Internet Activism: The Problem with ‘Techno-Utopianism’
Evgeny Morozov, a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University and contributing editor to Foreign Policy, penned a Wall Street Journal essay over the weekend challenging many commonly held conceptions about the Internet’s impact on revolutions and democratization.
At the outset of the piece, he explains: “The belief that free and unfettered access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, leads to the opening up of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization now forms one of the pillars of ‘techno-utopianism.’ He laments the recent obsession by DC-based politicians and pundits with social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, and wonders whether this fascination is a “mere sign of our desperation with other, more conventional instruments of diplomatic leverage.”
The unfortunate reality, Morozov contends, is that this new medium will not likely lead to waves of mass democratization. He focuses on recent events in Iran as an example, explaining that revolutionary upheavals of authoritarian regimes require strong degrees of centralization, which the Internet does not provide. “Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers,” he writes, “that it couldn’t collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.” The Iranian government, like other autocratic regimes, also learned to exploit the Internet’s utility to suit its own means, by squashing online dissent, blocking basic communication and using the Internet as a surveillance tool.
Citing groups such as Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, he also states that “Facebook and Twitter empower all groups – not just the pro-Western groups that we like.”
Nonetheless, despite the inherent challenges, Morozov still believes that “it would be unreasonable for the American government to simply abandon all efforts to use the Internet for promoting democracy abroad.” One example he provides is the necessity to stop preventing U.S. tech companies, which currently require a “host of waivers from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to exports Internet services to authoritarian countries.” Such blanket sanctions, Morozov argues, impede productive support for groups like the Green Movement. Rather, resolving these “arcane policy disputes is likely to advance American interests abroad more effectively than the flashy and media-friendly undertakings… of which American diplomats have grown so increasingly fond.”