The dictator's dilemma: to let the Internet be, or to not be?

A few months ago, Malcolm Gladwell discussed social media’s limits in a New Yorker article with the above subtitle.   Journalist and researcher Evgeny Morozov may not share Gladwell’s beloved frizzy halo of hair, but they both recognize a dark side of internet activism. Evgeny Morozov spoke at the Journalism School on Tuesday about The Net Delusion, his recent analysis of social technology in authoritarian regimes. Bwog’s resident Online Security Expert Jason Donenfeld reports…

Having most probably just finished Dawkin’s The God Delusion, an anxious audience murmured in fear of having their new deities of Facebook and Twitter crushed. After working for NGOs that promoted “new media” for social justice, Evgeny Morozov began to suspect that organizations like his own were doing more harm than good. He saw evidence not just of government censorship, but also of governments paying bloggers to publish propaganda and large government projects to scour social networks to learn how best to squelch opposition activists. Eventually he left his organization to investigate just how much an impact–for better or for worse–the Internet has had on activism in authoritarian countries.

Morozov claimed that our fundamental incorrect presumption about the Internet is what he called the “dictator’s dilemma”: either a country can keep the Internet out, and thus exclude themselves from the global economy, or they can let the Internet in and be eventually usurped by protestors well organized through websites like Twitter. In reality, however, autocratic powers have figured out how to let the Internet in without the supposed massive undermining consequences, not just through firewalls and censorship–as in the case of China–but through tracking and surveying. Governments can easily learn which activists are associated with one another, what their plans are, how they acquire funds, and the like. There have even been reported instances in which governments have crawled Facebook for pictures of an anti-state protest, and then created a fake “crowd-sourcing” website that encouraged viewers to identify their “friends” in the pictures. Arrests came swiftly after. In Belarus, the government went so far as to request a cellphone company to query the identities of all cellphone users who were located in a particular square during a protest. And just last week in Tunisia, the government attempted to access protestors’ Facebook accounts. Of course, Morozov made sure to remind us that our own government undoubtedly has similar interests.

Just as he mentioned this last fact, the girl next to me logged onto Facebook and updated her status with an enthusiastic blurb about what an honor it was to see Morozov in person, most likely feeling particularly witty at her own self-aware irony. But it is a real issue, asserted Morozov, while looking directly at each of the fifteen others wielding social technology as he spoke. The US is pushing a diplomatic agenda of Internet freedom, while at the same time actively spying on its citizens at home. Their programs for promoting freedom through technology are also not well thought-out. The US designed a program for Mexico whereby witnesses of drug violence could send a text message to a special number to report the crime. This plan received wide positive media coverage, when in reality, no actual cellphone carriers in Mexico were willing to support the service, because they were unable to ensure the anonymity of the messages. The carriers were aware that criminals could easily intercept these messages, a small fact the US government and the media chose to ignore. In general, the US media, according to Morozov, lacks the “critical rigor” to speak sensibly about the real effects of the Internet. Last year’s protests in Iran received intense media coverage for being a “Twitter Revolution”, when in reality, there were only sixty tweeters located in Iran. The rest of the tens of thousands of tweets were generated by media coverage.

We all left feeling slightly dejected that our treasured way of wasting time might possibly be responsible for the continuation of authoritarianism around the world. On the elevator downstairs, I looked up at a depressed crew of journalism PhD students and gleefully asked, “So are you all going to tweet about it?” I received nothing but double-death-stares, until the doors opened and one particularly embarrassed girl murmured, “I tweeted during the lecture. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to.”

On the same day, Twitter was credited as being an enabler of massive demonstrations in Cairo. The following day, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was hacked.