Decentralized communication technologies, such as cell phones and the Internet, are the best way to ensure the spread of democracy around the globe, according to an study published in the International Journal of Human Rights.
Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become an important tool for democracy and human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa, where it has played a pivotal role in helping organize protests against repressive governments.
"TV is especially bad for human rights, because the government can feed propaganda to the population," said the study's author, Indra de Soysa, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). "The Internet and mobile phones have the opposite effect. And social media is different because it gives people free access to a channel of communication."
"In Egypt, Google's marketing manager would have never managed to mobilize so many demonstrations without social media," he added. "The authorities cannot monitor what people read on the Internet, and society becomes more transparent."
"The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people," de Soysa continued. "In Burma the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case."
While communication technologies such as cell phones and the Internet have helped to organize some pro-democracy movements, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin warned in an article published at Politico on Monday that U.S. technology companies have not done enough to ensure their products and services do not aid repressive governments.
"With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry is failing to address serious human rights challenges," he wrote. "Filtering software produced by U.S. companies like McAfee — recently acquired by Intel — has been used by repressive governments to censor political content on the Internet. Cisco routers are part of the architecture of China’s Great Firewall. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo censor political content."
Despite Sen. Durbin's warnings, de Soysa's study found that access to the Internet and cell phones was associated with better human rights while access to televisions and fixed phone lines were associated with worse human rights.
"It seems that the new [communication technologies] are qualitatively better for human rights than the old ones," the study concluded.