Allen Lane, £14.99, 408pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Net Delusion: How Not To Liberate The World, By Evgeny Morozov
Friday 07 January 2011
In the world theatre of geopolitics, where hubris sometimes seems like the only hit production running, Hilary Clinton's "Internet Freedom" speech of January 2010 deserves some kind of special award. Drawing a parallel between the Iron Curtain of the Cold War and the "information curtain descending across much of the world", the US Secretary of State praised "viral videos and blog posts" as "the samizdat of our day... We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights".
Wiki-oops! Since then, of course, we've seen the "viral video" of trigger-happy US soldiers killing Reuters journalists in Iraq. And over the last few weeks we have been reading the world's most incendiary collection (so far) of "blog posts", a recent selection from a vast cache of secret US diplomatic cables spanning the last 40-odd years. In one of Evgeny Morozov's three cursory references to WikiLeaks in The Net Delusion - ah, the perils of papery publishing schedules! - he notes that the American political elite "can't be calling for imposing restrictions on sites like WikiLeaks" while "disparaging China and Iran for similar impulses".
Quite so. Yet it's strange to read this truculent but extremely well-informed critique of "cyber-utopianism" and "internet-centrism" - with its demolition of such phenomena as the Iranian "Twitter Revolution", never mind Clinton's vapours about digital freedom - in the aftermath of the shock-waves Wiki Leaks has set off around the world.
Morozov builds up an almost unarguable case that the internet is easily deployable by authoritarian states to serve the time-honoured oppressors' trinity of censorship, surveillance and propaganda. Much of his book is a useful tour d'horizon of the ways that the security regimes in Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, his homeland Belarus and many others are matching, mimicking and populating the best of Web 2.0 - all those idealised "social tools" from the coding labs of California.
Yet an American establishment has successfully put pressure on poster-boys of the network society - be it Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and now Apple - to cut off the digital and financial supports of WikiLeaks. Federal employees and students have been blocked or banned from visiting the site; prominent politicians and columnists have called for WikiLeaks' co-founder, Julian Assange, to be assassinated. It's getting a little difficult to discern one repressive cyber-regime from another these days.
One wonders whether Morozov's dulled antennae towards WikiLeaks' potential in this book (though he's making up for it now, in his unstoppable stream of tweets at @evgenymorozov) comes from his own institutional conditioning. From his days as a scholarship schoolboy, Morozov has been sponsored by George Soros's Open Society institute, on whose board he now sits. This has clearly been an entrée to fellowships at Stanford, Yahoo! and the New America Foundation, generating bylines at the Economist, the FT, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.
Throughout The Net Delusion, Morozov shows a degree more sympathy for the kind of diligent democracy-promotion of the diplomatic classes revealed by the WikiLeaks cables than he does for the crackers, hackers and platform-makers of digital evangelism. Indeed, his central caution is that the unthinking Western promotion of cyber-tools as enablers and organisers of dissent under authoritarian regimes - sometimes driven by Cold War nostalgia, sometimes by a lazy and mistaken search for "diplomatic efficiency" - can sometimes make things worse.
Encouraging dissidents to use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or mobile texting - even if those services protect the identity of users and don't cave in under state pressure - still provides a stream of social data which can reveal networks of activists, or alerts regimes to protests well in advance. The powerful "sentiment analysis" software required for these tasks is being provided by Western corporations like IBM, Cisco and Ericsson - an amoral info-commercial complex about which Morozov is enjoyably robust: "we don't just need a wikinomics, but a wikiethics as well".
Though his demolition job on the embarrassments of "internet freedom" is comprehensive, Morozov does have more than a few positive suggestions about how Western powers can fashion information networks to give voice to those who need it most. Encryption and security protocols are high on his list. He suggests they are a "win-win" for Western tech giants, which might both placate the data-privacy concerns of their domestic customers, as well as give dissidents a much safer medium for informing and organising themselves.
Of course, security is at the heart of WikiLeaks' offer to whistle-blowers everywhere. As Assange said in an interview with David Frost on Al Jazeera, their extremely secure upload technology means that they cannot know the identity of any particular leaker to their service in advance. Indeed, Assange's insurance policy is an encryption key that will unlock the complete archive of documentation to the world, unfortunately described by his lawyer as "the information equivalent of a thermo-nuclear bomb".
Yet Morozov, no doubt directly informed by Belarussian oppression, reminds us that hammering in your safe code at a keyboard is only a secreted micro-camera away from revelation. But, apparently, it's not yet possible to use long-range audio equipment to tell which characters are being distantly tapped out on a laptop. That counts as some small mercy.
The Net Delusion is most useful as a reminder of how fleet-footed, rather than leaden, many authoritarian regimes are in their cyber-policies. China is a veritable powerhouse of disinformation technology - not only building effective mobile, social networking and gaming platforms in which users trade off efficiency for surveillance, but also inducing the required netiquette on those services. The Fifty-Cent Party, for example, is an army of blog-commenters who get paid for every dissident blog they snow with patriotic, party-approved rebuttals. More subtly, China encourages blogging that highlights local corruption or poor services, while keeping a ceiling on more ambitious political critiques.
It's also a delight to be reminded that, in their search for ever-better propaganda techniques, a most honoured guest of the Central Party School in 2001 was one Peter Mandelson, there to "share his insights about the re-invention of the British Labour Party". China is inspiring the same burst of innovation in many other regimes. Morozov usefully reminds us that patriotic service can be as much a motivation for the young socio-technical operative as the bohemian anarchism of Assange and his pals.
Which makes it imperative that the demonisation of WikiLeaks stops, and a clear-sighted engagement with the shift in power that it heralds begins. Morozov himself set out the options in a superb FT editorial: these info-hackers, present and future, could become either a new "Transparency International" or a new "Red Brigades". Their desire to be a new "fifth estate" - true to the spirit of America's First Amendment, which holds a free press the best friend of accountable democracy - can be steadily answered by a non-panicked establishment. Or else, if things go pear-shaped for the likes of Assange, an info-insurrection could leave swathes of our comfortable, well-functioning knowledge society in ruins.
"Internet freedom", in short, is a valiant sword with a number of blades, existing in several dimensions simultaneously. As we go down the rabbit-hole of WikiLeaks, Morozov's humane and rational lantern will help us land without breaking our legs.
Pat Kane is the author of 'The Play Ethic' (www.theplayethic.com)
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