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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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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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