Perspectives on Politics: Critical Dialogue — Prepublication Version — Dr. Philip N. Howard and Evgeny Morozov (Part I, II, and III)

| Monday, January 16th, 2012 | Comments Off

To Appear December 2011 | Vol.  9/No.  4 895  The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.  By Evgeny Morozov.  New York: PublicAffairs, 2011.  432p. $27.95.


Part I

Philip N.  Howard, University of Washington:

Since the beginning of the year there have been significant changes in North Africa and the Middle East.  Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia for 20 years, and Hosni Mubarak reigned in Egypt for 30 years.  Yet their bravest challengers were 20- and 30-year-olds without ideological baggage, violent intentions, or clear leaders.  Political change in these countries inspired activists across the region.  Some tough authoritarian governments responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, others with policy concessions, welfare spending, and cabinet shuffles.  The groups that initiated and sustained protests had few meaningful experiences with public deliberation or voting, and little experience with successful protesting.  These young citizens were politically disciplined, pragmatic, and collaborative.  Where did they come from? How do young people growing up in modern, entrenched, authoritarian regimes find political inspirations and aspirations? Are digital media important parts of the contemporary recipe for democratization?

Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion offers good illustrations of the ways in which authoritarian regimes have used information technology to constrain social movements.  Doing so provides an important intellectual corrective to too much enthusiasm about the role of digital media in resistance to authoritarian rule.  But the book comes at a time when current events in North Africa and the Middle East— and the growing research consensus—suggest that for the most part, the proliferation of information technologies has provided occasions for introducing democratic practices in surprising ways and unexpected places.  Not everyone will agree that information technologies changed the opportunity structure for opposition, improved the logistics of protest organizing, or carried stories of success across North Africa and the Middle East to inspire other citizens to challenge their dictators.  But it no longer seems delusional to contemplate the political consequences of the diffusion of Internet access and mobile phones.  At the same time, Morozov’s book offers an important corrective to simplistic ways of thinking about the political effects of the new technologies, and scholars working on these issues will find his arguments well worth engaging.

Morozov makes several important points in forceful ways.  First, most Internet content, in terms of bandwidth and hard drive space, is not dedicated to politics but to porn and illegally shared movies.  Most online transactions involve shopping or entertainment, not interactions with candidates for political office.  Digital media are rarely used for political content (though we have not been able to measure how this might be changing).

Second, digital media can also be key tools for regime propaganda, political surveillance, counterinsurgency and corporate espionage.  These uses are on the rise, and only a few people (such as Ron Deibert at the University of Toronto) track their political consequences in systematic ways.  Activists are not as safe as they might think, and may even weaken their movement by being too dependent on information technology.  “The problem with most technological fixes,” Morozov writes, “is that they come with costs unknown even to their fiercest advocates” (p.  303).  Peer-to-peer file-sharing systems, mobile phones, and cloud computing all have technical limits and security vulnerabilities.

Third, efforts to craft a tech-savvy foreign policy have not gone very well.  Morozov points out the absurdity of imposing economic sanctions that prevent some U.S.- based online services from being available in authoritarian regimes (for citizens’ use) but of not regulating Silicon Alley’s export of excellent censorship software (for dictators’ use).  On its own, encouraging internet access is not a sensible foreign policy goal.  Some policymakers are just too gung-ho about technological solutions to social problems.

Yet it may be going too far to argue that having a social media strategy as part of a modern foreign policy is delusional.  Public diplomacy can mean many things with regard to specific bilateral relations.  But the Internet is now one of the primary means by which people in other countries keep in touch with family and friends living in the West, a supplementary means by which people expand their news diets with international content, and an important means by which middle-class youth develop a political identity.  So it would be delusional not to work toward some integration of digital media in the program of statecraft and give even the most seasoned foreign policy experts a better understanding of the new media environment.  Dismissing digital media altogether would be dangerous for foreign policy.

Ignoring the role of digital media in contemporary political life means being out of tune with how young people form political identity, how civil society leaders organize, and how political communication is currently structured in media systems around the developing world.  Most technology use, most of the time, does not concern politics.  But in times of military or political crisis, people do use information technologies in important ways.  They check the news reported domestically with what is reported elsewhere, and they corroborate events with family and friends.  Increasingly, people become their own media producers.  What inspired many people to take to the streets in the summer of 2009 in Iran and in the Arab Spring of 2011 was not just the fact of stolen elections, but the personal stories of police abuse and government corruption that spread through digital media over social networks that crossed the region.

