The Internet: For Better or for Worse

March 18, 2011 |
If the Internet has indeed changed the structure of the public space in which rights of free speech and assembly are contested, then international policy and domestic regulation alike should be adjusted to defend and advance those freedoms by taking account of the enabling effects of technology.
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Last June, Khaled Said, a twenty-eight-year-old Alexandrian, suffered a vicious public beating at the hands of Egyptian police. Several witnesses documented the assault with cell phone cameras. Said apparently died from his wounds, but the police claimed he had choked to death on illegal drugs. Outraged Egyptians posted contrary evidence on Facebook pages and on YouTube. In Dubai, Wael Ghonim, a twenty-nine-year-old Google marketing executive originally from Cairo, employed his business and design skills to construct a Facebook protest community based on the slogan “We Are All Khaled Said,” where people could join an online protest of the case.

Ghonim’s anonymous campaign eventually attracted 473,000 online adherents, a striking number even in a nation the size of Egypt, which has a population of 85 million. Last December, as street protests spread in Tunisia and Algeria, members of the Khaled Said Facebook group interacted online with others of like mind, and also with traditional protest organizers, such as trade unions and political parties. Ghonim returned to Egypt, and after the January 25 protest he helped organize drew many thousands of people, he was arrested. He became a cause célèbre and later emerged as a leader of the Egyptian revolution as it metastasized and forced President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

“I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook’s founder] one day and thank him,” Ghonim told a CNN interviewer afterward. “This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook…. I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.”

It is irrefutable that social media have had a part in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as well as in ongoing protests in other Arab and Muslim nations, particularly those with sizable online and urban populations, such as Morocco and Bahrain. Facebook and other digital networks can speed political communication and provide efficient tools for organizing protests. In combination with satellite broadcasters such as al-Jazeera, online networks can document government abuses quickly and spread awareness of them. Even more, the promises of free speech, modernization, generational change, and global inclusion that these media offer—their very newness, and the way they connect people and ideas across borders—may also foster an incipient form of political identity for some in the fed-up urban classes in Arab societies and Iran. Ghonim’s own sudden political charisma was surely a consequence, in part, of the popular and modern commercial brands, Google and Facebook, with which he was associated.

None of this is quite the same as accepting, as Ghonim evidently believes, that Internet use makes the liberation of oppressed societies more likely. That claim has been a subject of intense debate over the last several years among scholars, media executives, writers, Internet activists, and government officeholders. The latter include an influential network of younger thinkers who have collected around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, helping her to define and advance “Internet freedom” as a prominent goal of American foreign policy.

A question raised by this debate is whether the Internet, in comparison to previous communications technologies that also intensified connections among dispersed peoples—the telegraph, radio, television, telephones, fax machines, and cell phones—has unique properties that favor its users, “the people,” over centralized authorities. A related question involves what communications technology may actually do to advance free speech and assembly, or to help dissatisfied populations revolt. That is, are communications systems and media best understood merely as neutral means of transmission, largely incidental to the human and political struggles conducted over their lines and airwaves? Or, if a particular communications technology does, by its structure or effects, have a more active influence in bringing about political outcomes, what precisely is that influence?

One problem confronting anyone who seeks to explore these questions is the habit of mind referred to by intelligence analysts as mirror imaging. In the West, where digital social media were born, many of us find Facebook and Twitter to be new, exciting, and important. When we examine an event like Egypt’s stunning revolution, it is hardly surprising that we find social media to be new, exciting, and important there, too. Labor unions, on the other hand, enjoy no comparable glamour. Yet some Egyptian youth activist groups, such as the April 6th Movement, owe their origins to labor strikes. If, as is at least conceivable, Egyptian labor syndicates were just as important as social media sites in organizing and providing mass support for street protests during January and February, would we be able to see this accurately?

At issue is how well we are likely to understand global politics in the digital age. There also are implications for public policy and expenditure. If the Internet has indeed changed the structure of the public space in which rights of free speech and assembly are contested, then international policy and domestic regulation alike should be adjusted to defend and advance those freedoms by taking account of the enabling effects of technology. If not, then it might be better to concentrate more on sustaining and propagating the values of free societies, rather than focusing so pointedly on the communication systems that spread them.

