Skip to main content

When the internet actually helps dictators

John D. Sutter
Evgeny Morozov is the author of "The Net Delusion," which explores how authoritarian rulers use the internet to stay in power.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of "The Net Delusion," which explores how authoritarian rulers use the internet to stay in power.
  • CNN talks with the author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom"
  • Author argues the internet can be used to strengthen the rule of dictators
  • Governments hire bloggers to sway online discourse, he says
  • They monitor social networks to track down and arrest dissidents, he says

(CNN) -- The "cyber-utopians" have the global microphone.

These tech-will-save-the-world types, according to author Evgeny Morozov, tend to believe the internet can do no wrong. It spawns democracy, as has been shown with the protests rifling across the Middle East and North Africa. And it organizes people in new and fast and always-exciting ways.

Google's Wael Ghonim, a central figure in the Egyptian protest movement that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, put it this way:

"If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them the internet," he said after the protest movement had succeeded in Egypt. Video

But what about instances when the internet actually prevents democracy from coming about -- when dictators use social media to track the populace, plant pro-government bloggers and online activists and, in short, increase their own power?

This contrarian view is the subject of Morozov's new book, "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom."

CNN talked with Morozov, who is also a visiting scholar at Stanford, on Monday. He spoke about the United States' obsession with the internet as a tool for creating democracy, the recent wave of protests in authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa and what companies like Facebook should do if they actually want to empower people who live in authoritarian regimes.

The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: What do you make of the internet's role in Egypt's protest movement?

Morozov: Well, it definitely was used by the protesters. I don't think anyone is denying that. And I think it definitely helped to communicate and share many of the grievances the protesters had -- even going back to last year to the famous beating of Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010.

So I think we have to acknowledge that role. I'm happy to acknowledge that. However, we also have to keep in mind that the Egyptian government wasn't particularly adept or skilled at not just suppressing the democratic potential of the internet but not even grasping it. The Egyptian authorities were barely fighting it. And that's not the trend I see in places like Iran, China or Russia.

CNN: So Egypt was not very good using these digital tools?

Morozov: It's not like they were not good at using them. I haven't even seen them actually use them at all. They did not ban any websites. They had a very carefree, laissez-faire attitude towards the web. I haven't seen them develop the kind of sophisticated mechanisms for guiding online public opinion, like the Chinese did, where they train bloggers and they pay bloggers to spread information. They monitor many of the internet discussions in real time.

None of that was happening in Egypt. So in some sense the protesters were just very blessed with a government that was very ignorant about the web.

CNN: What country is the most skilled at using the internet to monitor people and crack down?

Morozov: Just to correct you, it's not just using the internet to monitor you and crack down. In the case of China and Russia we are seeing very active attempts at propaganda -- basically identifying sensitive conversations, or sensitive forums or threads on blogs and trying to hijack them. Or trying to discredit the author as painting him or her as an agent of the West or an agent of the CIA.

China, so far, and Russia, are two of the most sophisticated regimes, which have managed to neutralize or weaken the democratic potential of the internet.

Their approaches to controlling the web are also different. In the case of Russia, which claims to be far more democratic than China, you don't see much internet filtering at all. They don't ban access to websites. Instead they use far more sophisticated and less visible and harder-to-attribute tactics.

It's all very different from just brutal banning access to a specific website, which still happens in China.

CNN: Is it hard to tell if something online is propaganda?

Morozov: That's the point. The appeal of new media for authoritarian states as a source of propaganda is it's very hard to link it to the government.

In many respects, spreading pro-government messages has become easier in the age of blogs and social networks because you do have the allure of people still trusting what they see online far more than what they see in official media.

People still think that whatever they see on blogs is far more credible than what they see in Pravda newspaper.

Also, governments deliberately exploit it. They often turn to PR agencies and publicity agencies who have a very good track record of hijacking these same tools and platforms to advertise and promote a brand, often surreptitiously, without disclosing that they're paid to do so.

CNN: Is the internet, overall, strengthening authoritarian regimes?

Morozov: There are definitely cases where the internet doesn't weaken them to the extent that we thought it would when we looked at this in the '90s.

The problem with framing the discussion through an internet lens is that you lose sight of what's happening on the ground in many of these countries. So, of course, in some of these countries you have high unemployment and a lot of angry young people who are dissatisfied with the backwardness of their governments compared to many governments in the West. And chances are no amount of internet control and internet propaganda will solve the problem of unemployment. So definitely we shouldn't believe the internet will allow these governments to stay in power when they wouldn't otherwise.

But in those regimes that are relatively popular ... there are many ways in which the internet can be an important tool for the government to strengthen its grip on power.

CNN: So no one can say if the internet good or bad, on the whole?

Morozov: People who are concerned about freedom and democracy and creating democratic values abroad -- those of us in the West who are concerned about that -- we are probably far better off assuming the worst.

We are far better off assuming the internet will strengthen dictators. It doesn't matter whether it will strengthen them more or less than the protesters. But by assuming that the internet does help the bad guys, we by default adopt a far more critical attitude, for example, to Western companies that supply technologies of censorship and surveillance in these governments.

