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Research Questions

  1. How does Internet freedom affect political space in nondemocratic regimes?
  2. Under what conditions can online mobilization affect policy outcomes?
  3. What is the optimal design for Internet freedom programs?

The Internet has become a new battleground between governments that censor online content and those who advocate freedom to browse, post, and share information online for all, regardless of their place of residence. This report examines whether and how furthering Internet freedom can empower civil society vis-à-vis public officials, make the government more accountable to its citizens, and integrate citizens into the policymaking process. Using case studies of events in 2011 in Egypt, Syria, China, and Russia, researchers focus on the impact of Internet freedom on freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and the right to cast a meaningful vote, all of which are the key pillars of political space. Researchers analyze the mechanisms by which Internet freedom can enhance the opportunities to enjoy these freedoms, how different political contexts can alter the opportunities for online mobilization, and how, subsequently, online activism can grow out into offline mobilization leading to visible policy changes. To provide historical context, researchers also draw parallels between the effects of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programs in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the ongoing efforts to expand Internet freedom for all. The report concludes by discussing implications for the design of Internet freedom programs and other measures to protect "freedom to connect."

Key Findings

Internet freedom affects political space by making civil society coalitions more inclusive, promoting consensus on appropriate courses of action, and linking civil society activists to actors with institutional resources.

  • The effect of online mobilization on policy outcomes depends on online activists' access to institutional resources, fragmentation of the elite, the regime's repressive capacity, the extent of international support for nondemocratic rulers, and the existence of online social space with user autonomy from authorities.

The tradeoff between assisting all Internet users and assisting a handful of civil society activists should be considered when designing Internet freedom programs.

  • Internet Freedom programs that reach out to all users can promote the formation of social space online which subsequently can provide the basis for popular mobilization and are more appropriate in regimes without autonomy from state civil society.
  • Internet freedom programs that make a handful of activists more technologically savvy are more suitable when users who are autonomous from state actors can provide institutional resources to online activists to carry out popular mobilization offline.

Recommendations

  • Consider regime type and political context when determining which Internet freedom programs to deploy.
  • Pay as much attention to the expansion of social space online as to the expansion of political space.
  • Supplement the effort to expand Internet freedom program by other technology development programs that focus on the overall architecture of the cyberspace and other ways to anonymize browsing sessions.

The research described in this report was prepared for the U.S. Department of State. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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