Why Techno-Utopians Should Beware

The Fallacies of the "Net Delusion"

Whether it manifests itself in idolizing the crowds of Iranian twitterati who marched in the streets of Tehran armed with nothing but their cell phones, or in discussing the plight of brave Chinese dissidents who increasingly find themselves targets of sophisticated cyber-attacks, there is growing enthusiasm about the power of the Internet to democratize the world.

Such unchecked enthusiasm — which I dub The Net Delusion — rests on two major fallacies. The first one posits that the Internet is making authoritarianism unsustainable, empowering the oppressed and disempowering the oppressors. The second fallacy assumes that various do-gooders — above all, Western governments — could and should mobilize the Internet as a weapon to spread democracy. Taken together, these two fallacies give rise to highly ambiguous policy initiatives like “Internet freedom” — one of the most popular new buzzwords in Washington, DC.

Those who believe that the oppressed are winning over the oppressors tend to overlook the immense flexibility of modern authoritarianism. The reality is that authoritarian governments are likely to adapt themselves to the threats posed by the Internet as skillfully as they have managed to adapt themselves to the threats posed by globalization. Do dictatorships have to change how they operate?  Of course.  But a challenge to become more adept and nimble is not the same as a lethal threat to modern authoritarianism, which has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to modern conditions.

Those touting the democratizing potential of the Internet would be well-advised to look at how it also empowers Big Brother. Thanks to the Internet, governments have suddenly acquired the new means to monitor their citizens; today they can do so by reading their blogs and tracing their cell-phone calls. Their secret police spend countless hours data-mining profiles from social-networking sites to identify previously unknown connections between anti-government activists and their Western supporters. Censorship can now happen almost in real-time rather than retroactively: Chinese bloggers who cannot publish their blog posts because those contain certain sensitive words know this all too well. Blogs and social networks allow the subtle production and dissemination of propaganda.

As for the second fallacy, one limitation to the Internet’s potency as a weapon in Washington’s arsenal of democracy is the basic fact that the U.S. government doesn’t even own the digital infrastructure connecting today’s global public sphere. That infrastructure is in private hands – those of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Before people in Washington woke up to the immense political repercussions of cyberspace, these companies were, more or less, left to their own devices; the Chinese did block many of their services – but then they always held very tight control of information.

Now things are about to worsen,  as every effort by Washington to leverage Silicon Valley’s online dominance is likely to backfire – on Silicon Valley itself. It will become a lot harder for American companies – who are suddenly perceived as nothing but extensions of the U.S. State Department – to do business in places like the Middle East or Southeast Asia. What we are likely to see as a result is the singling out of Internet search as a “strategic industry” – on part with energy and transportation – and offered state protection.

This is hardly good news for the likes of Google; in fact, the governments of Iran, Russia, Turkey have each embarked on creating their own national search engines, mostly with the goal of driving Google out of their local markets. It’s hard to judge how much of this is driven by geopolitical interests and how much by sheer ambition to make money but the emerging connection between Washington and Silicon Valley – most clearly manifesting itself in highly ambitious – and equally ambiguous – State Department initiatives like “21st century statecraft” – can hardly be of much help here.

Yet another problem with assuming that the Internet can be a useful tool in promoting democracy is the assumption that promoting democracy is a consistent objective pursued by Western governments. Dissident activists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – to name a few places – might quibble with this assumption. Were Washington genuinely interested in bringing democracy to Egypt, it would suffice to stop propping the Mubarak regime with aid – there is little need for organizing a Facebook Revolution on the streets of Cairo.

As such, the danger here is that the quest to promote Internet freedom becomes a fetish divorced from the pursuit of more old-fashioned freedoms. Compounding the confusion is the Obama administration’s inability to define what it means by “Internet freedom,” allowing for multiple rather ambiguous interpretations. Had its meaning been limited to the defense of an open and uncensored Internet – an Internet of “radical transparency” tolerant of initiatives like WikiLeaks, covert spying operations like GhostNet, and suspicious viruses like Conficker – it would have been a clear, even if somewhat questionable policy objective.

But in its current iteration, “Internet freedom” is a catch-all term that seems to mix real politics with virtual ones: Washington does want to defend some limited version of the open Internet – which it hopes to be able to control – but with an expectation that democratic movements in places like Iran or China would be able to take advantage of this online freedom to instigate democratic revolutions and challenge their authoritarian governments. Not surprisingly, the latter read the quest to promote “Internet freedom” as little but yet another undercover plan to promote US-inspired “color revolutions” – not confined to the virtual, online realm.

The naivete and irrational exuberance surrounding the call for “Internet Freedom” runs the risk of jeopardizing some of the Internet’s important, but more modest, potential. It very well may be that the greatest promise of the Internet lies in fostering non-political connections and facilitating access to various points of view. The excessive politicization of the Internet resulting from its embrace by crusaders intent on wielding it as the ultimate democratizing weapon might simply deprive people in many parts of the world of some of the online realm’s actual benefits.

Evgeny Morozov is a visiting scholar at Stanford University, a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

*Photo of Iran’s Green Revolution supporter courtesy Andrew Partain.