What is Evgeny Morozov Trying to Prove? A review of “The Net Delusion”

Evgeny Morozov’s new book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” deserves an extensive review here. It grapples with key questions of Internet governance in a highly original way. But it is also a frustrating book to try to make sense of. The tone of the work is urgent but the take-home message is murky, if not confused and contradictory.

Here is an example of the kind of phenomenon that gives me concern. One of the many promotional events for the book summarizes its theme as follows: “It is not the young protestors and dissidents but rather the regimes in Teheran and Beijing that are the Web's greatest beneficiaries.” Having read the book, I can say conclusively that that assertion is false on two counts: it is not an accurate encapsulation of what the book actually says, nor is it true of the real world as a general rule. But as we will see, Morozov himself is directly responsible for these kinds of misinterpretations. The book’s aura of Internet-powered publicity seems designed to capitalize on simplistic inversions of conventional wisdom (it makes for great tweets and sound bites, after all). And the book’s analysis is so full of logical contradictions that one could, in fact, find support for that interpretation – and many others as well.

The Targets
Morozov aims his book at two reasonably well-defined and worthy targets. They are “cyber-utopianism” and “Internet centrism.” Cyber-utopianism is “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication” combined with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge any negative aspects to the Internet’s impact on society. There are far fewer cyber-utopians around than Morozov lets on, but he does succeed in showing that certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy seem to rest on cyber-utopian assumptions.

Internet centrism is the fallacy of exaggerating the ability of Internet communications to transform the surrounding society. It is the idea that some unidentified “logic of the internet” will reshape every environment it penetrates, rather than the other way around. Morozov has a peculiar relationship to this concept, but successfully shows that many Congressional and Executive branch policies seem to work from Internet-centric assumptions, often with the encouragement of technology entrepreneurs and corporations with rather superficial ideas and motivations. Morozov manages to smash simplistic nostrums about the internet’s social impact with detailed, historically informed anecdotes about how various parts of the world are adapting to it. He also advances our discussion of the role of the state in Internet governance with important descriptive material about Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

So, as he sums it up, “we start with a flawed set of assumptions (cyber-utopianism) and act on them using a flawed, even crippled methodology (Internet centrism). The result is what I call The Net Delusion.” Morozov is at his best describing the way the “Net Delusion” intersects with U.S. foreign policy.
Had Morozov stuck to this conceptual framework and applied it carefully and consistently to a critique of U.S. foreign policy regarding communication and information, this would have been an excellent book, a classic. He didn’t. A clue to the source of his downfall lies in the subtitle: “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.”

Flirting with “the dark side”
The subtitle suggests that Morozov wants to position himself on the authoritarian side of the political spectrum. But he doesn’t really. That is, I don’t think he does. He seems to oppose censorship and authoritarianism and doesn’t want to join the copyright holders, the cyber-spooks, the Chinese Communist Party, the Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian morality-in-media types in singling out freedom online for destroying the fabric of civilization. What he does is remind us that there is a dark side to human nature which often manifests itself on the Internet. To attribute this dark side to the Internet itself, however – which Morozov sometimes does – is to fall prey to the Internet-centrism he tries to attack. Moreover, some of his most vivid stories are not about the “dark side of Internet freedom” but rather about how unfree networks can be controlled and manipulated by authoritarian states in unfree societies.

When it comes to deflating cyber-utopianism related to the Internet, I don’t think anyone has done it better, and with more detail and empirical knowledge of Internet developments around the world. At some level, however, his basic point is trivial. Any sentient user of the internet knows by now that creating a gigantic, globalized sphere for social interaction means that the activity there will exhibit all the classical problems of human society: bullying, fads and follies, propaganda, political domination, rumor-mongering, theft, fraud, and inter-group conflicts ranging from nationalism to racism. We have been accepting and responding to that reality for the past decade, instituting various technical, legal and behavioral controls on Internet use while seeking to preserve the freedom and openness that made the Internet such a valuable resource. That is why we are having dialogue about internet governance and security at the global, national and local levels.

Yes, it’s wrong to assume that open information will necessarily and automatically topple dictatorships and advance democracy. But you don’t advance that dialogue very much by wallowing in colorful horror stories of bad Internet-enabled activities and peddling them as a byproduct of “Internet freedom.” That’s what the copyright interests do to carve their pound of flesh out of our freedom; that’s what the cyber-security interests (elsewhere, so ably attacked and satirized by Morozov himself) have done and are doing; that’s what the content regulation and web site blocking hawks have done and are doing. Is Morozov intent on feeding this frenzy?

In his zeal to deflate utopian notions that “networking is always good” Morozov sometimes embraces the other idea he wants to attack, Internet centrism. The Internet is to be blamed, he implies, for gang wars in Cuernevaca, the illegal trade in endangered species, and many other things – because the practitioners “use the Internet.” “Text messaging has been used to spread hate in Africa,” he writes (apparently oblivious to the fact that SMS technology is not the Internet) – implying both that communication-information technology itself created the problem of tribal warfare, and that we can make it go away if we regulate or control the way the technology is used. He writes approvingly of China’s decision to shut down the internet in Xinjiang province in the summer of 2009 as tensions flared between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

But Morozov never articulates a consistent position on what Internet freedom means and how and when it should be supported. All in all, one comes away with the conclusion that he doesn’t really know where to go with his critique.

