The Magazine

Web and Circus

The Internet isn’t necessarily freedom’s friend.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By LUKE ALLNUTT
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The Net Delusion

Web and Circus

Internet café, Tehran

Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom

The Dark Side of
Internet Freedom

by Evgeny Morozov

PublicAffairs, 432 pp., $27.95

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing authoritarian regimes as somnolent beasts: sluggish, reactive, and at times ridiculous, with their fetish for uniforms and propaganda. More often than not, however, the opposite is true. One of the themes running through Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion is that it is dynamism and willingness to change rather than stagnation that allows authoritarian regimes to survive.

That ability to adapt is seen clearly in the way repressive regimes have dealt with the Internet. Early Internet theorists, often with their 1960s libertarian ideals, thought the web would eventually make nation-states obsolete and bring people-powered democracy to the world. Their Internet was cosmopolitan and liberal; they were using it for good and they expected the world to do the same. And it wasn’t just the left. Many on the right, buoyed by America’s role in helping bring down the Berlin Wall, saw the Internet as a tool of democracy promotion. Blogging was the new samizdat: Tear down that firewall! In the summer of 2009, the initial breathless coverage in the West about the role of social media in Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” was the apex of that hubris, which cut across political divisions.

But rather than paving the path to freedom, Morozov, a blogger and journalist originally from Belarus, argues that authoritarian regimes haven’t just managed to tame the Internet but have used it to bolster their regimes. For every anecdote of how the Internet or digital media have helped activists working in repressive regimes, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a sinister flip side. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians used Facebook to organize protests against FARC rebels in 2008, but governments can also use social-networking sites to infiltrate activists’ networks. The Iranian webspace is full of blogs, but they aren’t all written by modern-day Václav Havels; some are the work of hard-line clerics or members of the brutal Basij militia. While activists can use cell-phone cameras to film ballot box-stuffing and spread the videos through social-networking sites, their governments can also reap the benefits of digitization. These days surveillance is easier and cheaper, and more people can be spied on than ever before.

Where there is censorship, it is getting more sophisticated. Morozov points out that censorship in the future could work much like behavioral advertising: tracking our paths on the web in order to build up complex personality profiles. Browsing could become highly personalized. An impressionable young Iranian student with a taste for underground hip-hop might be kept away from international news websites, but a commodities trader might be given access, as her work could suffer without it. And rather than shrinking in fear at the power of social media and blogging, repressive governments are embracing it. In China there is a cyber-army of 280,000 pro-government propagandists known as the “50 cent party,” who are paid to comment on articles and in web forums. Twitter isn’t just the domain of Silicon Valley super-users but also Hugo Chávez, who has more than a million followers.

Sometimes the weapons used by the authorities are subtler still. Morozov writes that “while we thought the Internet might give us a generation of ‘digital renegades,’ it may have given us a generation of ‘digital captives,’ who know how to find comfort online, whatever the political realities of the physical world.” Thus in Vietnam, web users can’t access Amnesty International reports, but they can view as much pornography as they want. In authoritarian Belarus, Internet service providers “run their own servers full of illegal movies and music” available for free. The government looks the other way. If the kids have ripped versions of the latest Hollywood releases they are less likely to take to the streets, or so the logic goes. With the exception of basket cases such as North Korea, authoritarian regimes can end up looking more like Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984, where instead of sustaining themselves through sadism and lies they rely on cheap entertainment for the masses.

For all The Net Delusion’s sound logic, the problem (as the author admits) is, “The Internet does matter, but we simply don’t know how it matters.” Given the age of the Internet, we are still in the land of conjecture. A recent report by the U.S. Institute of Peace, “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics,” had the same conclusion: “The sobering answer is that, fundamentally, no one knows. To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence.” We simply don’t know yet if a grass-roots democracy movement will grow out of an illegal file-sharing forum, or whether “liking” a cause on Facebook could actually detract from offline campaigning.

For policymakers, this is a worthy and nuanced take on the value of the United States promoting an Internet freedom agenda. Morozov takes the wind out of the sails of the alliance of geeks and wonks who “endow the Internet with nearly magical qualities; for them, it’s the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries.” And while the author admits he used to be “intoxicated with cyber-utopianism,” he does not write with the phony fervor and fundamentalism of the reborn. Nor does he argue that, because the Internet can be used by both aid workers and al Qaeda, the United States should retreat into isolationism or abandon promoting Internet freedom. Rather, he advocates a policy of “cyber-realism” where, instead of fetishizing the Internet, we see it as “an ally in achieving specific policy objectives.”

As the Internet is treated less like a dark art by those in power, and as our understanding of its benefits and limitations grows, that “cyber-realist” perspective is likely to prevail.

Luke Allnutt is editor in chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s English website.

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