Twitter isn’t spreading democracy — democracy is spreading Twitter

Kentaro Toyama writes: Last month I wrote about Chinese Internet censors, who seem less concerned about eliminating criticism of the government, and more concerned with preventing grassroots collective action. What the Communist Party most fears is organized protests and activities, even when they’re not political in nature.

In America, the right to assembly is guaranteed, so there’s no censoring of tweeted incitements to mass action, political or otherwise. But thanks to Edward Snowden, we now see how far the government goes to spy on our digital communications in the name of national security. Arguably, what the U.S. government fears most is threats to its citizens’ physical safety.

Considering these revelations together allows us to see more clearly the relationship between the Internet and politics.

Until now the dominant story has been that the Internet democratizes. For many, any mention of the Arab Spring immediately calls to mind a “Facebook revolution.” For similar reasons, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State promoted a foreign policy of Internet freedom. And, the mantra that the Internet democratizes everything is repeated over and over in the media. Just in the last few days, for example, here, here, and here.

But what both Chinese censorship and American surveillance show is that there is nothing inherently democratizing about digital networks, at least not in the political sense. Far-reaching communication tools only make it easier to impose constraints on the freedom of expression or the right to privacy. Never before have Chinese censors had it so easy in identifying subversive voices, and never before has the NSA been able to eavesdrop on the private communications of so many people. [Continue reading…]

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