In the latest issue of UK magazine Prospect, Georgetown University fellow Evgeny Morozov offers his critical take on what the Internet will do to democracy. Under the title “How dictators watch us on the web” he gives various examples in which digital technologies have not only failed to democratise states (by whatever measure) but rather to strengthen authoritarian regimes and indeed helped to actively harm those striving for more civil liberties.
The list includes islamist bloggers in Lebanon, increased control through social networking in Belarus, hate crime YouTube videos in Mexico and racial agitation in Russia. Now few of this is novel – technologies are (neutral?) tools that can be used to do both good and bad. But having worked on Western-funded Internet Projects in the former Soviet Union, Morozov is an insider and in the light of various (often government supported) drives to promote “democracy” through blogging, Twitter etc, his article acts as an important reminder of all the downsides of a technology that is indeed powerful but not inherently as democratic as many people want us to believe:
Yet while the internet may take the power away from an authoritarian (or any other) state or institution, that power is not necessarily transferred to pro-democracy groups. Instead it often flows to groups who, if anything, are nastier than the regime. Social media’s greatest assets—anonymity, “virality,” interconnectedness—are also its main weaknesses.
I particularly liked his argument about the existence of a new social contract that is being formed between authoritarian regimes and their citizens. Under this new deal citizens get access to as much entertainment as they want, be it pornographic or pirated or both, just as long as they accept their narrow political freedoms. A new form of golden cage so to speak:
Authoritarian governments know that the internet could be a new opium for the masses. They are tolerant of rampant internet piracy, as in China. In many cases, they push the cyber-hedonistic pursuits of their youth. Government-controlled internet providers in Belarus, for example, run dedicated servers full of pirated digital goodies for their clients to download for free. Under this new social contract, internet users are allowed plenty of autonomy online—just so long as they don’t venture into politics.
Overall, Morozov is not quite as pessimistic as it might sound. While he heavily criticises the current approach of many Western governments to promote democracy through technology he ends his article with a number of suggestions, one of which is to fund more bottom-up, entrepreneurial initiatives instead of overly bureaucratic NGO-style project funding – an idea that is for example currently piloted by mySociety and the Open Society Institute for Central and Eastern Europe.
There seems to be a chance to hear a first-hand account of this by Morozov himself on an event next week. More information here.
Since October 2006 I am both a DPhil student as well as a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and here I share with the accidental reader my musings on different aspects of the Internet and society. Feel free to comment or simply ignore :-)
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