Web of Light or Web of Darkness?

Will the Internet foster democracy by disseminating information, frustrating censorship, and promoting citizen networking that circumvents and subverts repressive governments? The drama of the 2009 demonstrations in Iran (which ultimately failed to change the regime) has been used as evidence of the power of digital networking to defy repressive regimes. And WikiLeaks seems to prove that the genie of censorship cannot be bottled in the Internet Age.

But in his new book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov disparages the optimism of those who think that digital technology will undermine dictatorship -- that the revolution will be tweeted. Morozov, a wunderkind blogger on technology and freedom and now a visiting scholar at Stanford, warns against "cyber -- utopians." The Internet, he contends, will not free us from dictatorships; the battle against authoritarian governments will have to be waged on all fronts.

One foil whom he uses is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who gave a landmark speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in January 2010. Saying that information has never been so free, Clinton praised websites in Haiti that helped coordinate relief efforts after the earthquake, mobile-banking websites in Africa that fight poverty, and online organizing that monitored elections in Iran and Moldova. Clinton also commended the State Department for working to protect individuals silenced by oppressive governments.

Morozov, by contrast, emphasizes the Internet's potential for repressing liberty. Authoritarian governments, he notes, are increasingly sophisticated at using digital technology to destroy political dissidents and are going online themselves. Morozov, who was born in Belarus, attributes cyber optimism to an American naivete that historically has seen technology as a way of bringing progress. He invokes as examples the predictions that radio and telegraph would bring world peace.

Last October, Macolm Gladwell argued in The New Yorker that social media does not a revolution make. Updating your Facebook page from the comfort of your own iPad is not the same as actually going out to the street and risking tear gas, bullets, or life in jail. In the failed 2009 democracy demonstrations in Iran, social media had scant impact. In fact, most of the online activity came from people simply seeking information about what was happening.

Morozov goes further than Gladwell, contending that not only are social media useless at spreading democracy but that worse, digital innovation is often captured by dictators. He cites crackdowns in Morocco, Iran, and other countries that took place after governments used Facebook to find and smash networks of activists linked to each other online. In a chapter on the "spinternet," Morozov recounts how China and Russia are co-opting online discussion. In Russia, the government has formed alliances with leading bloggers such as Alexey Chadayev and Maksim Kononenko in a successful attempt to turn the blogosphere away from political commentary and into an apolitical world of soft porn and light entertainment.

In China, the Beijing regime hires bloggers to post comments supporting the government. After Li Qiaoming, a peasant from Yunnan province died in Puning County jail in 2009, "netizens" accused the police of murdering him. The Chinese government responded quickly, not by investigating and punishing the prison authorities but by calling on netizens to join a committee to help investigate the death. The end result was a whitewash, a report concluding that the facts of his death were unclear. And in Iran, hard-liners have set up religious blogs, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard flooded the Internet with pro-government tweets after the 2009 "Twitter Revolution."

Morozov also attacks the tacit support that authoritarian regimes receive from U.S. companies. In March 2010, the Financial Times reported that IBM provides China Mobile with technology intended to prevent spam. According to Morozov, the technology can also be used to track social networks. Google intermittently cooperates with Chinese government censorship, and Morozov speculates that Google's ability to track what words Russian citizens commonly search might be fodder for Russia's intelligence agencies.

Even when U.S. companies are not clearly aiding and abetting dictators, private entrepreneurs and ham-handed U.S. government sanctions often backfire, Morozov reports. Tech company Haystack was given a license to sell in Iran. Its 25-year-old founder, Austin Heap, was praised in the media for offering software that could help Iranians foil Web censorship. To this day, however, Haystack has not provided information on how it processes and stores data, which Morozov contends "left digital traces that the Iranian government could use to identify users." Because of U.S. sanctions against the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe, according to Morozov, Internet provider BlueHost terminated all of its Zimbabwe contracts and shut out Kubatana, a civil-society group that opposes President Robert Mugabe. In this case, it took a letter from the U.S. Department of Treasury to persuade BlueHost to reinstate Kubatana, but the group declined the offer.

Going online, Morozov argues, does not make us different or better than we are offline. Organizations of neo-Nazis, organ traders, and pornographers have all embraced the Internet. Joining an online Bible-study group for gays in Nigeria is not the same thing as transforming widespread homo -- phobic attitudes and policies or actually opening doors to a homophobic Nigerian church.

Morozov includes a learned history of technology, marshals hundreds of examples from around the world, and invokes a range of social critics from Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Noting that Orwell stressed the repressive and ideological nature of dictatorships while Huxley's dystopia described how governments co-opt dissent with consumerism and commercialization, Morozov says both techniques describe the Internet Age. "To assume that a government would be choosing between reading their citizens' mail or feeding them with cheap entertainment is to lose sight of the possibility that a smart government may be doing both," Morozov writes.

The Net Delusion is a thoughtful and entertaining takedown of some of our more far-fetched fantasies about technology and democracy. But it may be a little too pessimistic. As Philip Howard demonstrates in The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, a far more measured critique that assesses the use of the Internet in the Middle East, the online world does help citizens publicize official wrongdoings and opens up civic space for discussion and debate. Despite censorship, the Internet does increase the flow of information to people in closed societies. Yes, struggles for liberty will have to be waged on multiple fronts, but it is hard to find a cyber enthusiast who contends otherwise. In the end, it may not be a utopian fantasy to hope the Internet is ultimately an ally of democracy.

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