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The Internet: For Better or for Worse

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Marta Ramoneda/Polaris
Wael Ghonim (center), the Egyptian Google executive who started the Facebook group ‘We Are All Khaled Said,’ at a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 8, 2011

Last June, Khaled Said, a twenty-eight-year-old Alexandrian, suffered a vicious public beating at the hands of Egyptian police. Several witnesses documented the assault with cell phone cameras. Said apparently died from his wounds, but the police claimed he had choked to death on illegal drugs. Outraged Egyptians posted contrary evidence on Facebook pages and on YouTube. In Dubai, Wael Ghonim, a twenty-nine-year-old Google marketing executive originally from Cairo, employed his business and design skills to construct a Facebook protest community based on the slogan “We Are All Khaled Said,” where people could join an online protest of the case.

Ghonim’s anonymous campaign eventually attracted 473,000 online adherents, a striking number even in a nation the size of Egypt, which has a population of 85 million. Last December, as street protests spread in Tunisia and Algeria, members of the Khaled Said Facebook group interacted online with others of like mind, and also with traditional protest organizers, such as trade unions and political parties. Ghonim returned to Egypt, and after the January 25 protest he helped organize drew many thousands of people, he was arrested. He became a cause célèbre and later emerged as a leader of the Egyptian revolution as it metastasized and forced President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook’s founder] one day and thank him,” Ghonim told a CNN interviewer afterward. “This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook…. I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.”

It is irrefutable that social media have had a part in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as well as in ongoing protests in other Arab and Muslim nations, particularly those with sizable online and urban populations, such as Morocco and Bahrain. Facebook and other digital networks can speed political communication and provide efficient tools for organizing protests. In combination with satellite broadcasters such as al-Jazeera, online networks can document government abuses quickly and spread awareness of them. Even more, the promises of free speech, modernization, generational change, and global inclusion that these media offer—their very newness, and the way they connect people and ideas across borders—may also foster an incipient form of political identity for some in the fed-up urban classes in Arab societies and Iran. Ghonim’s own sudden political charisma was surely a consequence, in part, of the popular and modern commercial brands, Google and Facebook, with which he was associated.

None of this is quite the same as accepting, as Ghonim evidently believes, that Internet use makes the liberation of oppressed societies more likely. That claim has been a subject of intense debate over the last several years among scholars, media executives, writers, Internet activists, and government officeholders. The latter include an influential network of younger thinkers who have collected around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, helping her to define and advance “Internet freedom” as a prominent goal of American foreign policy.

A question raised by this debate is whether the Internet, in comparison to previous communications technologies that also intensified connections among dispersed peoples—the telegraph, radio, television, telephones, fax machines, and cell phones—has unique properties that favor its users, “the people,” over centralized authorities. A related question involves what communications technology may actually do to advance free speech and assembly, or to help dissatisfied populations revolt. That is, are communications systems and media best understood merely as neutral means of transmission, largely incidental to the human and political struggles conducted over their lines and airwaves? Or, if a particular communications technology does, by its structure or effects, have a more active influence in bringing about political outcomes, what precisely is that influence?

One problem confronting anyone who seeks to explore these questions is the habit of mind referred to by intelligence analysts as mirror imaging. In the West, where digital social media were born, many of us find Facebook and Twitter to be new, exciting, and important. When we examine an event like Egypt’s stunning revolution, it is hardly surprising that we find social media to be new, exciting, and important there, too. Labor unions, on the other hand, enjoy no comparable glamour. Yet some Egyptian youth activist groups, such as the April 6th Movement, owe their origins to labor strikes. If, as is at least conceivable, Egyptian labor syndicates were just as important as social media sites in organizing and providing mass support for street protests during January and February, would we be able to see this accurately?

At issue is how well we are likely to understand global politics in the digital age. There also are implications for public policy and expenditure. If the Internet has indeed changed the structure of the public space in which rights of free speech and assembly are contested, then international policy and domestic regulation alike should be adjusted to defend and advance those freedoms by taking account of the enabling effects of technology. If not, then it might be better to concentrate more on sustaining and propagating the values of free societies, rather than focusing so pointedly on the communication systems that spread them.

In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov presents the most prominent book-length argument to date in opposition to the idea that the Internet is a force for liberation. His purpose is to refute what he calls “cyber-utopianism,” which he defines as “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication.”1

Morozov was born in Belarus, which suffers from one of the world’s most repressive governments. There is zeal in his argument; he adopts an ardent and at times strident and attacking tone directed at Internet optimists. At least some of his fierceness appears to have been born of personal disillusionment. Morozov writes that he worked to promote democracy and media reform in the former Soviet bloc by using the Internet. He and his colleagues initially believed that in “blogs, social networks, wikis” they had discovered “an arsenal of weapons…far more potent than police batons, surveillance cameras, and handcuffs.” They were wrong, as it turned out. “Not only were our strategies failing,” he recounts, “but we also noticed a significant push back from the governments we sought to challenge.”

