Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: 'Authoritarian Governments Have Immensely Benefited From The Web,' Author Says

Evgeny Morozov, a noted specialist on the use of new communications technologies to promote democratic values, has a new book titled "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side Of Internet Freedom." In it, he argues that hype about "Twitter revolutions" and the enormous potential of the Internet to promote open societies and roll back authoritarianism is naive and overblown.

What's more, Morozov warns, authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran have adapted quickly to devise new ways -- often modeled on commercial Internet-monitoring tools used by Western corporations -- to track and neutralize Internet activism.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Morozov by telephone from London and asked him about the potential and the dangers that new information technologies present for democracy-promotion efforts around the world.

Morozov is a blogger, contributing editor to "Foreign Policy" and "Boston Review," and fellow at the New America Foundation.

RFE/RL: At the risk of asking you to tweet your book, what is the most important thing you want readers to take away from reading it?

Evgeny Morozov:
I wrote it mostly with policymakers in mind. So I really hope that people who are shaping foreign policy will get to read the book. And the main message that it contains for them, I think, is that the Internet is political, that everything done with regard to Internet policy has political consequences, and that many of the assumptions that policymakers, intellectuals, and journalists operate with when they think about the political power of the Internet are naive and need to be updated.

RFE/RL: One of your chapters is called "Why The KGB Wants You To Join Facebook." Why does the KGB want us to join Facebook?

Evgeny Morozov
Part of the argument I'm making in the book is that authoritarian governments have immensely benefited from the web, and I point to three features. One of them is propaganda; one of them is new ways of censorship; and one of them is increased surveillance, more sophisticated surveillance.

The reason why the KGB wants you to join Facebook is because it allows them to, first of all, learn more about you from afar. I mean, they don't have to come and interrogate you, and obviously you disclose quite a bit. It allows them to identify certain social graphs and social connections between activists. Many of these relationships are now self-disclosed by activists, by joining various groups. You can actually go and see which causes are more popular than others.
The reason why the KGB wants you to join Facebook is because it allows them to, first of all, learn more about you from afar.

But also, it is possible to start identifying trends on the macro level. You can actually go and, using data posted to social-media sites (not just Facebook -- I'm talking here more broadly about blogs and about tweets), you can actually start identifying which way social sentiment in a country is going. And that way you may get ahead of real developments.

If the Tunisian government had a sophisticated system of data-mining and analyzing everything that is happening in the country on social media, I bet they would have been much better prepared for what followed. Much of that outrage has been growing on Facebook early on and it was possible to go and check how angry people really were.

And I think many of these tools have already been developed by Western companies mostly, to do brand analysis. So there are a lot of interesting tools already to track consumer sentiment toward goods, and they can very easily be redeployed to study political sentiment. So this is one of the things which I think drives interest from governments in social media.

And not just authoritarian countries, but in the West as well. We have something called In-Q-Tel, which is the venture fund of the CIA, which has been investing in such social-media tracking and monitoring tools for several years now. It is definitely something that is attractive to all governments -- not just authoritarian ones.

iOpiate Of The Masses

RFE/RL: You argue that the new information technologies can weaken opposition to authoritarian regimes through the numbing or distracting effect of the entertainment opportunities they offer and by fragmenting the information space, making it difficult for movements to coalesce or leaders to emerge. Does the Internet present similar dangers to established Western democracies?

Sure. There is no question about that. I think that one danger here is to focus too much on the Internet itself as opposed to the kind of broader social, cultural, and political changes in capitalism, more or less. And I think this is also how you need to understand what is happening in authoritarian states, at least in some of them.

In places like Russia and China especially, which are undergoing a major transition to capitalism. Especially China, which is more or less almost a fully capitalistic state but without the democratic mind-set. And, of course, the media and the Internet especially are playing a similar role to the one they are playing in other capitalist countries.

I mean, here we do really need to look at how the public sphere is being reshaped in each of them -- both democratic and authoritarian ones. And if you look at what is happening in democratic public spheres, people are concerned with growing disengagement and the inability to accomplish anything and the growing apathy. All of those features have been identified by social theorists in the West, even before the Internet made a strong appearance.

