This presents a "dictator's dilemma" -- the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How do you give people access to information for health care, education, and commerce while keeping them from political information?I was naive at the time, and imagined the Internet as a force for democracy, but my view is more balanced these days. It is clear that dictators use the Internet as well as democrats -- they restrict access, block sites and people, and conduct surveillance. Terrorists use the Net for propaganda and recruiting, planning and logistics. Furthermore, happy, well fed citizens (for example in China) are relatively complacent in their attitudes toward Internet openness -- see this report and this interview.
With recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, the dictator's dilemma is back in the news. Hillary Clinton talked about it in a recent speech, and I wrote a post on current developments in Cuba, but the best discussion I have heard lately was on the radio show On The Media. On February 18th, they broadcast an excellent discussion of the topic with Ethan Zuckerman from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. If you are interested in the role of the Internet in politics and democracy, check it out. You can listen to the 19-minute discussion or read the transcript.