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Socialism Today 149 - June 2011

Virtual revolution

The Net Delusion – how not to liberate the world

Evgeny Morozov

Published Allen Lane, 2011, £14-99

Reviewed by Judy Beishon

IS THE internet a wonderful new tool for achieving democracy and freedom across the world? This is the question that Evgeny Morozov examines, tearing apart step by step the many arguments of Western mainstream politicians and commentators that it is. "Opening up closed societies and flushing them with democracy juice until they shed off their authoritarian skin is just one of the high expectations placed on the internet these days", he notes. He calls this "cyber-utopianism". He also criticises "internet-centrism", the implementation of policies that are based on cyber-utopianism.

Morozov reminds us that this attitude is nothing new: "the rhetoric that accompanied predictions about earlier technologies was usually every bit as sublime as today’s quasi-religious discourse about the power of the internet". For instance, in 1868 the British ambassador to the US said that the telegraph would transmit knowledge of events, remove causes of misunderstanding and promote peace and harmony throughout the world.

The telegraph certainly aided the progress of capitalism and imperialism. By 1889, however, the Spectator journal was condemning it for causing "a vast diffusion of what is called ‘news’, the recording of every event, and especially of every crime, everywhere without perceptible interval of time. The constant diffusion of statements in snippets… must in the end, one would think, deteriorate the intelligence of all to whom the telegraph appeal".

Morozov similarly examines claims made later about the radio and then television, adding the qualification: "Predicting the future of the internet is a process marked by far greater complexity than predicting the future of television because the web is a technology that can be put to so many different uses at such a cheap price".

The US neo-cons have taken cyber-utopianism the furthest, though there are not many mainstream politicians who have not succumbed to it. For instance, Gordon Brown, when UK prime minister, said the 2009 uprising in Iran was a reminder of the way that people are using new technology. He concluded: "You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken". Morozov responds: "On Brown’s logic, the millions who poured into the streets of London, New York, Rome and other cities on February 15, 2003, to protest the impending onset of the Iraq war made one silly mistake: They didn’t blog enough about it".

On the many comments in the media saying that the Iranian uprising would not have happened without Twitter, Morozov argues that there is no conclusive evidence that a large number of people in the opposition Green movement in Iran actually were tweeting. A mistaken impression could have been given by the tweets of Iranians in the three-million-strong diaspora and other sympathisers. In early 2010, Al-Jazeera’s director of new media said that "fact-checking by his channel during the protests could confirm only 60 active Twitter accounts in Tehran, a number that fell to six once the Iranian authorities cracked down on online communications".

Morozov criticises the US State Department for asking Twitter to keep its services going for Iranians during the uprising instead of shutting down for planned maintenance work. He argues that this and the many claims carried in the Western media that US-based companies like Facebook are ‘promoting democracy’ around the world have resulted in authoritarian regimes clamping down on internet communication by protesters.

While he is right to warn about and draw attention to the close links between companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google with the US establishment (which he does several times), his idea that authoritarian regimes would not have readily noticed these links had the US government and media acted differently is over-egged. In any case, the internet has rapidly become a much-used tool of authoritarian regimes themselves and this is a central theme of the book. Morozov explains how it has enormously aided their ability to develop methods of surveillance and censorship and has therefore dealt out new dangers to opposition activists.

Many examples are given of the way in which authoritarian governments have developed use of the internet for propaganda purposes. The author says: "It’s high time that we disabuse ourselves of the naive belief that the internet makes it easier to see the truth and avoid government shaping of the news agenda". He explains that the state is better positioned to step into the ‘decentralised’ public discourse on the internet than individual bloggers, etc, with examples such as the ‘news’ and entertainment dished out online by the Russian government, the games and music downloads provided by the Chinese government and the social networking site launched by Vietnam’s ministry of information and communications.

Morozov now lives in the US but was born in Belarus in eastern Europe and shows a particular interest in that region. He analyses and dismisses the idea that communism in eastern Europe failed because the regimes had a ‘monopoly on information’ or that "tearing down firewalls can match the tearing down of the Berlin wall".

His frustration at seeing various degrees of authoritarianism still existing in eastern Europe comes through in his book. He points out at length that governments and big business use cheap internet entertainment partly to try to distract people from politics and opposition activity. This is true. But, in assessing the consequences, he shows little understanding of the factors that propel workers towards political involvement and mass struggle and little confidence that they will move into action in eastern Europe. Instead, he concludes that "the drive for entertainment simply outweighs the drive for political knowledge". This leads him to dismiss the "politics favoured by the masses" in Russia as "populist, xenophobic, and vulgar", in one passage. In another, he says that the masses of Belarus "have drowned in a bottomless reservoir of spin and hedonism". Perhaps he is revising some of his views in the light of the revolutions that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East since he wrote his book!

The Net Delusion is rich in interesting information and many of Morozov’s conclusions ring true. He recognises the benefits of the internet for opposition movements: that the means of communication it provides can alter the "likelihood and the size of a protest". Understandably, however, he felt it necessary to devote his book to the widespread exaggerations of the role actually played by these new means.

