A “delusion” is forming as social networks Twitter and Facebook increase awareness of protests throughout the world. When TIME nominates ‘The Protester’ as its 2011 ‘Person of the Year’ it might appear we’ve reached a point in history where technical solutions answer political problems.
“Through Twitter and other forms of social networking,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen gleefully writes, “[Iran's] citizen journalists have tweet-transformed the American image of their country…globalized a protest movement…and have thereby amassed an ineffaceable global indictment of the [Iranian election] usurpers of June 12″. Out from this delusion Evgeny Morosov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World warns against euphoria and urges we maintain our perspective: there are no easy effective pave-by-mouse-click paths to democratic change. Regarding the Iran protests, Morosov writes,
Internet users [were] gorging on as many videos, photos, and tweets as they could stomach. Such virtual proximity to events in Tehran, abetted by access to highly emotional photos and videos shot by protestors themselves, led to unprecedented levels of global empathy with [their] cause…But in doing so, such networked intimacy may have also greatly inflated popular expectations of what it could actually achieve.
According to Morosov, the online shift poses a real danger to activists in countries like Egypt and Iran. That danger lies in the very architecture of the Net itself. It would be a mistake to assume that if protestors can aggregate online, oppressive governments can’t likewise follow the links to the activists’ door. Activists’ online shift also empowers oppressive regimes with cheaper, more efficient methods of surveillance. Digital bugs are easy to conceal and search terms make scanning for relevant data more efficient. Regimes throttle the information bottle-necks and choke it with censorship and shut-down.In the West’s excited export of ‘democratizing’ online sharing tools, it overlooks its own guilty role in the export of technologies for greater oppression. Morosov speaks from bitter experience. He and other democratic activists from his own country of Belarus encountered a more sophisticated enemy; a state equipped with the means to censor and survey their activity. This forms a serious issue where undemocratic governments adapt the lessons of filtration adopted, or proposed, by countries like Australia. As Morosov warns from a recent forum;
Censorship in western countries give additional legitimacy, and so we must be very careful here in the West. It may be more worthwhile to pressure Western governments about these repercussions.
Regimes such as Belarus are “definitely listening”, he says.
In this atmosphere, Morosov is derisive of the belief that the mere availability of search engines like Google act like a terra-forming device, spreading seeds pre-determined to fertilise democracy.
Morosov is also critical of self-regulation by the Internet search market to safeguard against censorship and surveillance. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is a self-regulation framework for net companies to conduct business ethically in oppressive regimes. The initiative “promotes collective action to uphold the rule of law and the adoption of public policies protecting freedom of expression and privacy on the global network.” Microsoft however, a key signatory, recently partnered with Google.cn’s chief rival Baidu in the Chinese search market. Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine, has no results for search terms like ‘Tiananmen Massacre’, and according to Baidu’s own annual financial statement, the company retains information on its users’ activity and provides it to government minders.
Google states that for its part, it is complying to “local law, regulation, or policy,” citing the German precedent blocking holocaust-denial content and in France blocking ‘hate speech’. In China, Google defends that its practices are more responsible than other search engines companies entering or already situated in China’s lucrative search market. Morosov notes that;
To its credit, a few weeks after Google discovered that someone was trying to break into the email accounts of Chinese human rights dissidents, it began alerting users if someone else was also accessing their account from a different computer at that time. Few other email providers followed Google’s lead.
Morosov suggests that companies may simply be paying its $250K membership fee to the GNI as a profitable venture in good publicity. Both Microsoft and Google were originally lauded in 2009 for signing up to the initiative.
There is a disturbing lack of will in political terms to address what are political problems. The US Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 – which did not pass into law – would have forbade US company compliance with repressive regimes’ censorship and surveillance of users. It may even have created a level playing field between technology giants such as Google and Microsoft, without the ethical conflicts of entering the Chinese market.
As it stands, liberators as well as oppressors are both making use of a new technology. Who controls that technology will depend very much on political activism, and not just of the kind ‘delusionally’ conducted at the click of a mouse.
For there to be any modern ‘Net benefit’ to global freedom the example of censorship or online ‘filtering’ by western countries, including the Australian government’s, must be fought against. Given how societies are being transformed by the spread of information, could there be a more political important issue right now? ♦
[Photo attributed and sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]