In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov presents the most prominent book-length argument to date in opposition to the idea that the Internet is a force for liberation. His purpose is to refute what he calls “cyber-utopianism,” which he defines as “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication.”

Morozov was born in Belarus, which suffers from one of the world’s most repressive governments. There is zeal in his argument; he adopts an ardent and at times strident and attacking tone directed at Internet optimists. At least some of his fierceness appears to have been born of personal disillusionment. Morozov writes that he worked to promote democracy and media reform in the former Soviet bloc by using the Internet. He and his colleagues initially believed that in “blogs, social networks, wikis” they had discovered “an arsenal of weapons…far more potent than police batons, surveillance cameras, and handcuffs.” They were wrong, as it turned out. “Not only were our strategies failing,” he recounts, “but we also noticed a significant push back from the governments we sought to challenge.”

From this he has developed a wider set of observations about similar failures. He is scathing in his account of the ways the Western media and the Obama administration acted during the failed Green Movement uprising in Iran in 2009, which followed a disputed presidential election. As the revolt spread, Iranian exiles aided and publicized the movement from abroad by using new media, particularly YouTube and Twitter. Coincidentally, a previously scheduled suspension of service by Twitter, to conduct maintenance, was to take place during the Iranian protests. The Obama administration’s State Department asked the company to postpone the suspension, and then it publicized its request, apparently to give heart to the protesters.

Morozov concludes that this single diplomatic act

triggered a worldwide Internet panic and politicized all online activity, painting it in bright revolutionary colors and threatening to tighten online spaces and opportunities that were previously unregulated.

Moreover, “as a result” of the State Department’s request to Twitter, Iran jailed Internet users, placed others under secret surveillance, “and those poor Iranian activists who happened to be attending Internet trainings funded by the US State Department during the election could not return home and had to apply for asylum.”

This analysis and other passages like it are overdone. The Iranian government did not require the Obama administration to alert it to the threat of online organizing, or to spur its police to monitor, arrest, torture, and execute as many threatening dissenters as it could identify. The State Department’s decision to make its request to Twitter known publicly may have been ill judged, but it was hardly important enough to have politicized the entire Internet. Morozov argues that social media have been overestimated as tools for political liberation, yet he overstates how these same tools may provoke bad governments into repressive actions that they are obviously inclined to take anyway.

These limitations in the book are balanced by Morozov’s transparently passionate and searching desire to promote liberty and thwart tyranny. The disgust he conveys about those who work to promote democracy through what he regards as “technological determinism” arise from his belief that a “Twitter Agenda,” apart from being inherently misguided, will distract from more effective, more realistic liberation strategies—approaches that are untainted by American cheerleading, grounded in face-to-face politics, and fashioned for the long run.

The Net Delusion‘s overarching theme—that all communications technologies, emphatically including the Internet, can be used for both good and evil—may seem a commonplace, but the particular malevolent uses of social media that Morozov documents in rich detail constitute a remarkable map of authoritarian innovations in digital spaces. These include the use of Facebook to enhance surveillance, for example, in Iran; the subtle but large-scale funding of nationalistic and pro-government bloggers to promote authoritarian regimes and drain off dissent, particularly in China and Russia; and most entertainingly, if disturbingly, the rise of Hugo Chávez as a gifted tweeter.

Morozov concludes The Net Delusion with prescriptions for “cyber- realists.” They are long on mistakes to be avoided and short on constructive policy. He suggests that the advocacy of Internet freedom be integrated into “existing pillars” of foreign policymaking and tailored to specific regions and countries, a proposal that falls short of the high energy and boldness of his previous arguments. Essentially, Morozov is unsure about what to do. He does not want to give in to “digital defeatism,” because it would only “play into the hands of authoritarian governments,” but he fears that “there is no good blueprint for dealing with modern authoritarianism.”

