Cyber-sceptics unite – a review of Morozov’s ‘The Net Delusion’
This review originally appeared in Literary Review, April 2011
This book essentially a warning to the West – a term that is never defined but refers more or less to US policymakers – about its blinkered cyber-utopianism. Evgeny Morozov rightly disparages those who naively imagine that Internet tools alone can produce political change (a position most crudely articulated within the Washington beltway by Hillary Clinton and Jared Cohen), and warns that this is ‘how not to liberate the world’. He legitimately argues that authoritarian regimes are also active on the Internet, using surveillance, propaganda and controls on both access and content. He notes various practices employed by governments – mainly the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians – to limit free speech and popular use of the Web, especially if deemed to be in any way political. But his argument becomes a one-sided rant about the lurking dangers to Internet free speech, and it doesn’t concede any possible use of the Net for political reform.
The wave of insurrection currently sweeping across the Maghreb and the Middle East has shown that solidarity on the streets coupled with the mobilising, organising and reporting capacities of Internet-based technologies can produce political change. The reality of these varied experiences gives the lie both to simplistic cyber-utopianism and to simplistic warnings against it.
Morozov fails to convey a real sense of the locations he discusses. Trying to trace all the references to Russia’s use of the Internet, material Morozov clearly knows well, is almost impossible. He also makes errors and overstated claims about Iran. For example, the Islamic Republic had been playing cat and mouse with newspapers, trade unions, women, students and other groups on the streets and on the Internet well before the post-election developments of June 2009; and Mozorov’s important dismissal, early in the book, of the Western media’s claim that Iran underwent a ‘Twitter Revolution’ is undermined by his apparent acceptance of the notion in numerous references later on.
The Internet is used in ways that differ from society to society. Currently, insurrectionary movements are rolling out in countries with Internet penetration ranging from less than 2 per cent (Yemen) to 6 per cent (Libya), 21–34 per cent (Egypt and Tunisia) and 88 per cent (Bahrain). These countries have responded in different ways to popular dissent (capitulation, negotiation, violent repression).
The political actors that matter – those on the ground in authoritarian regimes – have not been cyber-utopians but have been trying to protect themselves from regime surveillance with a range of Internet tools, from Tor, a routing project that enables online anonymity, to encryption. Iranians were teaching each other about security and sharing proxies and filters long before hubristic projects such as Haystack – software designed by an American non-profit organisation to combat Iranian Internet censorship – were dreamed up. Morozov is good on the limits of these technologies; the most important lesson in the book is probably about the weakness of current evasive practices. But these are also being improved, from Eben Moglen’s Freedom Box of mobile servers to the development of open source software and of Diaspora (a decentralised social network conceived as an alternative to Facebook). Nevertheless, there is still a need to teach ordinary people, including naive Western users, how to improve their security on the Net.
Morozov also makes the important point that lauded companies such as Facebook have not been particularly keen on democratic practices, refusing to join the Global Network Initiative of standards to protect Internet rights. But that is separate from the uses Facebook members, now numbering over 500 million people, make of the platform. Facebook’s importance as a site for reconnecting diasporas to home populations, for building solidarity and for sharing information during periods of political upheaval cannot be discounted.
The book has seventy pages of bibliographic references that barely connect with the quotations in the text. It is loosely written and rife with unjustified generalisations invoking ‘we’ and ‘most observers’. It is divided into many short sections with chirpy titles that hardly indicate the matter at hand. Morozov engages well with arguments about technological determinism and simplistic readings of history, but then seems to think that everyone in the world is wielding an iPhone or an iPad. Most people are not connected at all. There are also many important discussions lurking here – about the nature of authoritarian regimes, about the emergence of political movements, and about Internet use in different parts of the world – but none is adequately developed.
Morozov never points out that Western foreign policy wonks (who cannot do much to promote democracy in other countries) have actively maintained many of the authoritarian regimes that are now being challenged by their own peoples. He, or ‘we’, might do better to focus on obstacles to the democratic functioning of the Internet and the good functioning of democracy at home, which are equally difficult challenges.