John Kerry: A digital dictator?

Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments last week, that “this little thing called the Internet … makes it much harder to govern,” left him in the unfortunate company of many dictators and authoritarian leaders. While this smacks of hypocrisy coming from an administration that was swept into the White House leveraging the internet as a source of unprecedented citizen engagement, it also reflects the harsh reality of their policies – once in office – to clamp down on Internet freedom.

Kerry’s remarks, made while addressing State Department personnel in Brazil, painted the Internet, a powerful tool for democracy, in a decidedly negative light. The Secretary claimed that the web “makes it much harder to organize people, much harder to find the common interest.”

Comments like these, coming from America’s top diplomat, are concerning in that they provide cover for governments across the globe who have cracked down on Internet freedom, viewing it as a threat to their authoritarian lock on power. Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan — who famously said, “Democracy is like a train. You take it where you have to go, and then you get off” — recently denounced the social media platform Twitter as a “scourge,” “the worst menace to society,” and “the best example of lies,” amid massive citizen protests against the Islamic extremism of his regime.

Kerry’s claim that the Internet makes it harder to govern is more often heard from tyrants and dictators, who have found that free speech hinders a government’s ability to restrict its people’s freedom. No one disputes that social media played a significant role in the Arab Spring, the most monumental democratic movement of this generation. In nations where the state controlled traditional media, citizens took to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to organize and spread messages of freedom.

This trend started with Iran’s 2009 uprising, which followed the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and relied so heavily on the Internet that it has been dubbed “the Twitter Revolt.” Three years later, social media played such a central role in bringing down Hosni Mubarak’s regime that the dictator shut down Internet access across all of Egypt in a last-ditch attempt to remain in power.