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The political costs of clamping down on the internet

In a recent post at iRevolution, Patrick Meier mentions two related theories that explain why cutting of the internet or blocking popular websites backfires against repressive regimes, as it did against Mubarak, rather than effectively stifling dissent:

The Dictator’s Dilemma suggests that repressive regimes are incurring increasing opportunity costs when they decide to cut access to the Internet and/or cell phone networks. The theory suggests that doing so incurs financial and ultimately political costs. The term was coined by Christopher Kedzie who wrote that an increase in the relevance of digital/networked technologies will force repressive regimes to face a dilemma, where they will have to choose between open communications, which encourage economic development, and closed communication, which may help control ‘dangerous’ ideas but may hinder access to the information economy.

Ethan’s “Cute Cat Theory” relates to the notion that most web (and mobile phone) users access online content for entertainment purposes, e.g., to look at pictures of cute cats. If repressive regimes block access to socially entertaining sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc, this may backfire by possibly politicizing a large user base that until then was largely apolitical. In his recent talk at the Share Conference, Sami Gharbia described a related dynamic. The regime’s decision to block social media sites drove a large number of new users to Facebook as this remained one of the only non-censored social networking platforms available to Tunisians. This in turn made it near impossible for the regime to shut access to Facebook without serious blowback.