The two “Internet freedoms”
That is because a fundamental confusion lies at the very core of this book. His subtitle and much of his material identifies “Internet freedom” as its object. But careful readers (and of course, most readers will not be) soon notice that this term means two distinct things.
Most of the time, especially in the earlier pages, Morozov’s notion of “Internet freedom” can be accurately defined as “the support of Internet freedom by the US government as a way of meeting US foreign policy and public diplomacy goals of promoting democracy and human rights overseas.” When the book is narrowly focused on this topic, it is excellent. I say this not because I completely agree with the critique, but because it raises the right questions and calls attention to many possible unintended side effects.

On the other hand, Internet freedom can – and usually does – refer to a normative political position on how much or how little the people using the internet should be controlled by states, or some other hierarchical authority. This notion of Internet freedom recognizes that the U.S. government, like any other state, can adopt policies and practices hostile to freedom. More broadly, it denotes the debate over what is the proper role of freedom of expression, freedom of association online, and the free flow of information in society. Although it is usually universalistic, this notion does not commit its proponents to any tactical belief that freeing the Internet is inherently transformative of repressive societies.

Although at times Morozov does manage to separate analytically these two approaches to “Internet freedom,” just as often he conflates them. Worse, he repeatedly equates support for Internet freedom in the normative sense with cyber-utopianism, which is both incorrect and irresponsible.

Networks and states?
Insofar as he tried to weigh in on the deeper issues of Internet freedom, Morozov is unsuccessful. He makes (in passing) a vague argument that freedom requires “the state.” But M’s discussion of “the state” is abstract, ahistorical and tautological; it confuses “the state” with “order.” The definition of the state he relies on refers broadly to the way society institutionalizes the capacity to produce and enforce order. With such a definition, the assertion that “the state” is needed to secure freedom is nothing more than a tautology. It describes an idealized outcome of having the right kind of state but tells us nothing about what states should do to the internet now. And it begs the question of what kind of a state should act, whether it should it be the nation-state or some other form, and how globalized communication infrastructure alters the way states function. Any concrete, historically specific instantiation of the capacity for supplying order may, in fact, generate as much disorder and chaos as its absence in specific situations. Morozov claims that there has been no engagement with this issue. He is wrong. There is a robust dialogue going on about the degree to which the Internet does or does not require new forms of global governance. Entire books have been written about it [wink].

The many faces of Morozov
Contributing to the overall sense of inconsistency, Morozov adopts differing identities or perspectives, as long as they can be used to score points. He writes: “internet freedom may make policymakers overlook their own [political and strategic] interests.” Here he postures as jaded realpolitik advisor to powerful decision makers in existing governments. They have to look after their interests, and not worry about ideals. Elsewhere, we find a different Morozov – one who rips into the hypocrisy of the US government for promoting Internet freedom on the one hand and supporting dictators, surveillance of Internet users both domestic and foreign, and other policies designed to advance and promote US state’s power. This critique, unlike the first one, presumes that freedom is a higher value that should not be subordinated to national interests and realpolitik. In yet other places, Morozov positions himself as earnest giver of advice about how we [NGOs, govts] need to promote civil society, democracy and liberalism in the rest of the world and how Internet policy may help us do that.

Typically, his style is to take long, detailed and rhetorically convincing excursions into narrative alleys that link Internet technology to social problems, and then cover his ass by issuing two or three concluding sentences as a more nuanced escape valve: e.g., “Networks can be good or bad. Promoting internet freedom must include measures to mitigate the negative side effects of increased interconnectedness.” Most readers emerging from this tunnel are simply going to come away with the conclusion that the internet is responsible for a lot of problems and should be regulated more in order to avoid them. Regulated how? By whom? How to ensure that the cures aren’t worse than the diseases? Those are the real issues.

The stuff to skip over
Every first book has it, and this one has plenty of it. Morozov often strays from his well-deserved role as keen observer and critic of the implementation and impact of Internet policies and tries to become a general critic of the role of media in society, or of technology in society generally. It’s good that he is aware of the literature on technology in society and can draw upon on it at opportune moments. But that’s no excuse for subjecting his readers to recycled truisms from technology history, for mounting a clichéd attack on technological determinism and, worst of all, for reviving hoary social-psychology “media effects” theories about how entertainment media distract us from larger pursuits. Pass over this stuff if you can.

The real contribution of this book is its targeted critique of the intersection of cyber-utopianism, Internet-centrism and U.S. foreign policy. Half-way through the book he seems to have lost sight of that, though at times he does manage to rope in his philosophical excursions and tie them to his main themes just before they go flying off into the horizon. He doesn’t need the clunky philosophical overlay to make the points that he makes earlier in the book: namely, that the Internet is not going to magically transform dictatorships into democracies, that Internet-centrism is a fallacy, and that pouring money into censorship circumvention tools and dissident technology training may distract attention from the broader causes and solutions to censorship and authoritarian repression in particular societies.

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