How Repressive Regimes Use the Internet to Keep Power

Evgeny Morozov discusses The Net Delusion.

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Journalist and social critic Evgeny Morozov says the idea that the Internet can be used by the West to promote democracy in repressive regimes is simplistic. In fact, the Internet can actually empower those repressive governments in ways that overly enthusiastic Western commentators fail to appreciate when they spread the Gospel of Google. Morozov recently chatted with U.S. News about his new book, The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and how open access to information is far from a panacea for dictatorship. Excerpts:

How far back does the idea of freedom-through-the-media go?

It goes back to the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War, when it was assumed that if countries adhered to certain policy and economic ideas that they would all become democracies. The media was supposed to encourage that transition and encourage public discourse. In the 1980s, some people began to see the role of the media in ending the Cold War. But historians take a much larger view, including many other important factors, military, economic, and social.

Are these lessons misunderstood from the Cold War?

[Media] definitely played a positive role, but if you were to go back in time to the 1980s, knowing what we now do, it is not for certain that you'd put so much money into Western broadcasting. In East Germany, for instance, there was wide access to Western news broadcasts, but no one watched them. They watched the entertainment and American soap operas instead. In fact, opinions in the East about the West were actually better in places where there wasn't exposure to Western news broadcasts.

Are comparisons with past technology fair?

Not entirely. Much of the important nuance is lost when people say that the Berlin Wall has been replaced by the Great Firewall of China. Those comparisons actually conceal much more than they reveal. For example, there are many bloggers in Iran and Russia who are far more conservative and anti-Western than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Vladimir Putin. Technology has empowered them, so how does that fit into the metaphor?

Does open access to information benefit civil discourse?

Total censorship is impossible, but it has been replaced by a more subtle form of control which involves casting doubt on the accuser and making counter-accusations. Repressive regimes are empowered when they have more information about those who oppose them inside the state.

That sounds like standard spin doctoring.

Moscow and Beijing are very much looking to the West to understand how to deal with these changes that technology brings. Many of the best-selling policy books in those countries now were written by people like Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell, who wrote studies of propaganda. The Chinese, for instance, have invited some of Tony Blair's advisers to come over and teach them about spinning and propaganda.

Isn't the fact that these countries can no longer tell the "big lie" evidence that technology does equate with freedom?

If you want to measure progress based on autonomy and independence of the middle class to go on skiing trips, then sure, those people are doing fine. If you are willing to be silent in these countries, then you can surely have more autonomy than you could 30 years ago. But if you consider the situation for human rights workers or lawyers or dissidents who oppose these regimes and how much harder the Internet has made their work, then you have to come to other conclusions.

Is the idea that transparency is bad for repressive regimes based on an underestimation of their adaptability?

Yes, in part. It's also based on ignorance about how those regimes have changed. They are much more globalized and consumer-friendly. There was a popular saying that the demand for blue jeans brought down the Berlin Wall, because the communist regimes couldn't keep up with demand once their populations were exposed to those consumer goods. Now, most blue jeans are made in China.

Are you arguing that access to information doesn't equal the demand for it?

Corrected on 1/13/11: An earlier version of this article misspelled Harold Lasswell's name.