The Digital Dictatorship
A storm of protest hit Google last week over Buzz, its new social networking service, because of user concerns about the inadvertent exposure of their data. Internet users in Iran, however, were spared such trouble. It’s not because Google took extra care in protecting their identities—they didn’t—but because the Iranian authorities decided to ban Gmail, Google’s popular email service, and replace it with a national email system that would be run by the government.
Such paradoxes abound in the Islamic Republic’s complex relationship with the Internet. As the Iranian police were cracking down on anti-government protesters by posting their photos online and soliciting tips from the public about their identities, a technology company linked to the government was launching the first online supermarket in the country. Only a few days later, Iran’s state-controlled telecommunications company confirmed it had struck an important deal with its peers in Azerbaijan and Russia, boosting the country’s communications capacity and lessening its dependence on Internet cables that pass through the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
Most of these paradoxes are lost on Western observers of the Internet and its role in the politics of Iran and other authoritarian states. Since the publication of John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996, they have been led to believe that cyberspace is conducive to democracy and liberty, and no government would be able to crush that libertarian spirit (why, then, Mr. Barlow felt the need to write such a declaration remains unknown to this day). 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.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vows to make Internet freedom one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy, and one senator after another issues calls to “tear down this cyber wall” and allocate more funding to groups that promote Internet freedom and fight online censorship without giving much thought to the footnotes. The spirit of techno-utopianism in Washington rides so high it often seems that the Freedom Agenda has been reborn as the Twitter Agenda—perhaps only with more utopianism about both democratization and the Internet’s role in it. Even such a seasoned observer of foreign affairs as Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana could not resist the urge to join the church of Twitter-worship, penning a Foreign Policy op-ed that urged American diplomats to engage with social media. What remains overlooked by Sen. Lugar and others is that authoritarian governments may survive the age of information abundance relatively unscathed—and in fact, they’re already using the Internet to fight the challenges posed by modernity.
Is this growing fascination with social media a mere sign of our desperation with other, more conventional instruments of diplomatic leverage? Perhaps so. While sanctions and negotiations—the well-tested ways of wielding American power—do not get us very far with China and Iran, social media as a tool of foreign policy has the unique advantage of being untested. It never failed—so it must be working.
It’s easy to see why a world in which young Iranians embrace the latest technology funded by venture capitalists from Silicon Valley, while American diplomats sit back, sip tea and shovel the winter snow on a break from work, sounds so appealing. But is such a world achievable? Will Twitter and Facebook come to the rescue and fill in the void left by more conventional tools of diplomacy? Will the oppressed masses in authoritarian states join the barricades once they get unfettered access to Wikipedia and Twitter?
This seems quite unlikely. In fact, our debate about the Internet’s role in democratization—increasingly dominated by techno-utopianism—is in dire need of moderation, for there are at least as many reasons to be skeptical. Ironically, the role that the Internet played in the recent events in Iran shows us why: Revolutionary change that can topple strong authoritarian regimes requires a high degree of centralization among their opponents. The Internet does not always help here. One can have “organizing without organizations”—the phrase is in the subtitle of “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky’s best-selling 2008 book about the power of social media—but one can’t have revolutions without revolutionaries.
Contrary to the utopian rhetoric of social media enthusiasts, the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate. This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. The Green Movement may have simply drowned in its own tweets.
The government did its share to obstruct its opponents, too. Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity—one showing a group of protesters burning the portrait of Ali Khamenei—that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition. In an environment like this—where it’s impossible to distinguish whether your online interlocutors are your next-door neighbors, some hyperactive Iranians in the diaspora, or a government agent masquerading as a member of the Green Movement—who could blame ordinary Iranians for not taking the risks of flooding the streets only to find themselves arrested?
Our earlier, unfounded expectations that the Internet would make it easy for the average citizens to see who else is opposing the regime and then act collectively based on that shared knowledge may have been inaccurate. In the age of the Spinternet, when cheap online propaganda can easily be bought with the help of pro-government bloggers, elucidating what fellow citizens think about the regime may be harder than we thought. Add to that the growing surveillance capacity of modern authoritarian states—also greatly boosted by information collected through social media and analyzed with new and advanced forms of data-mining—and you may begin to understand why the Green Movement faltered.
The excessive attention that many Western observers devoted to the role of the Internet in the Iranian protests also reveals another, more serious impact that techno-utopianism has on how we think about the Internet in an authoritarian context. Unable to transcend the hackneyed framework of post-electoral protest, we are becoming blind to more general changes and effects that the Internet has on authoritarian societies in between elections. We spend so much time thinking about the dissidents and how the Internet has changed their lives, that we have almost completely neglected how it affects the lives of the average, non-politicized users, who would be crucial to any democratic revolution.
For example, while the American public is actively engaged in a rich and provocative debate about the Internet’s impact on our own society—asking how new technologies affect our privacy or how they change the way we read and think—we gloss over such subtleties when talking about the Internet’s role in authoritarian countries. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream American magazine running a cover story entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Case of China,” as the Atlantic did (without the China part) in 2008. Such attitudes almost smack of orientalism-in-reverse: While we fret about the Internet’s contribution to degrading the civic engagement of American kids, all teenagers in China or Iran are presumed to be committed and engaged global citizens who use the Web to acquaint themselves with human rights violations committed by their governments.
