The Sinister Ways Governments Make It Dangerous To Protest Online

At a time when we are all connected by social networks and we watch revolutions unfold on Twitter hours before they’re splashed all over TV news, it’s easy to assume that the only thing a movement really needs is the Internet. The truth is actually much more complex, as Evgeny Morozov illustrates with the help of some cats and mice.

He gives some background, then discusses online debate in politically oppressive countries at 3:50. But he shocked me right after the five-minute mark. You need to know how some governments are using the Internet to track down activists and dissenters. There are no cookie-cutter approaches to changing the world.

Transcript:
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Narrator: We have heard a lot of stories about the impact of the Internet on protest movements. We have heard a lot about the information revolution and how it's transforming countries like China, countries like Iran, even many of the countries in the former Soviet Union, and the assumption so far has been that the Internet is basically a very good thing when it comes to promoting democracy. So, many of these illusions were put together in the mid-nineties by thinkers which I can only call cyberutopians, people who really believed in the transformative power of the web to change societies and to change them for the better. The most famous quote was that, if social networking and blogging was around in the earlier '90s, the genocides in Rwanda wouldn't have happened, which is now very often quoted to illustrate this very naive view that many people had back at the time.

So many of the people who still believe in this really think that blogs are more or less what faxes and Xerox machines were in the late eighties, where the great dissident movements in Poland and Eastern Europe really embraced this technology. Right, so essentially this argument is about economics and logistics. The Internet and media have made it really cheap for people to produce content, and of the course the activists and the NGOs will inevitably use this technology in order to push for reform and change. Right?

So if you really want to sum up this view, it basically says that if you have enough connectivity and enough devices, democracy is almost inevitable. And that explains why we have seen so many pushers to get China online, get Iran online, get Russia online, make sure the people have enough connectivity, make sure the people know what blogging is, make sure the people know what connectivity is, and somehow, although no one explains how exactly, these people will use these tools to ask for more democracy and collaborate together and push for more stuff.

And one of the names which pundits have developed this particular views, iPod Liberalism. It's this belief that people who have iPods or any other sort of modern western technology will be very likely to support western values and western democracy. So the assumption here is that, if you give all Chinese, Iranians, or Russians enough iPods, or enough laptops, or enough fax machines, they will all somehow on their own aspire to democratic change. Right?

And, of course, this would make a fascinating title for a column by Thomas Friedman, you know, "Drop iPods Not Bombs," but this is rarely a good sign. It's a view which essentially disregards a lot of political, cultural, and sociological forces, which [inaudible 00:03:11] in these societies, and embraces a very deterministic picture of the role that technology plays. And the main confusion here is due to the fact that we actually tend to confuse the intended uses of technology with the actual uses. Right? Just like we want to think that radio, for example, can help establish democracy in countries like the Soviet Union, which it partly did. It was also used very actively during the very Rwandan genocide that we wanted to avert.

We have, as I've mentioned previously, somewhat of a myth that authoritarian leaders and dictators somehow fear the Internet, they fear technology. And again, if you look very closely at how government leaders are trying to, sort of, reach out to their different … and Internet users, that's actually not the case. Pretty much across the board, with an exception of North Korea and Burma, authoritarian leaders are actually very actively engaging with technology, computers, and so forth.

And, you know, sometimes they do allow debate around issues that are not political. They do allow debate around some non-political issues like climate change. All that is happening. It just is not happening on issues like human rights, for example. So you can see, there is criticism in Chinese blogs. There's actually much more criticism than non-criticism, and it's both of national and local governments. The question then is, why does the government tolerate it?

First is to generate that the government needs to run the country. All right. Most of these bureaucrats in Russia, China, Iran, or elsewhere, they all create a huge information vacuum. They don't really know fully what's happening in the outer reaches. So for them, having people blog, and having people voluntarily provide information about what may be wrong with some local issues is actually quite helpful. Because that will help them to crack down on local corruption, misbehavior, and go actually and fix some of the problems which may not be political in nature, but which may help them to survive into the next century. It just helps them feel legitimate. Right? So for them, sort of having this feed opening up in cyberspace is actually very useful because it produces … that convinces some people that, yes, they are willing to consider outside views and opinions.

