Virtual Voices

Why a cyber-Utopia is a Net Delusion

Books

Conventional wisdom holds that a young Google executive using Facebook and Twitter sparked the recent Egyptian revolution. In the aftermath of the demonstrations that ousted the dictator of Tunisia, Wael Ghonim posted a page titled "We Are All Khaled Said," which memorialized an Egyptian businessman who had been beaten to death by police after he threatened to expose corruption. The page called for protests on Jan. 25, the famous "Day of Wrath," and the resulting Twitter-powered demonstrations brought down President Hosni Mubarak a few weeks later.

The shocking events had commentators wondering how many other Middle Eastern dominoes would fall to "Revolution 2.0." It was rich fodder for the cyber-utopianists, defenders of the "Google Doctrine," and true believers in the inevitably liberating power of technology. Not so fast, says Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. In a remarkable bit of timing, the book was released in January, just before the protests erupted in Egypt.

"Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed their authoritarian skin is just one of the high expectations placed on the Internet these days," Morozov writes. While social media and other web technologies are useful to pro-democracy activists, he explains, whether or not revolutions succeed depends mostly on various internal cultural, economic, and political factors.

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Before Tunisia, Morozov points out, these social media outbursts, such as the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, haven't produced much lasting freedom. Worse, oppressive regimes around the world have co-opted the internet to a remarkable degree to strengthen their holds over their populations.

One egregious example: For the 2009 elections in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, the government installed 500 webcams at polling stations. "It made for good PR, but it didn't make the elections any more democratic," Morozov writes, "for most manipulations have occurred before the election campaign even started." In any case, voters got the point: Somebody was watching.

Similarly, while Facebook pages are great for organizing democratic activism, despotic regimes like Iran also find them handy for tracking down activists for arrest and imprisonment. Countries in some Gulf states and elsewhere are hiring their own pro-government bloggers to counter pro-democracy rhetoric. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is taking on the job himself. In April 2010, he embraced tweeting (to go along with his TV show) and within a month had 500,000 followers. Holding up his Blackberry, he told his TV audience, "The internet can't just be for the bourgeoisie; it's for the ideological battle as well."

Even though countries like China are working on techniques for custom search engine censorship, Morozov argues that the real firewalls to democratic reform are social and cultural. Getting people online won't bring about a revolution in critical thinking or the motivation to make changes. Moreover, social media won't keep desperate, cornered tyrants from blasting rebels with jet-launched rockets, as the civil war in Libya has showed us. Wired Magazine ran a series in February called "Evgeny Morozov Tweets Libya." One article referred to a well-known quote from a cyberutopianist, which read: "@netfreedom 'Killing innocent civilians and propaganda not possible today thanks to web 2.0' -> have you been reading the news?"

Morozov wrote his book because he cares, deeply, about promoting democracy around the world. It is in many ways a reaction, as he explains, to a simplistic presumption he himself once held-cyber-utopianism rooted in Enlightenment optimism-that political freedom is the automatic result of more networks, more connections, and the free flow of knowledge and ideas. But the internet has also enabled violent nationalists, religiously motivated terrorists, organized criminals, and pedophiles to make more connections and form their own Jeffersonian "associations."

This echoes the history of many new technologies. Boosters of the telegraph promised it would be "the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world." People thought the airplane would promote democracy. Radio would raise the level of political discourse, until the "age of radio" included not only Roosevelt and Churchill but also Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.

The correct approach, Morozov writes, is not to abandon the internet because of this overblown optimism, but to think critically and specifically about its effects regarding foreign policy. There is no silver bullet for authoritarianism, and to continue the search for an antidote wastes attention that could be focused on smaller, specific, manageable problems.

While vague as to exactly what he means by "manageable problems," Morozov has a bigger problem: He forgets that religious freedom and political freedom are so intertwined as to be inseparable. The drive for free speech and free presses in the West had its roots in the desire for free worship. It's no coincidence that the First Amendment bundles together freedoms of religion, free speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition government.

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