Living in a Despot’s Walled Garden
Image Credit: Rob Young

Living in a Despot’s Walled Garden


‘Egypt Leaves the Internet.’ The statement from Internet monitoring firm Renesys was far from the most dramatic headline to emerge from the just-ended standoff between ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and demonstrators demanding an end to his 30-year rule. Indeed, when considering the Mubarak government’s systematic repression of its people—protesters attacked by plain-clothes thugs, detainees reportedly tortured, journalists harassed and arrested—an Internet blackout seems almost routine.

But this reflexive response to large-scale dissent has set a potential precedent for dealing with civil unrest that could have far-reaching implications. The shutdown of Egypt’s four big Internet service providers put an estimated 93 percent of the country’s networks beyond the reach of its citizens. It was, says Renesys’ James Cowie, ‘an action unprecedented in Internet history.’ Plenty of governments around the world censor the Internet. The Mubarak regime, though, opted to block it entirely.

Internet access in Egypt was restored within a week. But what the Mubarak regime did as an ad hoc emergency measure, others are doing on a more permanent and systematic basis. North Korea is a prime example.

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In December’s Pacific Review, academics Cheng Chen, Kyungmin Ko and Ji-Yong Lee outlined Pyongyang’s alleged plan to build an Internet with North Korean characteristics. They estimate that at present, Internet access in North Korea is restricted to ‘no more than a few thousand people in Pyongyang.’ Others—privileged elites in the major cities—have to make do with a domestic intranet. Built in 2002, it encompasses ‘several web sites’ including email, e-commerce and chat room services.

But North Korea has apparently outgrown this arrangement, and its intranet is reportedly no longer able to handle an increasing volume of information. According to the authors, Kim Jong-il’s regime has realized that blocking the Internet in its entirety is a recipe for ‘continuing technological backwardness,’ and so it has resolved to ‘relax its death grip over the use of the Internet’ as part of its economic development strategy.

What will this entail? According to Kim Heung-kwang, a computer scientist who defected from North Korea, the government has developed a ‘roadmap’ to broaden access, in a heavily controlled form. This roadmap is said to be a seven-year plan that’s heavily focused on monitoring, filtering and blocking information. A series of controls is supposed to act as a ‘mosquito net.’ Bad things—new ideas, news and culture—would be kept out. Good things, such as foreign investment, would be allowed through. The final stage of the roadmap is supposed to be the opening up of the Internet ‘to enterprises, organizations and the general public.’

Such an approach would certainly be consistent with remarks attributed to Kim Jong-il by the Yonhap News Agency in 2007. ‘I’m an Internet expert too,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It’s all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired. If that problem is addressed, there’s no reason not to open’ the Internet.

The regime’s goal, according to the defector, is not to allow free personal access to the Internet, but rather to permit ‘North Korean Internet users to access the Internet within a specific time and limited hours, and with restricted sources and defined ranges, and only for public benefits.’

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