Hillary Clinton and the next- generation policy advisers around her at the State Department believe, to the contrary, that they are in the early stages of constructing such a blueprint. Clinton’s circle has included Alec Ross, a cofounder of One Economy, a digital policy nonprofit, who works at State as Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation; Jared Cohen, a former Rhodes scholar who served on State’s Policy Planning staff, before recently departing to run an in-house think tank at Google; and Emily Parker, a linguist and chronicler of the work of digital dissenters in authoritarian countries, who has succeeded Cohen. With input from these and other Internet-bred political analysts, Clinton has delivered two major speeches designed to promote what she has called “the freedom to connect.”

In this camp of relative optimists about the Internet’s potential to alter global politics, Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, have offered perhaps the most persuasive forecast. In an essay entitled “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power,” which was published shortly before the historic and unexpected Tunisian revolution, they argued that the “advent and power of connection technologies…will make the twenty-first century all about surprises.”

They acknowledge the potential of all technology to be co-opted by authoritarians and dismiss the argument that “connection technologies are going to transform the world alone.” Still, drawing on ideas that appeared in New York University media theorist Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, they argue that faster and faster computing power, combined with the many-to-many geometry of social media (as opposed to the one-to-many geometry of television and radio broadcasting), is creating “an era when the power of the individual and the group grows daily.” The political effects will include a notable increase in the pace of change itself—a world of volatility, speed, and surprise.

The Internet, that is, presents new communication structures that, in the view of Cohen and Schmidt, will alter global politics in ways that earlier communications technologies did not. The net effect will be to decentralize power. Therefore, only dictators who are creative and technology-savvy are likely to prevail over their wired peoples: governments will either “ride the technological wave” or “find themselves at odds with their citizens,” as Schmidt and Cohen put it. In some ways, this is consistent with Morozov’s thesis—his book documents just how digitally adaptive authoritarian governments have become.

Even if we accept this analysis, it is less than obvious what it implies for American policy and expenditure. Not even the secretary of state seems entirely sure. Clinton delivered the second of her major speeches on Internet freedom on February 15, in response to the revolts in the Middle East. She sought, she said, to inaugurate “a much more vigorous debate that will respond to the needs that we have been watching” in the Arab world and Iran.

“There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or repression,” Clinton acknowledged. “But I think that debate is largely beside the point.” That was rhetorical misdirection, as it turned out, for Clinton promptly joined the debate:

Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people. So it is our values that cause these actions to inspire or outrage us….

Clinton went on to argue, nevertheless, that the Internet does have distinctive qualities as a venue for politics. Social media have become, she said, the “public space of the twenty-first century,” akin to the physical public squares where democratic ideals were rekindled in Western societies centuries ago.

To enlarge this new virtual public space, “we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why.” She avoided any suggestion that the United States use the Internet to foment liberation struggles in authoritarian countries—that would be a provocative goal, if it were made explicit. “The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square,” Clinton said.

There was much lawyerly pragmatism in her framing, undergirded by an unmistakably Wilsonian exhortation:

I urge countries everywhere…to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries…that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress…. This is not a bet on computers or mobile phones. It’s a bet on people.

Her rhetoric endorsing social media was bolder than the running commentary she and President Obama sometimes offered about particular tottering dictators; in the case of the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, for example, the administration’s cautious remarks often ran well behind the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

As to a practical “freedom to connect” policy agenda, “we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression,” Clinton averred. The Obama administration will therefore experiment, adopting a “venture capital–style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training” in projects designed to sustain an “Internet that is open, secure, and reliable.”

One danger such a pathway presents is that it may lead to incremental, government-led rulemaking, as if what is required to secure freedom of speech and assembly on the global Internet is some international version of the Federal Communications Commission. That would be deeply questionable, judging by the FCC’s embarrassing history in the United States, and the history of similar regulatory bodies worldwide. It is a story marked mainly by collusion with monopolizing industry and government, as well as the suppression of innovation and speech. Before the United States devotes itself to the civilizing mission of Internet freedom abroad, then, it might be wise to think more deeply about what it will take to protect the “freedom to connect” at home.

“Early radio was, before the Internet, the greatest open medium in the twentieth century, and perhaps the most important example since the early days of newspaper of what an open, unrestricted communications economy looks like,” Tim Wu writes in The Master Switch, his brilliant interpretive history of American media and communications technology during the last century.

