Just a few years ago, all anyone could talk about was how to make the Internet more free. Now all anyone can talk about is how to control it.
Book and newspaper publishers look for ways to protect their original content. Parents seek to shield their children from cyberbullying. Legislators explore mechanisms that will defend people’s privacy. Governments try to find the means to keep classified materials from leaking onto the Web. Entrepreneurs and public figures struggle to keep rivals or enemies from slandering them or their businesses. And more and more of us are terrified of being watched, filmed and uploaded, about as terrified as other people are titillated by watching, filming and uploading.
The miraculously convenient technology of the Internet has created an unprecedented simultaneity of moral functions. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is like an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. It turns out that what was recently considered a brave new age of information was actually the first spasm in a long process of cultural realignment. We are all used to thinking of Google as though it were synonymous with the word “future.” In 50 years, people will be talking about Google the way we talk about the East India Company. We are still wobbling in the baby steps of the Internet age.
As Evgeny Morozov demonstrates in “The Net Delusion,” his brilliant and courageous book, the Internet’s contradictions and confusions are just becoming visible through the fading mist of Internet euphoria. Morozov is interested in the Internet’s political ramifications. “What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?” he asks. The Net delusion of his title is just that. Contrary to the “cyberutopians,” as he calls them, who consider the Internet a powerful tool of political emancipation, Morozov convincingly argues that, in freedom’s name, the Internet more often than not constricts or even abolishes freedom.
Morozov recounts a speech given by Hillary Clinton a year ago in which she proclaimed the power and the glory of the Internet, speaking of “harnessing the power of connection technologies” to “put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights.” Clinton was perhaps not aware that, as Morozov wryly puts it, “the most popular Internet searches on Russian search engines are not for ‘what is democracy?’ or ‘how to protect human rights’ but for ‘what is love?’ and ‘how to lose weight.’ ” And she had perhaps forgotten the speech she herself made in 2005. On that occasion, she characterized the Internet as “the biggest technological challenge facing parents and children today,” calling it “an instrument of enormous danger.”
Clinton’s strange double perspective, in which the Internet is liberating in undemocratic societies yet fraught with potential harm here, is the kind of contradiction Morozov is out to expose. He labels it “digital Orientalism,” the belief that in repressive societies, the Internet can be a force only for benevolent political change.
He quotes the political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who proclaimed after protesters took to the streets in Tehran that “the revolution will be Twittered.” The revolution never happened, and the futilely tweeting protesters were broken with an iron hand. But Sullivan was hardly the only one to ignore the Iranian context. Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”
Two decades of inane patter about the magical powers of a technology of mere convenience had transformed Twitter — once the domain of “a bunch of bored hipsters who had an irresistible urge to share their breakfast plans,” as Morozov mordantly writes — into an engine of political revolution. Or as Jon Stewart put it, mocking the belief in the Internet’s ability to transform intractable places like Iraq and Afghanistan: “Why did we have to send an army when we could have liberated them the same way we buy shoes?”
The Iranian protests against what the protesters believed was a corrupt election were brutally crushed because, as Morozov unsentimentally says, “many Iranians found the elections to be fair.” The elements of a successful revolution — the complicity of the military, of a powerful political class, of an almost universally discontented population — simply weren’t there. But the Internet boosters, from journalists to officials in the State Department, succumbed, Morozov says, to “the pressure to forget the context and start with what the Internet allows.” These people think only in terms of the Internet and are “deaf to the social, cultural and political subtleties and indeterminacies” of a given situation.
What was broadcast on Twitter and elsewhere was repression of the revolution. The Iranian regime used the Web to identify photographs of protesters; to find out their personal information and whereabouts (through Facebook, naturally); to distribute propagandistic videos; and to text the population into counterrevolutionary paranoia.
Nor did it help when a young State Department official named Jared Cohen asked Twitter to postpone planned maintenance work on its site to avoid interrupting the flow of messages from the protesters. Word of Twitter’s immediate compliance got out, thus increasing Iran’s, China’s and other repressive regimes’ resolve to exploit the Internet to their political ends.
In Morozov’s eyes, this sort of backlash to Internet “freedom” is routine. Polygamy may be illegal in Turkey, but that doesn’t stop Turkish villagers from using the Internet to find multiple wives. Mexican crime gangs use social networking sites to gather information about their victims. Russian neofascists employ the Internet to fix the positions of minorities in order to organize pogroms. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela wrote to a young critic on Twitter, “Hello Mariana, the truth is I’m an anti-dictator.” LOL!
As Morozov points out, don’t expect corporations like Google to liberate anyone anytime soon. Google did business in China for four years before economic conditions and censorship demands — not human rights concerns — forced it out. And it is telling that both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, a pact that Morozov describes as “an industrywide pledge . . . to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right to freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Morozov urges the cyberutopians to open their eyes to the fact that the asocial pursuit of profit is what drives social media. “Not surprisingly,” he writes, “the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation.” In 2007, when he was at the State Department, Jared Cohen wrote with tragic wrongheadedness that “the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can . . . say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus.” Thanks to the exciting new technology, many of those freely texting Iranian youths are in prison or dead. Cohen himself now works for Google as the director of “Google Ideas.”
For Morozov, technology is a vacuum waiting to be filled with the strongest temperament. And the Internet, he maintains, is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television. Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.”
Morozov, born in Belarus, writes about the optimism of the cyberutopians the way Soviet dissidents once wrote about the optimism of Communist utopians. He also exhibits traces of the Eastern European intellectual’s fatalist gloom, from time to time seeming so overwhelmed by the fact of human nature that he despairs over the invention of any type of technology that might improve our lot. “Technology changes all the time,” he writes, “human nature hardly ever.”
For example, one way around the danger of a government’s confiscating a dissident’s hard drive would be to store information on the Internet, “in the cloud.” All you would need to gain access to your files would be your password. Even this does not reassure Morozov, however, who concludes that a repressive regime could always “learn the password by torturing the system administrator.” But this is like saying that because planes crash one must never fly.
For Morozov, the prospect of unintended consequences may alone discredit any type of purpose. Take the case of Andrew Sullivan. Hardly a political naïf, Sullivan responded to the Iranian protests out of an engaged commitment to human freedom. When the Iranian regime began its repression, he tirelessly documented the horror. Such bitter memories, now digitally preserved, give longevity to hope.
Morozov is vulnerable on another front as well. Making an argument similar to one put forth by Theodor Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School nearly a century ago, Morozov bemoans what he cutely calls “slacktivism,” the tendency of the Internet to distract a population from any type of serious political engagement. But the Internet’s infinite diversions have not kept Russian neofascists and Japanese nationalists from persecuting ethnic minorities, as Morozov documents. In some respects, a universal passiveness induced by distraction is a historical godsend.
And Morozov is too impressed by Kierke?gaard’s essay “The Present Age,” in which the philosopher excoriated the rise of mass journalism. Kierkegaard was prescient in much of his critique, but he left out one important fact. Mass journalism and democracy are inextricably entwined. Henry Luce and Comrade Stalin are two diametrically opposed animals.
But the pendulum has swung so far and so long to the cyberutopians’ side that a little extremism is needed to correct the imbalance. Morozov has dared to argue that the Internet has exposed democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Too often the morally malleable Web has the effect of crushing community under the weight of bad pluralisms and atrocious diversities. In that regard, the Internet is creating an egalitarian antidemocracy in which the strongest inhumanity tramples on the most eloquent rationality and decency.