Sunday, February 27, 2011
The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov
Morozov is debunking the notion that internet access = internet freedom. In fact, he tells us that internet "freedom" is a term with no meaning in the conventional sense since it implies that users are free to say what they like and use the technology for their own ends. But, his argument goes, if one user (an authoritarian regime, say, with a reason to dampen enthusiasm for democratic reforms) controls any points of internet access, or subverts the open sharing of ideas on social networking platforms to their own ends, "freedom" immediately becomes compromised.
Morozov compiles an extraordinary collection of examples from around the world of how this is happening now, and challenges (especially U.S.) policy makers to acknowledge that funding bloggers or promoting social networking sites is not an adequate response in and of itself to authoritarian regimes and/or dictatorships. He argues persuasively that U.S. Secretary of State Clinton’s speeches on Internet freedom do not adequately address the issues of authoritarian control, and suggests that only by closely aligning stated country-specific political policies with the promotion of Internet access in these same countries will produce the results the U.S. government seeks.
In other words, we have to stop talking out of both sides of our face. We can’t suppose that financing a corrupt regime on the one hand and supplying financing for anti-regime bloggers on the other is going to produce creditable results. And when it comes to Internet freedoms, one size does not fit in all cases. Some governments have embraced the Internet revolution so thoroughly that they are closely intertwined in the social networking sites, uncovering dissidents and following their adherents. Some have only the crudest knowledge of and reaction to social networking: witness the Internet shutdown for several days during the protests against Egyptian government.
At first I thought Morozov was arguing for international regulation of the Internet and perhaps even self-policing by internet services providers. But I realized he is far too realist to imagine that international regulation (were it even possible) would be practically effective and that asking internet service providers to police is even more frightening than the authoritarian regimes he opposes. But his contention that the Internet too often “empowers the strong and disempowers the weak” is probably true. However, adding even fractionally to the access of the disempowered means proportionally huge gains in their knowledge and connectivity with ideas and others sharing their beliefs. As messy and inadequate a poorly-regulated Internet may be, it has undoubtedly had some effect on information dissemination to good effect. It is now up to those shackled masses to bend their minds to the task of building better governance than that which they have had to suffer in the past.