A Pakistani painter prepares an anti-U.S. and anti-Facebook banner at a workshop in Karachi during protestst in May.
I think this is definitely running in parallel and we are -- by "we," I mean the analysts following these trends -- much better at identifying these effects actually in the Western context than we are in the authoritarian context. And if you look at the Western discourse about the power of the Internet and even if you listen to speeches by politicians such as [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton or [U.S. President] Barack Obama, when they address domestic audiences they speak about the risks and threats that the Internet presents to citizenship and education and whatnot, much more often than they do when they speak to foreign audiences, when they only highlight the positive.

It is definitely present in the Western context as well and we are much better aware of it -- and I think we need to be as aware of it when we look to the context of authoritarian states.

Learning The Right Lessons From History

RFE/RL: You warn against being too facile in drawing lessons from the Cold War, but there's one I was wondering about. You say that the largely nonviolent change in Central Europe and the Soviet Union became possible largely because of the changed attitudes in the Kremlin. By implication, would you argue that undoing the rise of authoritarianism in the post-Soviet space over the last decade is likely only to happen if and when the leaders in Russia want it to happen, regardless of technology or the actions of oppositionists?

It would also be a very misleading use of history in this particular case to think that the situation in Russia now is similar to the situation in Russia in 1985 or 1986. I don't think that actually I highlight the role of leaders as the driving force. I mean, yes, they played a role in 1985, the new leadership.

But, again, they were constrained by a number of social factors, be it the oil price or the state of the Soviet economy or the growing debt that was accumulating or the inability to compete with NATO. And there are many other factors which determined how the Soviet leadership would or would not behave. All of them -- [Mikhail] Gorbachev or [Eduard] Shevardnadze -- were of a certain age and background, which also determined how much violence they were ready to use abroad and at home.

I'm not sure that the same conditions hold in Russia, and in no way do I want to minimize the role of agency here. Sure, the Russian people may also be able to influence what is happening, I won't deny that. I don't think I myself am comfortable with such deterministic explanations.

If you look at it through an academic lens, I'm not arguing that structural factors are always more determining than agency. It is just that in the particular case of the Soviet Union, it seemed that the structural factors probably bear much more explanatory value than the role of the people. I'm not sure it will be the case again if there is another uprising, if there is another revolt, if there is another overthrowing of the government. There is no guarantee that the same thing will repeat -- I don't think it has anything to do with the nature or the culture of the Russian people, so I kind of reject such explanations.

Looking Closer At Democracy Promotion

RFE/RL: I left your book, to be honest, uncertain about where you stand on whether or not democracy promotion is a possible or worthwhile goal in general, one that Western governments and NGOs should be pursuing in regard to authoritarian regimes?

I don't think, actually, it is that ambiguous in the book. I do several times mention that what I want is just to find a better way to use the Internet for promoting democracy, so to me that sounds like a very explicit endorsement of promoting democracy to begin with.

To answer even more directly, yes, I do think there are definitely things that foundations and governments can do to promote, if not the banner of democracy, then at least the banner of democratic values, freedom of expression, and human rights. So in no way do I want to reject or stop that work from happening.

RFE/RL: Perhaps what gave me that impression was that you so thoroughly discredit the cyberutopianism that has been so prevalent in recent years without offering anything else.

Well, you can also be rejecting the approaches the neoconservatives take to the promotion of the "freedom agenda" and still believe that we need to promote democracy and human rights. And the fact that I reject one particular approach to promoting Internet freedom doesn't in itself mean that I reject the parts that make up the Internet freedom agenda.

I mean, the problem with the Internet freedom agenda is that when you add up all its components, they end up much more harmful as a whole than they are when you look at them as just parts. So, by the way, that was also the problem with the freedom agenda, where, yes, there were some very good ideas and, yes, some of them were very benign and some of them were not, but when you mix it all up with military intervention and disrespect for the international community and many other things, you end up with a situation which is much worse.

And it is my fear that this may also happen with the Internet freedom agenda, where already you see that a lot of people feel that the U.S. government is hypocritical and duplicitous, simply because its response to WikiLeaks just contradicts so much what they have been saying internationally. So, again, it may potentially hurt the ability to do things in the future.

But, to answer your question, no, I do think that we should be engaged in promoting democracy. The means by which we've been doing it are up for debate, but when it comes to the Internet, my main concern is about the kind of procedural arrangements within institutions and, especially, within institutions like the [U.S.] State Department.

And it is a matter of who gets to set this policy -- whether it is people who are technology experts and know quite a bit about Silicon Valley, but may not necessarily be knowledgeable about the foreign-policy context, or whether it's people who are knowledgeable about the broader foreign-policy context, but may not be knowledgeable about the Internet.

