@evgenymorozov: Openness always good, control always bad? Crazy!

By Fabio Chiusi

With his 2011 book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov aimed at two targets: a “naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication” which he labelled ‘cyber-utopianism’ and a “flawed, even crippled methodology” that tries “to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur” (‘Internet-centrism’). Judging by the global debate that was sparked after the publication of the book, and the amount of attention and criticism the Belarus-born scholar has received, both targets have been hit. But, in the meantime, online censorship, surveillance and propaganda have been growing with no signs of abating. In this interview with the International Journalism Festival, Morozov addresses some critical points of The Net Delusion, the risk of an Internet dystopia and reveals the main hypothesis behind his forthcoming book: “the idea is to hold geeks and technologists accountable for their very shallow and occasionally harmful views about democratic politics”. Starting with Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg, of course.

Evgeny Morozov will speak at the International Journalism Festival on 26 and 28 April 2012.

Mr. Morozov, the latest report by Reporters Without Borders on Internet freedom reads like a war bulletin: ‘more content filtering’, ‘surveillance getting more effective and more intrusive’, ‘Internet and mobile phone shutdowns become commonplace’. The ‘dark side’ of the Net is growing, and it has been for years now – in both authoritarian regimes and democracies. Where is all of this leading us? Are we on the brink of an Internet dystopia?

But why “Internet dystopia” rather than just “dystopia”? It’s not as if censorship or surveillance are ok as long as you don’t do it online. I’m very hesitant to frame all these developments as just “online” or “Internet” issues; they are the symptoms of much longer and deeply-rooted disease that, ultimately, may have little to do with the Internet, but rather with terrorism or biopolitics or crime control. But what does it more generally? Well, 10-15 years ago it was common to think that governments won’t have the means to police the Internet. I think today we can put that myth to rest – not least because governments understood that the best way to make surveillance and censorship more effective is to privatize it or, at least, let the private sector innovate first and then incorporate their innovations into ongoing investigations.

In the afterword to the paperback edition of The Net Delusion you proclaim you endorse ‘cyber-agnosticism’ i.e. the ‘refusal to take any stance on the question of whether the Internet is a tool of liberation or repression’. Yet you dismiss the ‘technology is neutral’ hypothesis as ‘vacuous’. What’s the difference between these two positions?

I’m not sure I see the discrepancy that you allude to; these two statements actually fit nicely with each other. The quote you pull about cyber-agnosticism appeared in the context of my attacks on “meta” concepts that are too ambiguous and ambitious and, ultimately, unsatisfying for analytical purposes. The Internet, I’m afraid, has become one such concept (a few decades ago, the prominent scholar of technology Leo Marx made a similar argument about “technology” – he called it as a “hazardous concept”, as it conceals more than it reveals). If you want the soundbite version, we can go with the Kranzberg Law: “technology is neither good nor bad nor is it neutral.” My point with regards to “cyber-agnosticism” was that policymakers should avoid making evaluations of such meta-concepts – whether it’s the Internet or technology – but, instead, disaggregate them and engage with each of the components that make them up (i.e. social networking, search engines, facial recognition, etc in the case of the Internet). It has nothing to do with neutrality – only with the analytical impotence of the “Internet” as an analytical and even descriptive concept.

In what I consider a crucial and frightening passage of The Net Delusion you write ‘If it turns out that the Internet does help to stifle dissent, amplify existing inequalities in terms of access to the media, undermine representative democracy, promote mob mentality, erode privacy, and make us less informed, it is not at all obvious how exactly the promotion of so-called Internet freedom is also supposed to assist in the promotion of democracy’. So how should we react to the global trend towards more ‘control 2.0’? Would you claim that it too, conversely, does not necessarily undermine the promotion of democracy?