In radio’s early amateur phase, from around 1912 until the late 1920s, low economic barriers and diverse voices gave rise to an almost limitless sense of possibility. Churches, clubs, oddballs, gadget hounds, and sports entrepreneurs launched radio stations that could reach listeners over a few square miles. By the end of 1924, American manufacturers had sold more than two million radio sets capable of broadcasting. Dense urban areas such as Manhattan tuned in to a cacophony on the airwaves. Nikola Tesla, who helped to commercialize electricity, believed that because of radio, “the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts.” Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of Scientific American, imagined how the technology might build a new social cohesion and change American politics:

Look at a map of the United States and try to conjure up a picture of what home radio will eventually mean. All these disconnected communities and houses will be united through radio as they were never united by the telegraph and the telephone.

We know now that these hopes were unfounded. Radio affected American culture in important ways but it did not improve and broaden American democracy from the bottom up. Nor did the space for free speech expand in the United States; rather, in comparison to the heyday of amateur radio broadcasting, that space steadily contracted until the 1960s.

Wu chronicles with verve and outrage how David Sarnoff’s monopolizing ambition at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) snuffed out radio’s initial diversity fast. By the 1930s, on the radio airwaves, Wu writes, “what was once a wide-open medium…was now poised to become big business, dominated by a Radio Trust; what was once an unregulated technology would now come under the strict command and control of a federal agency,” the nascent FCC. What RCA accomplished in a free-market system, Hitler and Stalin imitated in their much darker ways; radio in Nazi Germany became, under Joseph Goebbels, “a central instrument in achieving volksgemeinschaft, the unified national community.”

There were many reasons for the shrinking of the American public square between the 1930s and the 1960s. A subsuming national effort was required to win World War II, only to be followed by the Red Scare. Throughout, however, the industrial and federal management of communication technology—which favored control over diversity, and consensus over marginal or dangerous speech—played a reinforcing role.

Monopolizing radio networks blocked the deployment of television technology. Monopolizing film studios, pressured by the Catholic Church (whose censors were scandalized by Mae West’s performance in I’m No Angel), adopted the self-censoring Production Code. As a result, for decades, Americans saw only films in which, for example, “an individual judge or policeman could be dishonest, but not the whole judicial system.” It was, he writes, “the combination of the Church and the Hollywood studio system that produced one of the most dramatic regimes of censorship in American history.” He concludes that “industry structure,” more than the technical properties of a communications system, “is what determines the freedom of expression in the underlying medium.” This is an insight of great importance, and it has obvious relevance for the future of the Internet as a social, cultural, and political medium, in the United States and globally.

The Master Switch’s account of the rise and fall of information technologies and industries during the twentieth century is fascinating, balanced, and rigorous—a tour de force. Yet Wu’s central concern is not history; it is the contested future of the Internet. Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University; he is perhaps best known for having coined the phrase “net neutrality,” a principle, or aspiration, meant to assure that the Internet remains an open system where anyone can publish or connect, and where pricing and technical rules are never biased to favor one user over another, even if that user is a very large and wealthy corporation.

In essence, Wu is concerned that large corporations—AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Apple, and perhaps Google—may be on the verge of carving the Internet into an oligopoly, gradually shutting off equal and free access, much as RCA did to radio and the Bell System did to telephony. By implication, his arguments make plain that if corporations do gradually take control of the American Internet, and use tolls and technical rules to build a new hierarchy of access, then Russia, China, and other authoritarian states wielding even greater relative power within their borders will be sure to follow that model.

Wu labels the pattern of oscillation between open and closed information systems “the Cycle.” As it reaches the present day, his account frames what he calls the “central question” about communications systems in our time. It is essentially the same question that Mozorov, Clinton, and the State Department’s Internet thinkers have wrestled with in their different ways: “Was the Internet truly different, a real revolution?”

