Gary Selnow, a widely published media expert, told a U.S. State Department conference last week that the Internet offers "a high-tech answer to basic human needs" and thus "can play a significant role in preparing people for the transition to democracy."
Speaking to more than 500 participants from 50 countries, Selnow said the Internet plays this role by providing its users with "a sense of control, and its user-driven choices reinforce this medium as a metaphor for self-determination," which he described as "the soul of democracy."
Selnow noted that the U.S.-supported Kosovo Internet Access Initiative had helped Albanian refugees communicate with each other, assisted other Kosovars in finding medical information, and allowed people in that troubled region to learn about conditions in the wider world.
"What do you think the Internet says to teens in Kosovo who spend hours examining the Web sites of universities in the West?" Selnow asked rhetorically. "What do you think it says about an open society to students who download newspaper articles, to pregnant women who obtain guidance about prenatal care, to disabled people who receive information about their disability and communicate with others?"
Selnow suggested that "the cumulative effects of these experiences ... go a long way to preparing the soul for democracy."
Selnow and his fellow conferees in Washington are not the only ones who recognize the power of the Internet to change the world. Even as he was speaking, a recent study released by an American technology consulting firm warned that up to 50 million U.S. adults are in danger of becoming functionally illiterate because they lack access to the Internet.
That study said that by 2005 some 75 percent of all U.S. households would be linked to the Internet, and that at that point, "not having access to the technology or not knowing how to use it will be the equivalent of not knowing how to read or write."
To meet that challenge, the National Research Council of U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 3 called on the U.S. Congress to fund vouchers for those who cannot otherwise afford access to the Internet.
But if these American institutions are concerned about the need to extend Internet access to all, the governments of an increasing number of authoritarian countries are seeking to restrict such access lest the Internet pose a challenge to their rule.
The government of the Peoples' Republic of China, for example, issued new regulations on Oct. 2 that limit foreign investment in Internet companies, impose strict surveillance against what Beijing calls "subversive" content, and call for the closure of any unlicensed firms.
Last month, Moscow issued Russia's first-ever Information Security Doctrine which, among other things, calls for an expanded government role in overseeing the Internet. And Moscow officials have already had some success in getting Russian websites to drop links to foreign sites the authorities disapprove of.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Kazakhstan restricted access to the websites of the country's leading opposition groups via the country's two leading telephone companies. This step has made it more difficult for the citizens of that country to gain information about the political situation there, but as the opposition groups noted, it has not made it impossible: Kazakhs who want to visit these sites can still do so but now in a more roundabout way.
Such struggles between authoritarian regimes which seek to restrict access and the people living under them who view the Internet as a means of overcoming them are likely to become ever more common, a testimony to the power of the Internet to threaten those who oppose democracy and to empower those who seek it.