I hate everything that ends with “2.0” as it suffers from the same conceptual and analytical impotence as “the Internet” or “technology.” Who came up with this crazy idea that openness is always good and control is always bad? When it comes to my private information, openness – especially forced openness – is bad while control is good. The idea that governments should not be trying to enforce the protection of citizen rights just because some companies that those citizens deal with offer their services over the Internet seems completely absurd to me. To return to the quote from my book, the point I was making was quite simple: “Internet freedom” as a very ambiguous term says very little about how our data will be protected. One can interpret this term to mean all sorts of things (e.g. more opportunities for hate groups to organize and spread their gospel or pursue people they hate) – and I’m not sure that this is where we need to put our financial, policy and cognitive resources.

You strongly criticized the ‘Internet Freedom Agenda’ put forward by the Obama administration. Even though the State Department hired one of your research assistants from The Net Delusion, the President and his staff seem to have not read it, since he is still using the ‘electronic curtain’ metaphor (as if the Internet could be used to break another Berlin Wall – this time, the digital one erected in Iran). If not promoting Internet freedom, what else could the US government – and all the ones adopting similar strategies – do to contrast the increasingly harsh control of the Net by the iranian regime?

I’ve got no idea – you need to ask someone who knows something about Iran. The premise that because I write about the Internet I actually know what Washington should do in Iran is exactly what I find ridiculous about the new politics of expertise that emerged thanks to the embrace of the “Internet freedom agenda” by the US government. Just because I know where to buy yoghurt in Palo Alto or where to meet a bunch of rich venture capitalists doesn’t make me an expert on Iranian history or US-Iran relations; unfortunately, I fear that too many people in the US government felt that knowing something about Facebook is enough of a qualification to help shape US foreign policy. Well, that’s a delusion of the first order.

You once tweeted that ‘the term censorship has become meaningless’. Why? And what does it mean exactly?

I have? Half of my tweets are not meant to be serious. But, sure, I do find that a lot of debates about censorship – and especially Internet censorship – operate in very binary terms – i.e. people just look at whether a given site is blocked or not. This may have worked ten years ago but now we have much more sophisticated methods of control, ranging from cyber-attacks (which knock out a site for a short period – but the timing might be crucial) to self-policing by Internet companies to massive trolling. We need to find ways to conceptually allow for those new methods of control as well.

Will the US and European governments put an end to the ‘secret love affair’ between dictators and Western companies selling them surveillance equipments?

Some things have been done to improve the situation – it’s really outrageous that so much Western surveillance and censorship technology ends up in the hands of dictators – but I don’t expect to see much progress overall. The problem here, once again, is not in the Internet or technology but in foreign policy; it’s kind of hard to expect Western governments to restrict the sale of surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia when the same governments are supplying it with the latest weapons, tanks, airplanes. As long as these countries remains important allies of the West – especially on matters like terrorism – little will happen.

Did the ‘Arab Spring’ and Occupy movements lower your skepticism about ‘hashtag activism’?

I’ve never used the term “hashtag activism” but the short answer is “no”. Furthermore, I’m not sure that my position here adds up to “skepticism”; as I state in the book and in the afterword, I have no problem acknowledging that Twitter and Facebook can be great for spreading information and mobilizing people. My concerns – and these are purely normative concerns – are that these tools may also be giving some budding social movements false hopes of being able to transcend the ugliness of political life and simply fight the man from within their Facebook profiles. The less it happens, the better – I’m not arguing that this is an inherent feature of all campaigns that take place online, only that this is one possible outcome and that participants (and especially policymakers who may be thinking of how to invest their money and attention) need to be aware of this possible outcome.

I know you are working on a new book. Can you reveal its main hypothesis to us?

I can’t say a lot but the idea is to hold geeks and technologists accountable for their very shallow and occasionally harmful views about democratic politics. I think that geeks – and here I include everyone from Assange to Zuckerberg – fail to appreciate some key features of democratic political life and treat the “vices” that make it possible – hypocrisy, opacity, inefficiency to name just a few – as bugs to be eliminated rather than preserved. My point is that by eliminating these vices from our political system – which I agree is now getting easier with technology – we risk losing the very foundations on which democratic politics is built.