If anything, this book demonstrates why scholarly research is important.  One of the challenges of studying technology and politics is in the difficulty of adding it all up.  Morozov is most systematic in pointing out the flaws in particular tools and software.  And he assembles some of the most discouraging incidents of political debate and activism gone wrong.  Most of the evidence is anecdotal, occasionally it is testimonial, but rarely is it systematic or analogical.  In an important way, current events do the most to undermine the overall arguments in The Net Delusion.  For several years, experts and pundits were most worried about how terrorists used digital media to organize, promote hatred, and launch attacks on states and firms in the West.  These things do happen, but at this point there are much more dramatic and high-impact cases of civil society groups, mainstream political parties, and journalists using information infrastructure in innovative ways.  Digital media are part of the story of democratic entrenchment in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey.  Sometimes, as in North Africa and the Middle East, digital media are used with surprising political effectiveness in rapid regime change.

Morozov is right to point out that several key firms— among them Facebook, Twitter, Google—do not fully appreciate the way they have become fundamental infrastructure for social movements.  They cave in to government demands for filtering tools and back doors to software systems.  He makes a convincing argument that any sensible theory of democratization should not be pegged to a particular piece of software or hardware.  And he is right to point out that political scientists—and journalists—rarely have the technical literacy to be able to talk sensibly and critically about the interplay of technology trends, telecommunications policy, and politics.

Political science, as a discipline, is generally afraid of studying information technology because doing so is difficult.  We train graduate students to use statistical inference to explain variation in a sample of data, but only the smaller community of comparative and qualitative scholars have the methodological rigor to teach us about causal patterns with confidence.  Only a few social scientists have the analytical tool kit to process terabytes of log files, understand the nuances of telecommunications policy, preserve network relations in data, and think philosophically about the causal role in which software and hardware provide capacities and constraints on human action.  Studying information technology and politics requires that a researcher be good at the very least at two or three of these things.  Morozov himself has several of these skills, and so here is why this book is important: It will inspire a new wave of research on information technology and politics because it so convincingly demonstrates that, in political terms, technology matters.

There are intriguing debates developing in journals like the Journal of Information Technology and Politics, and some ingenious new ways of collecting, organizing, and analyzing static, dynamic, and network data about technology and politics.  Nonetheless, there is an urgent need to move beyond a few favored examples and longer-than-sound bite punditry.  Morozov offers a string of casual examples to show how information technology can slow down group productivity or encourage self-promotion online, but does not advance our understanding of the process by which thousands of Tunisians, then Egyptians, then Algerians, Bahrianis, Jordanians, Moroccans, and so on mobilized with astounding political effect.  Given the rising number of incidents in which digital media have become part of the narrative of social movement formation, regime change, and democratic entrenchment, it no longer seems misguided to explore the possibility of causal connections between technology diffusion and political outcomes.

The Net Delusion is an important book to read because every important debate needs naysayers, and this is the best statement yet against the growing consensus that information technology opens up new supplies of information about life in democratic countries for those living in dictatorship, that such technologies improve the capacity of social movement leaders to organize even more than improve the capacity of the state to repress, and that a young generation of citizens is having—once in a while—important exchanges of ideas through which they are developing their political identities.  Morozov’s book is an impressive catalog of all the depressing examples of unexpected consequences and disturbing side effects of technology diffusion.  The subtitle is The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.  It is always possible to compose an argument about the downside of freedom, but most people would still chose to have both freedom and the Internet.  Morozov does not really convince us that we can have only one of these things.

What are the key ingredients in the modern recipe for democratization?  How could democratic states make good foreign policy interventions and promote democratization elsewhere? Morozov convincingly argues that technology is not the answer.  In the end, not many people argue that it is the only answer; most of us argue that the modern recipe for democratization is complex, with digital media one of several key ingredients.  So even after finishing the book, most readers will retain the sense that digital media can be part of the answer to several contemporary questions in political science.


Part II

Morozov Responds To Howard:

I’m grateful to Professor Howard for writing a thoughtful review of my book.  I agree with some of his charges but find the policy agenda that follows from his critique to be somewhat naïve.

I concede that The Net Delusion “does not advance our understanding of the process by which millions of thousands of [people in the Middle East] mobilized with astounding political effect.” But, to borrow a phrase from software developers, I think that this is a feature, not a bug.  My initial assumption in writing The Net Delusion had been that both journalists and academics spend too much time extolling the positive (i.e.  democratization enhancing) uses of social media and technology, leaving their more repressive uses almost invisible, both to the general public and to policy-makers (Internet use by terrorists is one exception; Howard is right to suggest that most such accounts are overblown.) As such, I didn’t want to produce yet another Kumbaya account of the Internet’s impact on democratization, for I feel that that side of the story is already well-covered elsewhere.  I also agree with Howard that “…it may go too far to argue that having a social media strategy as part of a modern foreign policy is delusional.” As Howard himself acknowledges, part of my overall project has been to show that technology matters—and it matters in ways than most Western policy-makers don’t even anticipate.  But simply acknowledging technology’s importance is not enough to turn it into a potent tool of promoting democracy.

