ijf interview of evgeny morozov

The Italian translation of Evgeny Morozov‘s book The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom has just been published by Codice Edizioni. Evgeny presented The Net Delusion at the International Journalism Festival in April 2011. He has kindly given this interview to the International Journalism Festival.

Chris Potter: The Italian version of your book The Net Delusion went on sale in Italian bookshops yesterday (27 October 2011). The Italian title is L’ingenuit√† della rete which translates as “The naivety of the web.” A good title?
Evgeny Morozov: Yes, I think so. Part of what I’ve trying to say in the book is just how lazy most of us when it comes to thinking about the Internet and politics. We usually reach out either for some inappropriate analogies from long bygone eras (e.g. the use of fax machines to distribute samizdat during the Cold War) or assume that the Internet, because of its particular architecture, will lead to certain (pro-democracy) political and social outcomes, which I think is bunk. The book has been part of my overall effort to make the stakes of such naivety more visible; it’s not only that by being naive about the Web we are losing opportunities to use it as a way to promote democracy in authoritarian states, but also that we are essentially allowing the dictators – often with the help of Western companies – to advance their own agendas with the help of the Web.

CP: “Social networking will help the spread of democracy” has been and remains a widely-held conviction. Can you give some recent examples of authoritarian regimes using social networks to suppress dissent?
EM: First of all, I’d like to emphasize that I have no problem acknowledging that social networking sites can be used to spread information about upcoming protests or publicize police brutality. All of that is great – but it would be premature to draw some grandiose conclusions about the Internet & democracy from such examples. More sophisticated authoritarian regimes – Russia, China, Iran – have found ways to use the Web for surveillance, spreading propaganda, and cyber-attacks. Some are paying pro-government bloggers to manipulate the online debate while others are beefing up local Internet champions that can compete with Facebook or Twitter – and thus be easier to control. What really makes me very angry is that all of this is occuring with tacit – and often explicit – support of Western companies that are happy to supply these regimes with software, hardware and even advice. That’s a problem that needs to be solved before we get too carried away with celebrating the liberating potential of the Web.

CP: How significant was social media in the recent uprisings in North Africa?
EM: I’ve got several responses to this question: one is rude and one is useless. The rude one – and I say as much in my book – is that Internet gurus are not the right people to answer that question, because their knowledge and public importance revolve around the Internet and they are tempted to celebrate or dismiss the Internet for structural reasons. If you want to know what role the INtenret played in NOrth Africa, go ask someone who knows something North Africa, for even if you find someone who knows everything about the Internet, you won’t move very far: the importance of the Internet in the unfolding of those events can be assessed only from the outside of the Internet discourse, when you have something to compare the Internet with. I’ve read way too many papers written by Internet academics that claim “Twitter played an important role in Egypt” – but all they did was to study the traffic of message on Twitter. Now, how can you say this role was “important” if you don’t compare Internet with anything else? The more diplomatic and useless answer is that it’s too early to tell. We are still debating the downfall of the Soviet Union – and, compared with 1990, there is much more focus on structural reasons for its failure than on the role of Western broadcasting or samizdat or even dissidents. All of those do get the limelight after some big regime falls – the media need to talk about something, after all – but usually analysis gets a bit smarter with time. So all I am saying is that we need to keep this mind: what looks exciting today may seem exciting only because we don’t have the data to talk about anything else.

CP: Does social media create conformism regarding web subject-matter and the way in which that subject-matter is treated?
EM: I don’t know. Does it create conformism? I have, indeed, pointed out in my work that a lot of people in places like RUssia or China are not using the Web to catch up on latest political news but rather download porn. Is it a function of the Web – i.e. do I blame the Internet? Not really; all I am saying is that we tend to fetishize those living in authoritarian states as well as the Internet – the point I am making is as much about those of us living in the West who thought that the Internet would just be a one-way channel for exporting the dangerous ideas of freedom and democracy. In this sense, the reason why so many people use the Web for entertaining or chatting is because, well, people are social by nature and like having fun. I certainly agree that we need to scrutinize the way in which the likes of Facebook or Zynga may be encourating the consumption of information junk – it helps them to make money – but I tend to give the Internet itself something of a free pass on this!

CP: Wikileaks has just closed, citing lack of funds. Is the denial of service to Wikileaks by American corporations a form of censorship?
EM: The short answer is that, yes, of course it is – and, worse, the US government could have averted this situation if they would clearly dissociate themselves from the likes of Joe Liberman who called on Amazon and others to stop doing business with WikiLeaks. Now, it’s also important to remember that WikiLeaks had plenty of other problems: they had too many enemies, they were trouble recruiting people for fear that those might be spies, they didn’t have the ability to vet new documents as thoroughly as necessary and so forth. WikiLeaks was dead long before this announcement. Some more money could have helped but these are the kinds of problems that money can’t solve. I said it back in January and I’ll say it again: the best course of action for Assange was (and still is) to step away from transparency work and focus on campaigning for Internet freedom, trying to make sure that some of the movements he boosted – like Anonymous – would not become too radical, while also lending his brand to important projects. Alas he didn’t follow the advice…