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Gene Sharp, the Internet and #Dictatorship 2 #Democracy

by Stephen Adler
Feburary 27, 2011


It's February 27th, close to end of Muammar Gaddafi's tenure as a dictator and I've been glued to the Internet following the events since the beginning of the Egypt uprising. Unfortunately, I kind of missed Tunisia. The media coverage was not as intense, or more frankly, I was not paying attention at the time.

I've also been introduce to Twitter as the Egyptian uprising was the reason for me to "tune in". I've known of Twitter for a long time, but never bothered. I get sick of all these social networking web sites when I hear about them on the news, and refuse to see the Facebook movie. Call me a net-curmudgeon. But the unfolding of historical events does spike my adrenaline and anything at the level of importance as what's going on in North Africa and the Middle East has me going crazy. It's been non-stop for me since late January (see my blog), when this marathon started watching the fall of these dictatorships.

So, as I'm following these historic events over the past few weeks, I've run across countless references to social networking web sites as the cause of these revolutions. The Facebook revolution, the Twitter revolution, Google, YouTube, etc etc. As if somehow these companies (and they are just that, public or private enterprises run from the US) are the cause of these uprisings. My eyes roll ever time I read one of these references.

Then one day, I'll call it my day of enlightenment, I ran across a reference to Gene Sharp, the man who wrote "From Dictatorship to Democracy"(external link) and is currently at the Albert Einstein Institution located in Boston. I learned that Mr. Sharp has been studying revolutions in the way a biologist studies genetics. He as taken the process of how one can defeat a dictator and his regime, and replace it with a democracy, breaking down the process into its fundamental building blocks, analyzing each with the meticulousness of a brain surgeon preparing for surgery, and put it all back together and documenting it in his publication "From Dictatorship to Democracy". More importantly, his publication has been translated into 24 languages and has been used by many movements to help do just what the title of the document reads, replace a dictatorship with a democracy. I don't believe all attempts have been successful, but the fall of Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union is one example of the contribution of his publication. Considering what has been happening over the past couple of months Arab and Persian countries, the man deserves the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

So I've been busy reading "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and almost immediately do I see the tie in as to why all these social networking web sites have played such an important role in the events in North Africa starting with Tunisia. In the first part of "From Dictatorship to Democracy", Mr. Sharp breaks down the dynamics of the Dictator/Citizen relationship. Mr. Sharp works through the process of systematically outlining in bullet form all the strengths of the dictator as well as his weaknesses. And he does the same for the citizen, itemizing their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, he goes to some pains to explain that trying to defeat a dictator using violence is dangerous because you are attacking the dictator at his strongest point, his ability to wield great violence to subdue the citizen. On the other hand, the weakness of the dictator is his constant effort expended to control the citizenry. He has to use force, intimidation, and deceit, in order to extract his legitimacy from the citizenry to rule. Thus one of the forms by which the citizenry can counter attack the brutality of the dictator is to deny him his legitimacy to rule through non-violent united action. Mr. Sharp outlines over 150 methods by which this can be done, from strikes to demonstrations, etc. But one underlying theme which he touches on is the need for citizens to work together, so that they know they are not alone. This is what Mr. Sharp wrote which caught my attention,

One characteristic of a democratic society is that there exist independent of the state a multitude of non-governmental groups and institutions. These include, for example, families, religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, economic institutions, trade unions, student associations, political parties, villages, neighborhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups, literary societies, and others. These bodies are important in serving their own objectives and also in helping to meet social needs.

Additionally, these bodies have great political significance. They provide group and institutional bases by which people can exert influence over the direction of their society and resist other groups or the government when they are seen to impinge unjustly on their interests, activities, or purposes. Isolated individuals, not members of such groups, usually are unable to make a significant impact on the rest of the society, much less a government, and certainly not a dictatorship.

The last sentence is what brings it all together. "Isolated individuals" will not bring down a dictatorship. Thus, there lies the force of the Internet and the crucial dynamic between the dictator and his control over the citizen from which he extracts his legitimacy to rule. As Mr. Sharp elaborates in "From Dictatorship to Democracy", the process by which one breaks the dictators rule is by uniting the citizenry in common non-violent action of disobedience. And the key is uniting the citizenry. In the dark ages before the Internet, this was a much harder task. Physical communication between people is limited by the technology at hand. Newspapers, phone conversations, public gatherings, etc. Mr. Sharp referring to the social groups formed within a society as crucial to the process of breaking the dictators power is because they form the seeds of this inter-citizenry communication.

Back in 1998, I wrote an article about the Internet and the role it plays in the development of our society, titled Preserving the Information Ecosystem. Anytime I hear someone refer to the Internet as an ecosystem, I personally take credit for that person's comment. In this article I was trying to address why the free/open source software movement was so successful in providing the software tools needed to operate a functioning Internet. Operating systems, web servers, network connectivity between computers, etc. I would argue that the underpinnings of the Internet are based on software which was first established in one form or other in the public domain, and copyrighted using the copyright concepts developed by Richard Stallman. In trying to address this explosion in the free software phenomena, I fell back on a more basic concept of "Total Freedom of Information Exchange" as the true reason why one man, Linus Torvals, was able to write the Linux kernel in such a short time, with the help of software writers from around the world. The more important concept was that Linus Torvals work was just a small example of something much larger, the actual evolution of our knowledge base, driven by our ability to communicate with each other, "exchange information" so freely, and with such vast outreach (anywhere in the world.) One of the conclusions, as everyone was commenting on back then, was that we're on the threshold of something major, society wise. The Internet market bubble burst eighteen months later in March 2000 with the NASDAQ peaking at over 5000.

