“We talk about technology because there is nothing else to talk about if you want to sound intelligent.” Evgeny Morozov
Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” spoke to a large crowd in Kane Hall at the University of Washington Tuesday night with his twist on a topic that generally accepted by digital missionaries: Does Internet access and social media spread democracy? Morozov says not necessarily.
While the digital evangelists sing their gospel about how the Internet and social media will help spread democracy into the dark and oppressed corners of the world, Morozov detailed how the Internet, technology and social media can be used by authoritarian governments to quash revolts and maintain their control.
“I’m not very popular in some quarters of Silicon Valley. But I like the contrarian hat more than the guru hat,” Morozov said to Flip The Media before his lecture.
“Some people have an almost religious approach to the Internet. They hold the internet as the Great Liberator,” Morozov said.
Morozov brings up a number of examples to illustrate his main point: Internet access and social media do not automatically lead to more democracy and less oppression.
For starters, he points out that social media, which some say help rebels and activists organize revolutions and overturn the oppressive regimes, are frequently used by the oppressors themselves to incriminate the users. During the 2009 uprising in Tehran, the Iranian government was able to use uploaded photos on Flickr to identify individuals they would prosecute. The government was also able to use these photos to crowd source – asking people to submit information about specific individuals in the photos. Morozov said that according to Al Jazeera, of the 60 tweeters that originated inside Iran during the revolts in 2009, the Iranian government was able to identify and prosecute 54 of them, leaving only six unidentified.
Profit over Security
Social media such as Facebook is set up to make it easy for advertisers to reach eyeballs. Accordingly, some of the practices that would make social media a safer avenue for dissidents and activists are not allowed in Facebook, such as accounts set up using pseudonyms.
“Facebook wants to make sure the accounts belong to real people that they can place ads in front of,” Morozov said.
He explained that while user information is supposed to be anonymous, there are ways to cross-reference Facebook with plug-ins that access the users’ email address books and contact lists. For instance, regimes can pose as third-party app developers to Facebook and gain access to the users that way. Morozov also added that security glitches with Facebook and social media themselves sometimes give the regimes golden opportunities to access information. In Tunisia, there was a window of time when passwords and information were available for 12 to 13 hours before Facebook fixed it.
“People knew it would happen, but Facebook (either) didn’t take it seriously or decided it cost too much to prevent,” Morozov said.
“We need to be far more concerned about standard practices. With Facebook, Twitter and any social media, there is an unhealthy amount of personalization,” Morozov said.
Going to school with us
Furthermore, in many cases oppressive regimes are learning their tricks and tactics from western business, marketing and PR firms. Sometimes they even buy the technologies from American and other western manufacturers and developers. Research in Motion (RIM), Cisco and UCLA are a few of the institutions Morozov mentioned that have provided technologies to regimes to enable them to track and even censor their own people.
Also, the regimes have found ways to effectively shut down sites they do not approve of, even without having to block or censor them in a traditional way. Cyber attacks are quite frequent, and the result is that the site simply stops working. Many times the site owners don’t even know why it stopped working, Morozov explained.
Access doesn’t mean action
Then there is the notion that access doesn’t mean that people necessarily will seek out the organizations that can help them organize revolt against their leaders and promote human rights. Morozov pointed out that in Eastern Germany many of the citizens were able to access western broadcasts with all the news and all the information about how corrupt and oppressive their government was. But studies show that more of these people were watching American soap operas, television movies and entertainment programs than were watching the news and commentary. Similarly, when Chinese and Russian internet subscribers are able to get around the censored web access, they download porn and accessed gambling sites.
And finally, some of the bloggers that the western media evangelists want to pump up and promote can be even more conservative than the regimes the West want to overthrow.
“I appreciate that (Morozov) takes on a lot of the established points of view and challenges the gospel within the tech circles. I don’t always agree, but I appreciate that he makes the statements,” concluded attendee Joseph Pavey.
Bennett Haselton also found the lecture both informative and eye-opening. As a computer engineer specializing in designing software focused on circumventing internet blocking in censored countries for more than a decade, Haselton has more professional insight to Morozov’s topic than most.
“The Internet is less effective in spreading the ideas of democracy than we like to believe it is. Being able to access anything on the internet is only half the battle,” Haselton said, and echoed what Morozov pointed out: “People tend to gravitate toward the lowest common denominator in terms of content.”
About the Lecturer: Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and Boston Review, and a Schwartz Fellow at the New American Foundation. Morozov is also a visiting scholar at Stanford University. He was previously a Yahoo! Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, a 2009 TED Fellow, and a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, where he remains on the board of the Information Program. Morozov’s writing has appeared in The Economist, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, Slate, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitug, The San Francisco Chronicle, Prospect, Dissident, and more.
Tuesday’s lecture was presented by the Seattle chapter of the World Affairs Council, and sponsored by the MCDM and Microsoft. The World Affairs Council is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides a forum for speakers of diverse points of view. For more information about the WAC, visit http://www.world.affairs.org. For upcoming events sponsored or presented by the MCDM, visit http://mcdm.uw.edu.