He makes apposite comments about the problem of people thinking that they can be political activists through supporting causes on Facebook instead of engaging in political activity on the streets and through face-to-face discussions and meetings. Facebook and Twitter have not proved to be successful ways of converting "awareness into action", he notes, and quips: "Today, aspiring digital revolutionaries can stay on their sofas forever – or until their iPads’ batteries run out".

Some opposition bloggers achieve a level of prominence, he adds, but they can "operate without much in the way of popular appeal. Instead of building sustainable political movements on the ground they spend their time receiving honorary awards at Western conferences and providing trenchant critiques of their governments in interviews with Western media". They often become better known outside their own countries than inside.

Importantly, Morozov warns that, although the internet can be a valuable means of communication in opposition movements, it can also be used to spread misinformation and rumours as easily as useful information. He also touches on the lack of democratic, organised debate and the lack of leadership that are hallmarks of social networking sites: "When every node on the network can send a message to all other nodes, confusion is the new default equilibrium". In contrast: "Revolutions prize centralisation and require fully committed leaders, strict discipline, absolute dedication, and strong relationships based on trust".

The author tries to suggest the best ways that dissident activists can be helped by Western governments, for example, by giving them the latest encryption and privacy-protection technology. He criticises the fact that Western companies provide authoritarian governments with technology that can aid internet censorship and surveillance, and that Western sanctions on technology exports to a number of countries can conflict with rhetoric about ‘internet freedom’.

He observes that the top web-based service (mainly US) companies engage in their own censorship globally. For example, "a 2009 study found that Microsoft has been censoring what users in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Algeria and Jordan could find through its Bing search engine much more heavily than the governments of those countries".

However, Morozov expresses confusion. On the one hand, he largely adopts the premise that Western ‘policy-makers’ are engaged in the noble act of spreading ‘democracy’ around the world, the problem being that they do not sufficiently recognise the pros and cons of the internet in doing so.

On the other hand, he admits: "Technologists… can talk all they want about the ‘internet freedom agenda’… but it is not going to alter what motivates the United States to behave as it does in the Middle East or Central Asia any more than its overall concerns with human rights and freedom of expression. Concerns over getting oil out of Azerbaijan won’t give way to concerns over getting tweets from the Azeri opposition anytime soon, if only because Washington has long made a strategic decision not to undermine the friendly Azeri regime".

Furthermore, Morozov notes that "some Western governments – Australia leads the pack here – are constantly flirting with censorship schemes that bear an eerie resemblance to those of China", and he gives some examples. It is true that Western capitalist governments are using domestically more and more of the repressive measures previously seen mainly in authoritarian regimes. On the issue of the foreign policy of Western governments, socialists would go a step further and say that, rather than promoting democracy and human rights, they are using these issues as a mask to further their interests globally in gaining trade advantages and further exploiting human labour and natural resources.

The book reminds us that the internet is also widely used by racists, exploiters in the sex industry, and terrorists. And it describes some of the sinister uses that new developments could lead to in the future, including customised censorship, the use of face- or voice-recognition technology for repressive purposes, more cyberwarfare and cybercrime.

But, unintentionally, it also gives glimpses of how the internet could significantly aid the development of a future socialist planned economy. Even today, Morozov notes that, aggregating "tiny digital trails into one big data set – sometimes across entire populations – could produce illuminating insights into human behaviour, point to new trends, and help predict public reaction to particular political or social developments". Google is able to run a "powerful marketing intelligence firm", based on what people search for.

The technological means to collate the views and wishes of millions of people using a few keyboard strokes will be a very useful tool in a democratically run socialist society, if accompanied by democratic discussion at all levels by elected representatives in the ‘real’ world.

What are Evgeny Morozov’s conclusions? While recognising that technology does create change, he rightly rejects ‘technological determination’, the idea that change is preordained by the technology adopted.

He is also on the right lines when he rejects the idea that technology is neutral. Although he expresses it in a confused and sometimes incorrect way, he recognises that it is created to serve certain interests and is "embedded into enabling social environments". Socialists would say that it is presently part of class society, capitalism, which means that, ultimately, one or other class (or a section of a class) is using it in its own particular interests.

Morozov realises that "most of the firewalls to be destroyed are social and political rather than technological in nature". But the furthest he goes in advocating changes in society are comments such as: "for the internet to play a constructive role in ridding the world of prejudice and hatred, it needs to be accompanied by an extremely ambitious set of social and political reforms".

Within capitalism (as he does not think beyond it) he argues that the controversial issue of anonymity should be addressed by "democratic deliberation", and Western government foreign policies for ‘internet freedom’ should be guided not by internet ‘experts’ but by those who are familiar with the situation in the target countries.

Overall, he concludes pessimistically: "It’s highly doubtful that wicked [ie the most challenging] problems can ever be resolved on a global scale". This attitude is not surprising as he approvingly quotes a Columbia university intellectual as characterising people in general as a "mixture of greed, pride, arrogance and hostility". Morozov adds: "Technology changes all the time; human nature hardly ever". A socialist could counterpoise this with: It is capitalism that causes greed and hostility; workers will remove it and create a society in which technology can be developed for the good of all.

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