Revolutionary seems too pale a word for the effect the Internet has had on daily life. So it’s not surprising that many people, including some in positions of great power, believe the Web to be a natural ally of the more traditional kind of revolution, in which oppressed citizens clash with tyrannical governments.
Just as in the days of the 2009 protests in Iran, the news has been flooded with reports of the crucial role played by websites like Facebook and Twitter in the uprisings now making history in North Africa and the Middle East. Even the U.S. State Department has seemed eager to declare Web 2.0 one of the best means ever invented for undermining authoritarian regimes and spreading democracy. Digital networks of dissidents, they say, are simply too fast, fluid, and complex for any dictatorship to break or muzzle.
But Evgeny Morozov isn’t so upbeat. As the Belarusian-born author and Internet scholar argues in his compelling new book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs), the world’s authoritarian regimes are only now beginning to understand and exploit the immense powers of the Web for their own ends.
The Straight reached Morozov at Stanford University, where he’s a visiting scholar.
Georgia Straight: Your book is largely an attack on something you call cyber-utopianism. Could you define that idea for us?
Evgeny Morozov: I think one of the defining features has been a reluctance on behalf of many cyber-utopians to acknowledge that there are many ways that technology also strengthens dictatorships. So far, they have mostly been looking to the brighter side—how activists and pro-democracy movements are using social media and the Web. And they have been somewhat reluctant to see ways in which technology also strengthens dictators, and the way in which many western firms and companies and consultants are actually instrumental in helping those dictatorships make use of the Web. So that element has been completely overlooked.
Another feature of cyber-utopianism that I think is worth mentioning is that they tend to believe that technology has a liberating power, and they tend to believe there is something about technology that can crush political and social structures that may actually be very hard to crush.
GS: As you point out in the book, organizations like the U.S. State Department seem to have a lot of faith in the Internet’s power to promote democracy in dictatorships around the world. But you’re very skeptical about this. You say that it mistakenly backs technological solutions to political or social problems.
EM: The problem with our current discourse about the potential impact of technology is that it’s mostly dominated by technologists. It’s dominated by people who have a hammer, and to them every problem looks like a nail. So, often they’re not even aware of the consequences of hammering it all out.
When someone at the State Department proclaims Facebook to be the most organic tool for promoting democracy the world has ever seen—that’s a direct quote—it may help in the short run by getting more people onto Facebook by making it more popular with dissidents. But in the long run it may well encourage more governments to seek local alternatives to Facebook, or to champion local social-networking sites, or to be much more suspicious of American companies.
The message I’m trying to send is that technology is political, and that many decisions that look like decisions about technology actually are not at all about technology—they are about politics, and they need to be scrutinized as closely as we would scrutinize decisions about politics.
But there is kind of a push to resist critical thinking, and to resist scrutinizing these decisions—as if anything involving technology is by default good and cannot hurt.
I think this is one of the problems with, for example, the State Department’s strategy here in the U.S., because everyone who wants to criticize it now is immediately seen as a Luddite. They’re not seen as useful critics or dissidents, as they would have been if it was about economic development, or if it was about human rights, where dissent is welcomed and encouraged. When it is about technology, there is this tendency to just reject all criticism as being anti-technological and anti-modern. I think this is very unhealthy.
GS: But it would be hard to make that charge against you. As you mention in the book, you were once something of a cyber-utopian yourself. What brought about the shift in your own thinking?
EM: I just spent three years travelling throughout Central Asia and Europe and the Caucasus, and meeting with a lot of bloggers and activists and trying to teach them new media, and trying to teach them to use blogs and social networks. And I thought we were helping democracy to flourish—I was working for an NGO that did all that, so I wasn’t working solo. And in the three years I was doing that, I began to notice that a lot of governments were trying to outwit and outsmart, and were actually much smarter than us.
They were becoming much more sophisticated in terms of Internet control than we ever could have imagined. They were not just blocking access to websites—they were also filtering, and also monitoring bloggers. They were beginning to engage in online surveillance. They were creating all sorts of venues for spreading online propaganda.
GS: The Net Delusion came out right around the time of the uprising in Egypt, when Facebook and other sites were being celebrated as essential organizing resources for the protesters. Do you wish you’d had time to include that event in the book?
EM: Certainly, and not just for what the protesters did with the Internet but also for what the government did with the Internet and mobile networks especially. I’m just not sure how it changes my overall thesis.
The problem with what happened in Egypt is that their government is very unrepresentative of how authoritarian regimes approach the Web. In the case of Egypt, we didn’t see any sophisticated thinking about the Internet on the behalf of the government at all. They didn’t ban any websites, they didn’t engage in online surveillance, they didn’t create an army of bloggers who defend the government online, they didn’t create their own alternatives to Twitter and Facebook.
This is the very opposite of what the Chinese and the Russian governments have been doing online. So, of course, if the Egyptian government left the Internet to itself for the last 10 years, eventually it paid the price.
GS: The Net Delusion offers long list of things that an authoritarian government can learn to use Web for: propaganda, surveillance, censorship, intelligence gathering about its own citizens, even depoliticizing those citizens by distracting them with cheap entertainment. What can be done to counter this?
EM: What I want is for people to realize the seriousness of the situation—that the Web is not necessarily a tool of liberation, that it can be a tool of oppression as well, and that we should do everything possible in our power, those of us in the West, to minimize its oppressive potential.
And how do you minimize its oppressive potential? Well, you can do it a number of ways. You can start looking into who provides technology that makes it possible to engage in online surveillance, to engage in face-recognition, or to engage in monitoring of networks. Again, all of this technology is mostly provided by western firms and western companies. So what we can do is to pass laws that would prevent our own companies from shipping such technology to authoritarian states, the way we prevent firms from shipping arms to those governments.
GS: One of the warnings in the book seems to be that technology can change quickly but human nature remains more or less the same.
EM: That’s something I mentioned in the book, yes. There are definitely things that are changing in terms of how we think about concepts and how we think about the world, how we think about human rights and whatnot.
But a lot of the revolutions, for all the importance we now attribute to social media, are still made possible by the brave acts of people and by the sacrifices of people. More than 300 people died in Egypt, and we didn’t know whether the fact that 300 people died provided more encouragement to those who protested in Tahrir Square than Facebook or Twitter. It’s very easy to lose sight of this human cost and human sacrifices and human factors when it’s just so easy to make an argument about technology.
In some sense I think the reason we have so much cyber-utopianism is because any explanation that puts technology at the centre right now sounds credible, and it doesn’t force you to do any homework. You may know nothing about Bahrain, but just say this revolution happened because of Facebook and you will sound credible on television.