My following article appears in today’s ABC Unleashed:

Fidel Castro controlled Cuba for nearly half a century. His rule was defined by defiance and dictatorship, brutal repression against dissidents and the management of an immoral American embargo. Free speech has always been the Achilles’ heel of the regime.

During my visit to the island last year – researching a book on the internet in non-democratic countries – I saw a population that craved access to the outside world.

Web and mobile phone penetration is the lowest in Latin America. I met computer students who studied the internet, but couldn’t access an unfiltered system. Cyber-rebels are increasingly challenging this information apartheid. I talked with hip-hop kids who loved gangsta rap they saw on satellite television. They cared little for revolutionary thought. Being able to buy consumer goods such as ipods was far more important.

It was a similar pattern across the globe, as I travelled from Egypt to Iran, Syria to Saudi Arabia and finally China.

The internet was playing a leading role in citizens talking to government and often challenging its archaic rules. Some simply wanted to meet boys and girls online. Others loved downloading pirated films and music. Only a handful craved political engagement.

A growing number of repressive regimes are experiencing the “Dictator’s Dilemma” defined in 1993 by Christopher Kedzie as “having to choose between open communications (encouraging economic development) and closed communications (controlling ‘dangerous’ ideas)”.

China maintains the world’s most effective internet censorship, dubbed “The Great Firewall” or “The Golden Shield Project”.

Tens of thousands of people are employed to monitor web traffic. Western companies such as Cisco, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have willingly assisted officials in their goals and sensitive subjects such Taiwan, Tibet and democracy are routinely excised.

Over 210 million Chinese netizens – with 200,000 more going online for the first time every day – are leading a massive shift in the country’s relationship with central power, both allowing the regime a unique way to gauge public opinion and an opportunity for others to challenge corruption and pollution.

Although China is preparing for the likely onslaught of international pressure during the August Olympics over its human rights violations, the Communist nation is only the most infamous example of internet censorship.

Iran, especially under the leadership of hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has led a purging of journalists, dissidents, prominent women and unionists.

Although the country’s online culture is arguably one of the most robust in the Middle East – and I met many bloggers there who bravely challenged the mullah’s grip on power – Western companies are contributing to the country’s isolation.

Yahoo and Microsoft quietly removed Iran from the country lists of their webmail services last year, claiming US sanctions forced their hand. My investigations suggest that these moves were probably a pre-emptive buckle, fearful of Bush administration sanction. Google’s Gmail service still features Iran on its country list.

Internet censorship is becoming a key human rights issue around the world, highlighted by leading NGOs and the European Union.

In a new book titled Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Policy, writers Ronald Deibart and Rafal Rohozinski remain optimistic that despite the best efforts of many dictatorial regimes, “it seems apparent that no one agent will be able to dominate cyberspace entirely, but many will be able to push technologies, regulations, and norms that affect it.”

I spent time in Saudi Arabia with leading blogger and activist Fouad al-Farhan. He is a Muslim moderate who campaigns for the establishment of democratic institutions in the US-backed dictatorship. He was arrested in late 2007 and remains imprisoned for unspecified “crimes” but sources suggest it is because he campaigned for the release of jailed activists.

Farhan’s writings provide an invaluable insight into one of the most repressive nations on earth.

Cinemas and music concerts are banned. Women are not allowed to drive or work in most industries. He told me about the ways in which some of his friends and families wanted to embrace gradual change while others desired going to Iraq and fighting the American “invaders”.

Without bloggers in Saudi Arabia, we would have little idea of the nation’s true state.

The internet will not automatically democratise all societies or bring Western-style reform. Many bloggers and activists I met across the world hoped for the exact opposite.

Its uncontrolled unpredictability has proven to the mainstream media that local voices will usually trump their own superficial understandings.