This is not to say that there are no young people living under authoritarian conditions who have used the Internet to organize a protest; they exist and should be applauded for their courage. But we should not lose sight of the fact that they are only a tiny minority. For the vast majority of Internet users in those countries, increased access to information by itself may not always be liberating. In fact, it may only undermine their commitment to political dissent.
The case of East Germany offers some valuable lessons here. According to data compiled by the East German government, East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country and the communist regime. Speaking in 1990, the East German writer Christoph Hein spoke of the difficulties of mobilizing his fellow citizens, pointing out that “the whole people could leave the country and move to the West…at 8 p.m.—via television.” Ironically, the fact that Dresden—where the 1989 protests started—lies too far and too low to have received Western broadcasts may partly explain the rebellious spirit of the city’s inhabitants.
The parallels to the Internet with its endless supply of online entertainment are obvious: Twitter and Facebook might make political mobilization of the kind that is required to topple dictators harder, not easier.
Our binary view of modern authoritarianism as an endless struggle between the state and its anti-state, pro-Western and pro-democratic opponents also blinds us to the fact that public life in these societies has many more layers and textures. Not all opponents of the Russian or Chinese or even Egyptian state fit the neoliberal pattern. Nationalism, extremism and religious fanaticism abound; Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are very active online too. It’s not at all guaranteed that empowering those forces by weakening the state with the help of the Internet is going to speed up the process of democratization.
Facebook and Twitter empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like. To put it in a more formal framework: not all social capital created by the Internet is bound to produce “social goods”; “social bads” are inevitable as well. The political scientist Robert Putnam, who was instrumental in promoting the notion of “social capital” in popular discourse, was not blind to such possibilities. In “Bowling Alone,” his most famous book, he explicitly cautioned against the “kumbaya interpretation of social capital,” stating that “networks…are generally good for those inside the network, but the external effects of social capital are by no means always positive.”
Thus, it’s not just the women’s movement that is using Facebook to promote its causes in Saudi Arabia; it’s also religious conservatives who have set up an online version of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Not that the Saudi government disapproves of such online “activism”; the mutual empowerment between the state and the civil society does not always lead to liberalization. Similarly, Russian nationalist groups are very excited about organizing cyber-attacks on foreign governments and even using online maps to show locations of ethnic minorities in Russian towns. While Sen. Lugar’s op-ed lauded a new U.S.-backed mobile-phone-based system for Mexican citizens to report crimes, it failed to mention that Twitter users in Mexico use the site to share information about police checkpoints in their areas so that drunk drivers may avoid arrest.
What we don’t seem to realize is that some civil associations, undoubtedly greatly empowered by the Internet, may work toward rather uncivil ends. Instead, we cling to a very outdated view that, as far as authoritarian governments are concerned, all non-state power is good and inevitably leads to democracy, while state power is evil and always leads to suppression. Based on this logic, we often arrive at the paradoxical conclusion that it’s okay to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as long as that theater belongs to the Chinese Communist Party or Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Despite these caveats, it would be unreasonable for the American government to simply abandon all efforts to use the Internet for promoting democracy abroad. A good starting point is to stop thwarting America’s own technology companies, which currently need a host of waivers from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to export Internet services to authoritarian countries (often the target of government sanctions). The reason Microsoft’s Messenger is unavailable in Iran is not because the Iranian government hates it, but because Microsoft would need to fight an uphill battle in Washington to bypass the numerous restrictions imposed by OFAC to make that happen, and the poor commercial appeal of places like Iran, North Korea or Cuba makes such fights very costly. Similarly, a host of American hacktivists who wanted to assist the Green Movement with anti-censorship and anti-surveillance technology have also found themselves paralyzed by these sanctions.
This is certainly not a good way to promote “Internet freedom.” Resolving such arcane policy disputes is likely to advance American interests abroad more effectively than the flashy and media-friendly undertakings—like the U.S. State Department’s leaked request to Twitter executives to halt the site’s maintenance during the June protests in Iran—of which American diplomats have grown so increasingly fond. The growing coziness between them and the top executives of America’s leading technology companies, epitomized by state dinners and joint trips to countries like Russia and Iraq, is also a cause for concern. (And flashy such trips really are: The recent delegation to Russia was spearheaded by such a distinguished American technology authority as Ashton Kutcher; why are American taxpayers paying for that once again?) It is certainly a good thing that Obama’s youthful bureaucrats have bonded with the brightest creative minds of Silicon Valley. However, the kind of message that it sends to the rest of the world—i.e. that Google, Facebook and Twitter are now just extensions of the U.S. State Department—may simply endanger the lives of those who use such services in authoritarian countries. It’s hardly surprising that the Iranian government has begun to view all Twitter users with the utmost suspicion; everyone is now guilty by default.
But there is a broader lesson for the Obama administration here: Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of “open government”; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors. But this may be increasingly hard to achieve in the age of Twittering bureaucrats.
—Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at Georgetown University and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. His book about the Internet and democracy will be published this fall.