Authoritarians versus the Internet: Two More Examples

by Chris Borgen

The government of Sudan has announced that it will expel Jan Pronk, the senior United Nations official there, for what he has written on his blog. My first reaction was “UN officials have blogs?” (Actually, I am struck by this—it used to be that diplomats shunned attention, now public diplomacy is becoming a crucial part of modern diplomatic strategy.)

But the more interesting issue has to do with the ongoing attempts by authoritarian governments to clamp down on information dissemination via the Internet. There are reports from this past week that China has deliberately slowed down web access, seemingly to deter Internet use. (This would be a new tactic in addition to its well-known use of Internet filtering. See this Harvard study. ) Maybe slow download time explains the recent finding that Internet users in China spend more time online that those in the U.S.! But the real story there is that China is actually poised to overtake the U.S. in number of Internet users. This may well be heartening news that indicates the difficulty of stopping the dissemination of information.

Nonetheless, Sudan expels a UN official for what he has written on his blog. Internet activists have reminded us time an again that an open Internet is not a given, it is something that must be protected. Expelling a diplomat for his public writings doesn’t shut down the net, but it does remind us that the spread of ubiquitous communication technology is as much a focus of conflict as a means of resolving differences.

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