To me, it is a really pragmatic question of whom do you empower and whether you actually want to sum up and aggregate all of these different kinds of ways to use the Internet in all the countries where American or European interests are present under the banner of something called "Internet freedom" or an "Internet freedom agenda." There is -- as I hope I identify in the book -- there is a danger to using terms like this because people in those countries and other governments do not always necessarily understand what exactly that means -- whether it means promoting freedom of the Internet or promoting freedom via the Internet. And that in itself, this uncertainty itself, often generates counterreactions to what the U.S. wants to do, which results in greater Internet unfreedom, if you wish.

So, to me the original question that the Internet should be used for democracy promotion and that there should be democracy promotion to begin with -- it is just that the exact way to do it, I think, needs to be rethought.

Should The Opposition Be Online?

RFE/RL: You talk a little in the book about your own evolution from a democracy activist in the post-Soviet space to an enthusiast about the revolutionary power of new information technologies to your current more cautionary cyberrealism. If you were an activist now in an authoritarian country, what, if anything, would you be doing on the Internet?

To me, this question doesn't make any sense asked in the abstract. All authoritarian countries are different. If I were in Russia, I would be doing things which are completely different from what I would be doing in Iran. To me, the assumption that authoritarian countries are alike and that all of them need more or less similar things which you can then reduce to the concept of Internet freedom is just simplistic and probably counterproductive.

In some countries there is a problem with Internet censorship where the government bans certain URLs. In other countries, that is not a problem -- the problem is cyberattacks or the growing use of social networks by the security services or it is the growing disengagement between the young, virtual crowd that wants to protest online and the more established, traditional opposition, which wants to campaign offline.

But all of those countries have different problems, so to me, to sort of come up with some generic silver bullet would be to suggest that the solution will be important across the board, which it never of course will be. I think this is one of the problems with Internet freedom [promotion] -- is that it claims that whatever leading component will emerge as the core of Internet freedom policy will be important in countries where it is actually not important at all.

And it is also blind to the kind of secondary effect that choosing anything as a primary component of Internet freedom policy will have. I mean, if you now start massively pouring money into censorship circumvention tools to make sure that all websites are accessible -- yes, that would be great, but do we know whether it might also push authoritarian governments to shift their means of Internet control to softer ways, so that they wouldn't be blocking websites by URLs but they would start punishing companies that allow access to them, or they will be punishing companies that publish this content or they will be beating up bloggers or they will be trying to buy companies that specialize in data-mining? There are all sorts of other ways by which to control the Internet which may actually get stronger and have a much worse effect on freedom of expression over the long term.

Again, I only give this as an example because there is very little experience of what kind of consequences might follow from not thinking about it as critically as we should. So I cannot really answer your question because the whole argument in my book is that we need to be much more attentive to the context of particular countries.

RFE/RL: Let me ask it in another way -- if you were an activist in Belarus, your home country, right now, would you have a Facebook account? Would you have a Twitter account, yourself personally?

I don't have a Facebook account now, although I'm not in Belarus…. If I were someone who was mobilizing people to participate in protests and whatnot and highlighting the work of the opposition, I think, yes. Again, I may be careful about who I select as my friends, maybe I wouldn't add anyone actually as my friend. WikiLeaks on Twitter doesn't follow anyone except one backup account -- I think for the good reason that if it starts following people, those people may actually get into trouble as we also have seen now, with the [U.S.] Department of Justice going after them.

I do think that in some cases, it helps. Social media definitely help to mobilize and to bring attention to issues. But that has to be balanced with security concerns. It has to be balanced with just being smart about what you do on Facebook. I mean, I wouldn't be installing third-party apps which may compromise my private data on Facebook.

There is definitely a point to using this technology, but there are different ways of going about it. And much here depends on to what extent I as a hypothetical activist in Belarus actually have existing connections to the offline opposition movement. If I'm kind of a lone wolf operating online, then maybe there is little point to being on Facebook and maybe it wouldn't make any sense to start off posting angry messages to Facebook -- I should instead go and hook up with the existing opposition and use the opposition movement's work of the existing offline opposition parties and whatnot.

Much here depends on the context and to answer this question, I need to know who this activist is and how he relates to the other political processes and how well aware he or she is of the security dimension here. That's always inevitable when we talk about social networking.