activities. Thus, governments whose rule depends upon a rigid defense of the status quo face a much more formidable task, not only from the forgone gains from international trade and collaboration, but that there are significantly more conduits and actors to monitor today. End of article

 

About the Author

Geoffry Taubman recently received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University and has been an adjunct at Georgetown University in the Government Department.
E-mail: glt4@columbia.edu

 

Notes

1. See, for instance, "Tapping into Africa," 2000; and, "Boom and Gloom," 2001.

2. Urry, 1973, p. 86.

3. Wendt, 1992, p. 419.

4. Mill, 1989, p. 23.

5. Diamond, 1996, p. 228; Whyte, 1992.

6. Lane, 1996, p. 170.

7. Of course, the Internet is only the latest such technology to override an existing domestic structure's capacity to diffuse and share ideas, which has helped to lay the groundwork for the creation of a sphere where "society is distinct from the state " and ruling elites are increasingly forced to coexist in a pluralistic social fabric.

For instance, S. Frederick Starr (1990) has observed that in the late Soviet period, everyday devices such as telephones, radio and photocopiers (which became ubiquitous as a result of Party policy under Khrushchev and Brezhnev) not only enabled the citizenry to evade rigorous government information and communication barriers but provided them with organizational tools which could be utilized for creating informal social networks. These societies and clubs, many of which were apolitical in nature, possessed great political significance nonetheless because they were established and ran outside of the realm of Communist Party control and direction.

8. While the quantity of information which people are exposed to can increase due to the Internet, no assessments of the quality or accuracy of that ideational substance are being made.

9. Most of the barriers which exist in Western countries pertain to pornographic material on the Internet, though limits on far-right speech in cyberspace do exist in France and Germany.

10. Only one of the eighteen countries, Russia, received a "partly free" score for other press freedoms and only three of the eighteen countries, Russia, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia received "partly free" scores for providing broader political and civil freedoms. The other fifteen countries - Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Congo (Kinshasa), Cuba, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Laos, Sudan, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Tunisia and Turkmenistan - received "not free" scores in all the aforementioned categories.

See Freedom in the World, 2001-2002: The Democracy Gap, 2002.

11. A few regimes - North Korea and the former Taliban leadership in Afghanistan - have adopted an even more extreme strategy and permit no interactions between the Internet and the domestic arena. To ensure that no ideational competition emerged to the xenophobic and archaic rationales upon which government legitimacy is grounded, no segment of the population in these lands are provided with entry to the uncontrollable and chaotic realm of cyberspace.

12. Hurd, 1999, p. 388.

13. Hurd, 1999, pp. 387, 388.

14. Przeworski, 1991, p. 54n2.

15. Linz, 1975, pp. 196, 197.

16. Przeworski, 1986, p. 52.

17. This strategy is also not unique to the Internet. For instance, the Soviet government established spetskhran or special stacks, which were libraries containing domestic and foreign books containing material which were designated as forbidden by the Communist regime. Only those individuals, usually scientists and academics, possessing the proper Party credentials were permitted to view the prohibited (and mostly foreign) books, usually for research purposes.

18. Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, p. 903.

19. Hamrin, 1990, p. 213; Baum, 1994.

20. Teiwes (1984, p. 84) noted that "Clearly, Deng's political support and hence legitimacy, derive to a significant degree from performance considerations."

21. Taubman, 2002, chap. 5.

22. Based on China's first national survey on the Internet, conducted in March 1998, 78.5 percent of Chinese Internet subscribers were between the ages between 21 and 35. The survey also found that computer technicians and educational and scientific research workers account for more than half of the Internet users in China. See "China: Survey Reveals Information On China's Internet Users," 1998.

23. However, a senior CCP cadre responsible for ideology did reportedly ask, "Can we switch off the Internet if something terrible were to happen in Beijing?" See Lam, 1996. .

24. Furthermore, in January 2001, the government announced that anyone involved in "espionage activities" such as "stealing, uncovering, purchasing or disclosing State secrets" using the Web could receive the death penalty.

25. The effort to ban sites has also been described as haphazard, leaving Chinese surfers numerous routes to locate forbidden Web addresses. Furthermore, the always-accessible Chinese language version of Yahoo! indexes Chinese language pages in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere, making the hunt for forbidden information easier for people who do not speak English. Recently, though Yahoo! voluntarily agreed to eliminate "sensitive content" from its pages in accordance with new Chinese regulations. And in the September 2002, the government began to block access to two American-based search engines, Google and Alta Vista, in an expansion of its effort to limit access to sites containing "unhealthy material.

26. Nor would most Cubans be able to afford to the costs of the service. One hour of Internet access costs US$5 per hour (in 2001), which is half the average monthly Cuban salary.

27. And even if one was fortunate enough to possess a computer equipped with the means to log onto the Internet, Cuba has one of the lowest levels of telephone lines per capita in all of Latin America.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 12 July 2002; accepted 14 August 2002.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Copyright ©2002, Geoffry L. Taubman

Keeping the Internet Out? Non-Democratic Legitimacy and Access to the Web by Geoffry L. Taubman
First Monday, volume 7, number 9 (September 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_9/taubman/index.html





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