Updated: Sun., Jan. 2, 2011, 4:18 AM
Hope springs e-ternal By EVGENY MOROZOV, New York Post
Last Updated: 4:18 AM, January 2, 2011
Posted: 11:21 PM, January 1, 2011
When, on a 2009 trip to China, Barack Obama proclaimed that “the more freely information flows, the stronger the society,” he was only echoing Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement (made in 1989) that “information is the oxygen of the modern age.” Most American politicians spent the two decades in between these statements — right until they hit the WikiLeaks iceberg — under the mysterious spell of information technology and its power to spread democracy.
This is hardly surprising, given that so many in the West still believe that it was Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, along with technology smuggled into the Soviet Union, that destroyed communism. Such triumphalism views about the Cold War’s end have survived well into the new millennium; as late as 2005, Thomas Friedman, the cheerleader-in-chief of liberation technology, wrote that “totalitarian systems depend on a monopoly of information and force, and too much information started to slip through the Iron Curtain, thanks to the spread of fax machines, telephones, and other modern tools of communication.”
However, such cyber-utopianism alone cannot explain the wild enthusiasm with which America’s ruling elites greeted the arrival of the Internet. Their other crucial assumption was, and, to a certain degree, still is, that the whole of humanity shares a democracy gene. If only the Iranians or the Chinese had the tools to act, they would long overthrow their dictators! The Internet, such logic goes, would allow America to promote democracy without having to send in the Marines.
Sadly, the vast majority of those oppressed by authoritarianism have pragmatically reasoned that their iPads would be far better employed to play Angry Birds or watch Lady Gaga videos than to download reports from Amnesty International or edit Wikipedia entry on “human rights.” Globalization has boosted the fortunes of the middle classes even in authoritarian states; thus, the Internet, once thought to be the chief tool of dissent, has become the chief tool of consumerism. (In this, modern Russians, Iranians and Chinese hardly differ from Americans and Western Europeans.)
Those few cyber rebels inevitably discover that their governments also are aggressively using the Internet to track and suppress dissent. Secret police routinely go through social networking profiles of suspicious activists, noting down any previously unknown connections between activists and their foreign supporters. A few weeks after the protests began in Tehran, the Iranian secret police began intimidating Iranians abroad, analyzing their online activity during the so-called Twitter Revolution. Those who left a pro-Green Movement digital trail somewhere on the Internet were advised to stop — or see their relatives back in Iran in trouble.
In China, Internet surveillance has already become a profitable industry. In fact, a growing number of private firms eagerly assist the local police by aggregating this data and presenting it in easy-to-browse formats, allowing humans to pursue more analytical tasks.
Of course, the fact that Big Brother is so active online does not stop some brave Internet activists from taking the risks and organizing online campaigns, using Facebook and Twitter as their virtual offices. There is no denying the fact that many of these campaigns — especially those dedicated to social rather than political causes — achieve their goals.
However, to be truly effective on a political level such digital campaigns need to be integrated with mainstream opposition movements in these countries; otherwise, they risk sucking in the very brave young people who may be fighting more important fights offline. Anyone who believes that “Twitter revolutionaries” would be able to topple the regimes in Tehran or Beijing on their own are only playing in the hands of the dictators, many of whom are quite content to see their troublesome youths to protest in virtual — rather than real — town squares. The Internet is more helpful in allowing the dissatisfied to blow off their steam rather than in orchestrating the next revolution.
Most Washington insiders, however, pay no attention to such subtleties, still operating inside Ronald Reagan’s “technology = democracy” bubble. And blogs and tweets seem to have replaced fax machines and photocopiers as America’s leading democracy exports: In January 2010, Hillary Clinton announced that “Internet freedom” — a concept as utopian as it is ambiguous — would become a new pillar of American foreign policy.
One year in, the subject of “Internet freedom” has allowed many State Department officials to embark on lengthy speeches about China and Iran, while deflecting attention from America’s own culpability. Doesn’t Facebook have a rather spotty record on respecting user privacy and freedom of expression? Doesn’t Amazon boot clients off its cloud storage service without waiting for a court order? Doesn’t Cisco build and export technology that authoritarian governments use to censor the Internet?
Most importantly, isn’t it American politicians who demand a kill-switch button for the Internet and want to re-engineer it to make it easier to eavesdrop on online conversations? Shouldn’t America’s fight for Internet freedom start at home for it to be taken seriously by the rest of the world? The least we can do is to make it harder for dictators to use the Web to suppress their own citizens; this would help the causes of Internet freedom far more than Hillary Clinton’s bombastic speeches about “the information curtain.”
Evgeny Morozov is the author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” (PublicAffairs).