Some of this is happening slightly differently in other countries. So you know, they may be still spinning it, but they also trying to leverage the support of their users online and in cyberspace, right? So for example, in Thailand there is a very interesting site called "Protect the King" started by one of their members of parliament which basically encourages Internet users to go and start submitting links to websites which they may find offensive to the king. So you can basically go and nominate any of the websites that you don't like and it will be almost within 24 hours blocked, and then you need to go through a very complex procedure to unblock it. And because they are very severe in their … laws in Thailand, that works very well. Once they launched, within 24 hours … 3000 websites blocked. Right, and there are a lot loyalists who actually are very happy to contribute their knowledge and tips and whatnot to have those websites censored.

The same is happening in Saudi Arabia where Internet users are encouraged to go and search YouTube for videos that may offend Saudi sensibilities, and then to nominate them for deletion. Right? And then if that particular video accumulates a critical mass, then YouTube will have to delete it or will have to consider deleting it because so many people have complained. Right? So there are organized campaigns actually to try to go and influence the decisions even of western companies on this issue.

The Iranian authorities after the protests are now slowing down and actually looking at all of the online evidence trail left on Facebook and Twitter to actually go and start cracking down on people who were active in cyberspace. Right? So now, one of their initiatives now is actually putting online the pictures of protesters in the street so that they can actually be identified. So they are crowdsourcing this process of matching faces to names. And of course, you can guess what's going to happen what's going to happen once they know who the protesters were.

There are a lot of dangers and fears which we do not entirely understand at this point. What we don't realize is that Twitter, despite all its virtues is actually a public platform. And if you do want to plan a revolution on Twitter, you know, your actions will be visible to everyone. In the past, states used to torture to get this kind of data, I mean now all they have to do is just get on Facebook. If you want to know how … as an activist in a country like Belarus or Iran, I am connected to 20,000 other activists. You know, all you have to do is just go and look up my Facebook friends.

My final part here would be, again, about the cyberutopian assumption that somehow the younger generation which has not been subject to brainwashing, which is all about digital media, mobile phones, blackberries, and laptops, will somehow be prone to revolution, will be prone to embrace democratic values. The problem here is, again, that we hear quite a lot about cyber activism. Right? But we hear very little about what are called cyber … Right? Where young people may not necessarily be that crazy about participating in any political action, whether it's online or offline because of all the good things that the Internet has to offer.

Adult content, which is pornography, you know, and instant messaging and email still all requires proportionally much more space than politics or news. Right? And again, you have to keep that in perspective, that most of what young people do online revolves around them communicating with each other or downloading entertainment. Right? And it's not at all clear how they will advance to this level of actually being politically active. What if it wouldn't get them onto the streets? And that's something we don't see discussed very often.

You know, we hear a lot about this distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants. What you don't hear about is the distinction between digital renegades and digital captives, which I think is a much more important one, because we need to know how exactly technology influences their civic engagement and their propensity to actually go and engage in protests.

We have to go back to Maslow and actually start thinking about how these pyramids of needs can actually be applied to cyberspace. And it may as well be that, when you are bringing Internet to China, Russia, or Iran, at the very beginning, what people would want to do online is have fun, explore pornography or YouTube or videos of funny cats, and would move on to talking and sharing, some may want to go explore learning, eventually they may want to campaign.

Some of them will go and start downloading reports from Human Rights Watch, but most of them will still be downloading pornography. And that's a very important perspective to keep in mind, and if we really want to understand the actual net impact and net effect of technology on society, we have to look much broader, in fact, the negative consequences, as well.

There may be small errors in this transcript.
About:

Original video narrated by Evgeny Morozov for the RSA. Morozov is an author (so much writing!) and a contributing editor at the New Republic.

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