Internet: Road To Democracy ... Or Elsewhere?

Internet usage varies greatly around the world, and may or may not spread democracy.

hide captionInternet usage varies greatly around the world, and may or may not spread democracy.

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During the Arab Spring, activists touted social media and the Internet as a means of spreading democracy. But introducing cyberspace into a country doesn't always bring freedom, argues Cyrus Farivar, author of The Internet of Elsewhere. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Farivar about his book, which includes close looks at South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran.

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TONY COX, host: Next, we talk about the role of Internet and global politics when discussion turns to the Middle East. It often also turns toward the role of the Internet in recent revolutions and protests.

In an interview on CNN in February, Wael Ghonim, a leading figure and outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, thanked Mark Zuckerberg for inventing the social media network site, Facebook. He called it crucial to the revolution in that country.

WAEL GHONIM: I always said that, if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them the Internet.

COX: The optimism surrounding the so-called Arab Spring is being challenged by recent developments in Egypt and the violent crackdown in Syria, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is intent on making Internet outreach a priority worldwide and the United Nations called Internet access a human right in June of this year.

But not all countries are there yet. In fact, many developing and politically unstable countries are far from the level of access we have in the United States.

Joining us now from Bonn, Germany, is Cyrus Farivar, technology journalist and author of "The Internet of Elsewhere," which examines the issue.

Cyrus, welcome.

CYRUS FARIVAR: Thank you very much.

COX: Your book is fascinating. It talks about some things in terms of where the Internet is and isn't that I don't think a lot of people know about.

You also single out four nations for a closer study: South Korea, Senegal, Iran and Estonia. Why did you pick those four?

FARIVAR: Well, I see these countries as being on something of a continuum in terms of what we call Internet penetration and that means the percentage of people in a given place that are on the Internet divided by the number of people that live in that place.

And so I would put South Korea on one end. I would put Estonia somewhere toward the upper end. I would put Iran somewhere toward the middle lower end and I would put Senegal as one of what I would call maybe the best, least connected countries in the world.

COX: One of the countries that is not in the book that I would have assumed would have been is China because they have the most Internet users on the planet. Correct?

FARIVAR: That's true. China's Internet population surpassed the entire population of the United States just this year and so you're right. China has a very dynamic, very interesting Internet community.

The main reason why I didn't write about it was I think that there are lots of other people who have written a lot smarter things about China and I wanted to talk a little bit more about stories in places like Estonia that maybe aren't as well known to, I think, most Americans.

COX: I know that it's a fairly complex answer, but why do you think use of the Internet varies so significantly, even between the four countries mentioned in your book - South Korea, Senegal, Iran and Estonia?

FARIVAR: Well, I think a lot of that has to do with the history of these countries. I mean, one of the things that I try to show in the book is how a combination of forces, the politics, the political history, the economic history, the social history and the cultural history, I think, really are what causes various types of applications to emerge from these places.

You know, I think it's important to raise the question, you know, why, out of all of the countries in the world, was Estonia the first country to have Internet-based voting., and not for example the United States, where unfortunately, we can barely get paper voting right, let alone Internet voting.

COX: Let's talk about Senegal for a moment. That's a country where Internet usage is, well, one of the lowest on the globe.

FARIVAR: That's true. Senegal is a very interesting country. I lived there as a student for about a half a year in 2002, 2003. I mentioned this Internet penetration rate and, in Senegal, that's about 10, 12 percent. So about 10 or 12 percent of the population of Senegal is on the Internet.

However, I think that it's important to keep in mind that one of the basic things that I think most of us, most Americans, take for granted is literacy rates and education levels. You know, if you can't read and write, it's very, very difficult, if not impossible, for you to use the Internet effectively and the literacy rates in Senegal are about 40 percent. So that means that the majority of Senegalese people, six out of ten, cannot read or write in any language, whether that's French, whether that's Wolof, whether that's a number of the other languages that are in Senegal.

And so I think that that's something that we need to keep in mind in terms of effectiveness of Internet use. What is the level of literacy? What is the level of education in that place?

COX: If you're just tuning in, I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking to Cyrus Farivar, author and technology journalist, about how the rest of the world gets online.

You know, Cyrus, a lot of times, people compare and contrast Internet usage globally to that here in the United States and there's a line in your book that you quote from the New York Times in May of 2003, which caught my eye. And it says, the New York Times ran this headline. America's broadband dream is alive in Korea.

Where do we stand in comparison to other nations with regard to our use of the Internet?

FARIVAR: Well, I think that what that headline is referring to and what that story tells, I think, is this larger story of, yes, how in the last 10 years especially the United States has fallen in terms of Internet prowess in terms of level of connectivity.

Of course, the United States continues to produce, you know, lots of innovation, lots of tech companies, lots of start-ups. All of these American companies are making headlines almost every day around the world.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter; these types of companies, so I think that, in that respect, we're doing pretty well. However, in terms of level of access within the United States, the price point at which people pay for what level of bandwidth. So how many megabytes per second, for example? The United States has fallen behind in terms of many other countries in East Asia and also in Western Europe.

Where I live now in Germany, just to give you an example, many Internet providers, as a standard feature, offer very low cost, if not already included, calling via the Internet to other countries around the world.

So for five euros a month extra for my phone bill, I can call about 12 countries around the world as much as I want - the United States, Canada, Luxemburg, Portugal, the UK. Many other countries, and that's just a normal thing and I don't have to worry about, you know, going on Skype or whatever. I mean, I use Skype, too, but you know, that's just something, I think, that's a very key example that a lot of people could get behind. And that's not, unfortunately, a standard feature in the United States.

COX: One of the things that we mentioned in the intro is the role that repressive governments are playing with regard to access to the Internet in places around the world. What are you finding, particularly as it relates to the Arab world at the moment?

FARIVAR: Well, I think something that is important to keep in mind - we talked about this idea of agency, this idea of what role the Internet plays in terms of social change, political change, democratic change, economic change and so forth. And I think that it's easy, as I said, to be, you know, convinced or to see this type of influence playing out in countries that have been experiencing as part of the Arab Spring. So Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and others.

However, for me, I think that, you know, we shouldn't assign too much agency to the Internet as a whole. I think one of the major differences between what's happened in Tunisia and Egypt on the one side and, more recently, Libya and Syria on the other side is the use of violence and the use of physical force.

In Tunisia and Egypt, both of the militaries of those countries famously did not fire on their own people. Unfortunately, that's not the case in Libya and Syria. In Libya now we've had a protracted civil war for many months and, you know, both of them have I think similar levels of Internet access, similar levels to mobile phones, similar levels of access to Facebook and other tools. So I think it's important not to, again, assign too much agency to Internet access in terms of bringing down oppressive regimes.

We talked a moment ago about China. China, as you said, has the largest Internet population of any single country in the world and yet the Chinese Internet remains very much surveyed, very much oppressive and people can be punished and arrested for what they write on the Chinese Internet.

COX: Cyrus Farivar is a technology journalist who serves as the host of Spectrum, a program on Deutsche Welle. He spoke to us from Bonn, Germany.

Cyrus, thank you.

FARIVAR: Thank you.

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