From this he has developed a wider set of observations about similar failures. He is scathing in his account of the ways the Western media and the Obama administration acted during the failed Green Movement uprising in Iran in 2009, which followed a disputed presidential election. As the revolt spread, Iranian exiles aided and publicized the movement from abroad by using new media, particularly YouTube and Twitter. Coincidentally, a previously scheduled suspension of service by Twitter, to conduct maintenance, was to take place during the Iranian protests. The Obama administration’s State Department asked the company to postpone the suspension, and then it publicized its request, apparently to give heart to the protesters.

Morozov concludes that this single diplomatic act

triggered a worldwide Internet panic and politicized all online activity, painting it in bright revolutionary colors and threatening to tighten online spaces and opportunities that were previously unregulated.

Moreover, “as a result” of the State Department’s request to Twitter, Iran jailed Internet users, placed others under secret surveillance, “and those poor Iranian activists who happened to be attending Internet trainings funded by the US State Department during the election could not return home and had to apply for asylum.”

This analysis and other passages like it are overdone. The Iranian government did not require the Obama administration to alert it to the threat of online organizing, or to spur its police to monitor, arrest, torture, and execute as many threatening dissenters as it could identify. The State Department’s decision to make its request to Twitter known publicly may have been ill judged, but it was hardly important enough to have politicized the entire Internet. Morozov argues that social media have been overestimated as tools for political liberation, yet he overstates how these same tools may provoke bad governments into repressive actions that they are obviously inclined to take anyway.

These limitations in the book are balanced by Morozov’s transparently passionate and searching desire to promote liberty and thwart tyranny. The disgust he conveys about those who work to promote democracy through what he regards as “technological determinism” arise from his belief that a “Twitter Agenda,” apart from being inherently misguided, will distract from more effective, more realistic liberation strategies—approaches that are untainted by American cheerleading, grounded in face-to-face politics, and fashioned for the long run.

The Net Delusion‘s overarching theme—that all communications technologies, emphatically including the Internet, can be used for both good and evil—may seem a commonplace, but the particular malevolent uses of social media that Morozov documents in rich detail constitute a remarkable map of authoritarian innovations in digital spaces. These include the use of Facebook to enhance surveillance, for example, in Iran; the subtle but large-scale funding of nationalistic and pro-government bloggers to promote authoritarian regimes and drain off dissent, particularly in China and Russia; and most entertainingly, if disturbingly, the rise of Hugo Chávez as a gifted tweeter.

Morozov concludes The Net Delusion with prescriptions for “cyber- realists.” They are long on mistakes to be avoided and short on constructive policy. He suggests that the advocacy of Internet freedom be integrated into “existing pillars” of foreign policymaking and tailored to specific regions and countries, a proposal that falls short of the high energy and boldness of his previous arguments. Essentially, Morozov is unsure about what to do. He does not want to give in to “digital defeatism,” because it would only “play into the hands of authoritarian governments,” but he fears that “there is no good blueprint for dealing with modern authoritarianism.”

Hillary Clinton and the next- generation policy advisers around her at the State Department believe, to the contrary, that they are in the early stages of constructing such a blueprint. Clinton’s circle has included Alec Ross, a cofounder of One Economy, a digital policy nonprofit, who works at State as Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation; Jared Cohen, a former Rhodes scholar who served on State’s Policy Planning staff, before recently departing to run an in-house think tank at Google; and Emily Parker, a linguist and chronicler of the work of digital dissenters in authoritarian countries, who has succeeded Cohen. With input from these and other Internet-bred political analysts, Clinton has delivered two major speeches designed to promote what she has called “the freedom to connect.”

In this camp of relative optimists about the Internet’s potential to alter global politics, Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, have offered perhaps the most persuasive forecast. In an essay entitled “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power,” which was published shortly before the historic and unexpected Tunisian revolution, they argued that the “advent and power of connection technologies…will make the twenty-first century all about surprises.”2

  1. 1

    Evgeny Morozov and Tim Wu are fellows at the New America Foundation, the public policy and research institute where I serve as president. Eric Schmidt is the chair of New America’s board of directors. 

  2. 2

    Foreign Affairs, November/December 2010. 

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