If the answer is yes, he suggests, much of the reason lies in the Internet’s design. Its “priority was human augmentation rather than the system itself,” as Wu puts it. “The aim was therefore an effort to create a decentralized network, and one that would stay that way.” The accidental birth of computers as communications devices, connected through a network that could pass through other networks, has been recounted before. Wu elegantly and briefly describes the features of the Internet’s technical design that have contributed to its layered, redundant, self-protecting structure. Because they lacked a communications infrastructure of their own, or the capital to create one, the Internet’s founders—J.C.R. Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, Vincent Cerf, and others—”were forced, however fortunate the effect may now seem, to invent a protocol that took account of the existence of many networks,” for example, commercial telephone lines and closed government systems, “over which they had limited power.” These workarounds produced a design striking for “its resemblance to other decentralized systems, such as the federal system of the United States.”

Wu adds:

For many people, the Internet’s structure was—indeed remains—deeply counterintuitive. This is because it defies every expectation one has developed from experience of other media industries, which are all predicated on control of the customer.

The Internet’s distributed structure contributes to the impact it has had on speech, assembly, and politics—it has lowered economic barriers to entry for publishers and activists alike, and it has enabled peer-to-peer or many-to-many audience strategies (“going viral,” as it is known) that seem to favor bottom-up political activity.

This is not to suggest that political command and control of the Internet is impossible, only that it is harder than, say, control of a national broadcast television network. “The feat requires such power and resources as belong uniquely to the state: access to the very choke points of a nation’s communications infrastructure, its Master Switch,” Wu writes. States have occasionally undertaken direct technical interventions—narrowing the system’s choke points enough to turn the entire Internet off, as China has done periodically to control protests in its restive Xinjiang province, and as Egypt did for a few days during the recent uprising. More effective, as Morozov documents, are strategies that infect and influence the Internet’s open streams. Arguably, as he shows, the governments of China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have controlled their people’s access to the Internet adequately enough to protect their power.

The question at home and abroad, then, is whether the decentralized, redundant, distributed shape of the Internet will tip that balance further in favor of centralized powers by yielding to the Cycle—the consolidating patterns of monopoly and state control that shaped radio and television—or whether the Internet will remain a radically open system, biased toward users over authorities. “The individual holds more power than at any time in the past century, and literally in the palm of his hand,” Wu writes. “Whether or not he can hold on to it is another matter.”

Wu posits that in the United States, two competing coalitions of multinational corporations are now battling to determine whether commerce, publishing, speech, politics, and design will take place over the Internet within an open system or a closed one. On one side, the business models of Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and nonprofits such as Wikipedia gave them incentives to try to “convert as much of the world as they can into something that looks like the Internet: a clear, free path between any two points, with no hierarchy or preferential treatment.” (This may be somewhat hopeful about, say, the Google Books project and its proposed deal with publishers and authors.) On the other side, the business models of Apple, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Disney, and other conglomerates gave them incentives to lobby at the FCC and Congress for “a rational regime of access and flow of information” based on ownership of the wires, cables, and spectrum over which the Internet flows—infrastructure that some of these companies paid to build, and that others are prepared to pay to control. “If this side has its way,” Wu forecasts, “the twenty-first-century world of information will look, as much as possible, like that of the twentieth century, except that the screens that consumers are glued to will be easier to carry.”

It is not at all clear how this struggle will turn out. The FCC’s authority to impose openness on the Internet is being contested in the courts. The relatively limited amount of data that wireless systems can carry has led industry and the FCC to consider proposals to limit equal access. The rationale is technical, to control system-degrading “data hogs” bent on downloading information-dense video entertainment and the like, but the potential for creeping restrictions to shelter corporate profit is plain.

Ultimately, the preservation of an open Internet, and of the empowerment of individuals it promises—the preservation of virtual public spaces—will require its beneficiaries to fight to keep it. It will require “the cultivation of a popular ethic concerning our society’s relation to information, an ethic consistent with the importance of information in our individual and collective lives,” one that is grounded in “awareness of the imminent perils of a closed system.” Whether sufficient numbers of people will acquire such awareness and act on it is not at all clear. But Wu’s insights are entirely convincing. The greatest single contribution that Western societies can make to the Internet’s potential to empower repressed populations abroad would be to preserve at home the very openness of social media that has inspired the likes of Wael Ghonim.