Politically, the Internet is not a neutral space and America’s foreign policy carries all of its historical baggage to cyberspace with it.We need to think much harder about the costs of having an explicit “Internet freedom agenda.” The same goes for the costs of designing that agenda in a certain way—both factually and rhetorically—for any strategy to use the Internet to promote democracy is bound to have effects on other strategies and domains (including non-digital ones).  So while Washington’s intent in promoting an “Internet freedom agenda” might be pure and noble and in touch with the times, I can’t complement it on its nuance so far.

Moreover, I am much less sanguine than Howard about Washington’s ability to avoid charges of hypocrisy— which may undermine the rest of their democracy agenda— that are bound to arise, as Western governments try to control the Internet in similar ways than their authoritarian counterparts (Britain’s attempts to control social media to thwart any future riots and San Francisco’s decision to shut down mobile networks to disrupt protests are cases in point.)

Translating Howard’s main research finding—i.e.  that information technology has a positive effect on democratization—into a set of Western policy objectives would be far more challenging than he seems to realize.  This is so because Western governments have their own domestic concerns about the Internet, while Western companies are eager to abet most repressive governments in their push to keep in the Internet in check.  The “delusion” that I am attacking in the title of my book refers not only to our tendency to view the Internet as the “ultimate liberator” but also to our false belief that the Internet is a tool that Western policy-makers can wield at will and without consequences.


Part III

Howard Responds to Morozov:

Morozov is absolutely right to point out that other countries—not in the set analyzed in Digital Origins— might reveal different paths toward or away from democratic government.  But a quick look at some of the examples shows that they do not directly conflict with my argument that the proliferation of consumer electronics in countries with an active civil society and limited resource wealth seems to come with democratic consequences.  China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela are often offered as examples of how a tough regime can use digital media to oppress their citizens.

Understanding political trends in these countries is an important project on its own.  But as cases, they do not contribute much to our understanding of how technology proliferation advances democratic norms and practices because they are not directly relevant.  They are important in that large numbers of people suffer under their authoritarian rule.  China has effectively built its own Internet, with choke points, “joint ventures” that constrain private technology partners, and peculiar telecommunications standards that privilege domestic firms and allow easy access by national security agencies.  The Chinese use hobbled search engines, and Chinese youth do not use Facebook; they use QQ.  Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela have prominent civil society groups, but are countries where ruling elites built distinct cultures of technology use.  Iran and Saudi Arabia have created a culture of fear and self-censorship around technology use, while Russia and Venezuela have effectively redesigned how all media works domestically.  If anything, these cases reveal that the best way for an authoritarian government to maintain control is to not connect to global networks, import consumer electronics, or work on raising the informational sophistication of their citizenry.  Russia and Venezuela are countries that over the last decade have worked to unplug their domestic media system from global information networks: the nationalization of media services, the assassination of journalists, and active surveillance will discourage the political uses of digital media.  These cases do not contradict the finding that once a country’s information infrastructure—and political culture—is wired up, there are political consequences.

Morozov is also correct to point out that there is a political economy to the technology services provided by YouTube, Facebook, and blogging applications.  In interesting ways, the behavior of these firms demonstrates that they don’t fully appreciate the ways in which their technology services are treated as public information infrastructure by many citizens.  These large technology companies design tools for their “users” or “clients.” Yet, in times of crisis, it is “citizens” who put political content into these tools for distribution across their social networks.  Technology firms sometimes act constructively to either serve the public or capture market share.  For example, Google rushed its launch of Speak2Tweet, an application that bypassed Mubarak’s attempt to block Twitter use by translating phone messages into text messages.  Several tech firms built dedicated portals to allow in-country users to share content.  But as Morozov points out, information technologies—and the businesses designing them—do not always do things to support democratization movements.

Opposition leaders in countries where political parties are illegal sometimes use pseudonyms to avoid government harassment.  But doing so on Facebook is a violation of the company’s user agreement, and so the company actually shut down one of the protest-group pages in December.  Supporters eventually advocated to have the page reinstated, but the incident demonstrated the way in which businesses such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter may not fully appreciate the way in which their users treat these tools as public information infrastructure, and not just as a cool new application.  Whereas Google has signed the Global Network Initiative—a compact for preventing web censorship by authoritarian governments—Facebook has refused.  It might be technically possible to require Facebook users in Western countries to use real identities but then to also offer levels of anonymity to people living in dictatorships, but no such feature exists.

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