Book Review: The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov

Barely twenty-eight years old, author and fellow at the New America Foundation, Evegny Morozov writes with the kind of Internet skepticism that someone 40 years his senior would. In his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Morozov argues that the Internet isn’t really something that actually helps to democratize authoritarian regimes as so many have claimed networks like Twitter have done.  That said, Morozov, a native of Belarus, is a talented and gifted writer and he makes his case for Internet pessimism clear in his 400+ page book and early on he sets the tone with this:

“Most disturbingly, a dangerous self-negating prophecy is at work here: The more Western policymakers talk up the threat that bloggers pose to authoritarian regimes, the more likely those regimes are to limit the maneuver space where those bloggers operate.” (p.26)

In the opening few pages of the book, Morozov basically explains that it’s his mission is to beat back “cyber-utopianism,” at least as it relates to international affairs and diplomacy.  He defines cyber-utopianism as “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.” Who does he blame? He blames “the starry-eyed digital fervor of the 1990s” and the “former hippies… [now] ensconced in some of the more prestigious universities in the world” for giving rise to the notion that “the Internet could deliver what the 1960’s couldn’t” in terms of building a better, more peaceful world. (p. xiii)

Morozov deems himself a Net “realist,” aiming to bring a dose of reality to those who think the Internet and networks like Facebook and Twitter are here to “save the world”. He does it though in a rather depressing way. Morozov simply doesn’t believe social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can help liberate humanity from the yoke of repressive governments. This idea that the Internet is liberating in undemocratic societies is the kind of contradiction Morozov is out to expose in his book. He labels it “digital Orientalism,” the belief that in repressive societies, the Internet can be a force only for benevolent political change. Instead, he shows how these social networking sites are being used by suppressive regimes to counter the protester movement in specific countries.

For example, Morozov cites that the Iranian regime in 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the Web to identify photographs of protesters, to find out their personal information and whereabouts, to distribute propagandistic videos, and to text the population into counterrevolutionary paranoia. It’s this dark side of the Internet that he explores in The Net Delusion and he wants to remind of that if everyday people can use it for good, others, even governments, can and will use it for bad.


#IranElection screenshot by Colin Campbell (Flickr Creative Commons).
Great for mobilizing protests, but also great for the regime to know who you are & what you’re up to!

In Morozov’s eyes, this sort of backlash to Internet “freedom” is common just about everywhere. Polygamy may be illegal in Turkey, but that doesn’t stop Turkish villagers from using the Internet to find multiple wives (p. 246). Mexican crime gangs use social networking sites to gather information about their victims (p. 257). One of the most interesting examples he gave though was that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who tweeted to a young critic of his on Twitter: “Hello Mariana, the truth is I’m an anti-dictator, and I love my beautiful Mexico.” (p. 114) Again, if we can use it, so can they.

His overall assertion is that the Internet is “a much more capricious technology” than radio or television (p. 83). Neither radio nor TV has “keyword-based filtering,” which allows these regimes to use URLs and text to identify and suppress dangerous Web sites, or, like marketers, to collect information on the people who visit them — a tactic Morozov sardonically calls the “customization of censorship.” (p. 96)

We get it. Technology changes all the time,” he writes, “human nature hardly ever.” (p. 315) A lot of his criticism is totally warranted and backed-up. However, I’m not sure he knew when to quit. After all, this book is well over 400 pages and he probably could have made his point with fewer than 200.

In my opinion, Morozov makes an incredibly valid point. We do need to be careful when we make bold statements like: “It’s a Twitter Revolution!” This is a naïve to the core because there are downsides to Internet as he has shown. Now, I don’t think we need to be as pessimistic as he seems to be, but, after reading this book, I’m going to go forward with more skepticism than before.

__________________

Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2011. Print.

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  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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