So, being the author of such an article, published 12 years and some months ago, as I read Mr. Sharp's account as to why these social groups played an important role in breaking the dictator's power, it was clear to me why the Internet was playing such a major role in the events of these past months in North Africa, and earlier in Iran during it's brief revolt after their elections. The Internet is acting as the proxy for these social groups Mr. Sharp refers to. The importance being that the Internet and the service it provides of what I call "total freedom of information exchange", breaks down the isolation barrier between citizens the dictator depends on to govern in terror. The Internet, and the web services which ride upon its back bone, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and the like, are the tools by which the citizens can break out of their isolation, unite and form a common front against the dictator. Citizens denying in unison the legitimacy of the dictator is, as Mr. Sharp writes, the dictators "Achilles heal" and ultimately the most powerful weapon against him. All these resent historic revolutionary events and the reason for why we were witnessing them now, all fell together so clearly in my mind when I read those first few pages from "From Dictatorship to Democracy."

When I read people talking about the Facebook or Twitter revolution, its really just a superficial view of the tools citizens are using to unite. There is a greater fundamental at the core, which some have stated on blogs and tweets, and has been fully documented in Mr. Sharps publication "From Dictatorship to Democracy". It's the people, the citizenry, at work, exercising their fundamental right of breaking their dictator's hold on power. Their method; Citizen unity. Their tool; the Internet.

So, what role will the Internet play as we move forward, with one dictatorial domino falling after another? Dictators will use as one of their weapons, shutting down telecommunications within their country. It happened in Egypt on January 28, and is happening right now in Libya. China is ahead of the curve by working directly with the companies providing these services, (Google for example) to erect information barriers, or block content on sites like Facebook.

As Mr. Sharp has analyzed the strength and weaknesses of both dictators and citizens, let me do the same for social networking services. The strengths we all know. The ability to quickly unite and share information between citizens. Citizens can now organize by a few mouse clicks in setting up a Facebook group and tweeting about it. When the dictator starts its violent crackdown, its documented (and I have personally witnessed the horrors of these crackdowns) by uploading videos and photos to YouTube and Flickr for the world to see.

But what about the weakness. The main weakness is that all these social network services are provided by single sources. Basically they come down to a single web site. Facebook.com, twitter.com, google.com and the like. This is what is called a single point of failure in the system. One may argue that there may be other sites which can take over if one is shut down. If facebook is shutdown, maybe myspace can take over. If google is shut down, yahoo search engine can take over. But in all cases, we are talking about a hand full of major world wide known services which a dictator can with ease block, or modify its services in some way into his country. What is needed is to develop and popularize peer to peer social networking services. An example which comes close in concept is Napster. A better example is bit-torrent, the file transfer mechanism used to efficiently distribute large software packages across the Internet. A peer to peer social network service would be one in which all the information and data processing used to provide the social network would be distributed amongst the desktops and laptops of the citizens using the service. The home computers would be talking directly to each other and not to a centralized web site, thus there is no one web site which can be shut down down to prevent the users from using their social network software. A properly designed peer to peer social network service will not have the single point of failure which the current popular social network services have, which is that single web site you log onto.

The other weakness of the Internet is that is resides on the telecommunications system of fiber optics and switches fanned out across the globe and controlled by the telecommunication industry. Dictators nationalize the telecommunication industry in their country and thus, as was done in Egypt and Libya, they throw the Internet switch with a simple phone call to the head of the telecommunication company of their country. What is needed is to be able to establish an independent telecommunication system which can be operated by the citizens. The New York Times has a great video(external link) documenting one such effort in Libya. A man set up an Internet connection using a satellite dish, thus bypassing the Libyan telecommunications infrastructure. Foundations, like the one run by Bill Gates, should be funding the development of technologies which can be deployed anywhere on earth and with little technical knowledge, set up regional Internet networks which allow citizens to then use their peer to peer social networks. With such tools at the disposal to the citizens of this earth, and studying Mr. Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy", we will see the end of the era of dictatorial rule.

I watch the world change before my eyes as I plug into the Internet every day in awe. I watch the bravery of the citizens of Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Morocco and on and on as they join in their struggle against their dictator. I am behind each and every one of these citizens hoping for their success. But most of all, I want to thank Gene Sharp for writing "From Dictatorship to Democracy". You have done the world one big favor by helping citizens understand the dynamics of the dictator/citizen relationship and how to break it. Thank you Gene Sharp.


March 1st, 2011. My brother read the article and pointed me to a type of peer to peer social networking software/system called Diaspora. See https://joindiaspora.com/.(external(external link) link) I haven't fully tried it out yet, but it looks to be the kind of social networking software which does not have the single point of failure as does facebook.com or myspace.com as I mentioned in my article. This kind of software needs to be popularized.



Copyright (c) Stephen Adler, 2011