Or we adopt a far more critical attitude to companies like Facebook, which, despite the role they played in Egypt, still have a lot of things to change.

CNN: What should Facebook change?

Morozov: They have a very controversial name policy on the site which basically bans anyone who wants to use a pseudonym or a false name on Facebook. So if they discover that you are a Chinese dissident who uses a pseudonym, they will ban you. That actually happened to one very popular Chinese political activist, Michael Anti.

It's a well documented problem. ... It's something Facebook has so far resisted because it will dilute their user base and make it harder to sell advertising.

CNN: How else do U.S. companies factor into this?

Morozov: Now, we are at the very beginning of a debate about whether Facebook and other social networking sites should build ways to process face recognition.

To give you an example: In 2009, after the protests in Iran were over, the government went and collected photos that protesters themselves posted to Flickr. And they took those photos and they published them on government-run news sites and circled the faces of people they don't know in red, and they asked the public to send in the names of anyone (circled).

So in a sense, they relied on crowdsourcing to identify the faces.

But what would happen five years down the road, where the technology for face recognition has advanced so fast that the government can simply take those photos and run them through software which will compare the faces on those photos to the faces of millions and millions of people whose photos are on Facebook or whose photos can be located on a Google image search?

We're very close to that situation already.

Then you have basic network inspection technology. In Egypt, there is this company called Narus, which is owned by Boeing, which supplied Egypt with technology to do deep packet inspection, which would allow them to closely monitor and inspect internet traffic ... or even identify dissidents.

Is it a given that an American company like Boeing should be supplying these technologies? I would say no.

I fear that the celebration of internet freedom in Washington actually distracts policy makers there from America's own role in all of this. I think it's very unfortunate.

You have people in the State Department on one hand being very critical of Chinese internet censorship -- which is, by the way, greatly abetted by technology that was sold to them by Cisco.

And on the other hand you have people at the State Department giving an innovation award to Cisco in recognition of their corporate excellence.

CNN: If the State Department wants to promote democracy using the internet, what should it do?

Morozov: The most important thing is to get the first principles right.

So far, there has been too much focus on trying to create a little Silicon Valley within the State Department. There are several young people who are very smart about technology but may not be knowledgeable about geopolitics.

I think they have had a very naive view of internet freedom and that has backfired somewhat on them.

CNN: A lot of people have been saying that, in light of what's happened in Egypt, that internet access leads to freedom. What's your take on that?

Morozov: I think it's probably appropriate for some regimes. It's definitely not appropriate for others. You have to understand that all authoritarian regimes are very different. Right now we call both Syria and Singapore authoritarian, even though they have nothing in common.

The internet will not be a make-it-or-break-it factor. The internet is not having any impact on what's going on in Libya right now, I would argue, except maybe getting information out. It will not be the internet that will decide the fates of many other Middle Eastern regimes. But if these regimes do survive, I think we should expect they will not be as carefree about the internet as they have been in the past.

CNN: What do you make of Syria's decision to unblock access to Facebook and YouTube amid all of this turmoil?

Morozov: I think it was a very strategic decision, which perhaps was done for very cunning reasons. It does show they have conceded something to the opposition, so it probably is a bargaining chip at this point, and they used it wisely.

The end result is that the Syrian police will be able to monitor its opponents much better, and if they want to they would be able to trace their locations, they would be able to arrest them and intimidate them.

I think it's a much smarter strategy than what Egypt did, which was shutting down Facebook for five or six days, once people were already in the square.

CNN: Only 5% to 7% of Egyptians are on Facebook. What do you make of the fact that so few people in that region are on social media?

Morozov: I don't think we should necessarily look to numbers. We don't know how low is too low. Many of these protests require a critical mass of people who will show up. You don't need to have the entire population to be on Facebook in order for these protests to be successful

I think in the case of Yemen, where you only have like 1.7% of the population online, it's less of a factor than it is in a place like Egypt.

CNN: On a personal note, how have you come to this view that we need to be so skeptical of the internet's role in the world?

Morozov: Well, I come from Belarus, and it's one of the toughest political regimes in Europe. Condoleezza Rice once called it the last outpost of tyranny in Europe, and I think that was probably an understatement. So I always had this interest in trying to figure out how you could open up a country like Belarus.

At some point, when I was in Europe, I joined an NGO called Transitions Online, which was active in the former Soviet Bloc. I eventually became their director of new media. We trained (people) on how to use blogs and social networks to push for democratic change. I spent three years traveling throughout the region, basically trying to figure out the needs of those activists and trying to teach them the right skills. So I was actually one of those "cyber-utopians" that I attacked in the book -- at least for quite a long period of time.

But the governments we were hoping to oppose were becoming much smarter about the web. They were doing things that were much more sophisticated than they could ever expect. We thought they would just be banning websites, but they were actually doing things like doing data mining of social networking profiles and launching cyberattacks, and it became clear that these governments are very active consumers of these tools themselves.


Most popular Tech stories right now