When Google announced earlier this year that it would shut down its China search engine after hackers allegedly broke into Chinese human-rights advocates' Gmail accounts, the activists, editorial boards, and commentators lauded the company. In doing so, they echoed an argument made by many technophiles and politicians since the late 1990s: the Web, and new communications technology in general, will open up closed societies and hasten the demise of authoritarian regimes, with freedom-loving Internet companies leading the charge. Bill Clinton said as much at the time. He told Chinese leaders that they stood "on the wrong side of history."
But the idea that the Internet will spark the decline of autocrats has been proven false. In the past four years, Web penetration has grown in most authoritarian states, yet overall the number of free societies worldwide has declined in that time period, according to annual reports by monitoring organization Freedom House. Online activists in many places have much less freedom than they did four years ago as well. In Vietnam the government has rounded up most of the leading online activists and sentenced many to jail; in Thailand, a soft-authoritarian state, the government recently arrested an editor of one of the most respected and vibrant online news sites. In China the government has shuttered thousands of blogs and sites in the past year alone.