My review for the Indepdendent - unedited version in this post. All comments welcomed -- PK
By Evgeny Morozov
(£14.99, Allen Lane)
Reviewed by Pat Kane
In the world-theatre of geopolitics, where hubris sometimes seems like the only hit production running, Hilary Clinton's 'Internet Freedom' speech of January 2010 deserves some kind of special critics' award.
Drawing a parallel between the Iron Curtain of the Cold War and the "information curtain descending across much of the world", the US Secretary of State praised "viral videos and blog posts" as "the samizdat of our day... We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights".
Wiki-oops! Since then, of course, we've seen April's "viral video" of trigger-happy US soldiers killing Reuters journalists in Iraq. And over the last few weeks we've been reading the world's most incendiary collection (so far) of "blog posts", a recent selection from a vast cache of secret US diplomatic cables spanning the last forty-odd years.
In one of Evgeny Morozov's three cursory references to Wikileaks in over 400 pages of the The Net Delusion - ah, the perils of papery publishing schedules! - he notes that the American political elite "can't be calling for imposing restrictions on sites like Wikileaks" (already being proposed earlier this summer) "and also be disparaging China and Iran for similar impulses".
Quite so. Yet it's strange to read this truculent but extremely well-informed critique of "cyber-utopianism" and "internet-centrism" - with its demolition of such phenomena as the Iranian "Twitter Revolution", never mind Clinton's vapors about digital freedom - in the aftermath of the structural shock-waves that Wikileaks has set off around the world.
Morozov builds up an almost unarguable case that the internet is easily deployable by authoritarian states to serve the time-honoured oppressors' trinity of censorship, surveillance and propaganda. Much of his book is a useful tour d'horizon of the ways that the security regimes in Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, his homeland Belarus and many others are matching, mimicking and populating the best of Web 2.0 - all those idealised "social tools" from the coding labs of California.
Yet we've seen an American establishment successfully putting pressure on some of the poster-boys of the network society - be it Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, Visa and now Apple - to cut off the digital and financial supports of Wikileaks. Federal employees and students have been blocked or banned from visiting the site; prominent politicians and columnists have called for Wikileaks' founder, Julien Assange, to be assassinated.
It's getting a little difficult to discern one repressive cyber-regime from another these days.
One wonders whether Morozov's dull antennae towards Wikileaks' potential in this book (though ironically enough, he's making up for it now, in his unstoppable stream of tweets at @evgenymorozov) comes from his own institutional conditioning. From his days as a scholarship schoolboy, Morozov has been sponsored by Soros's Open Society institute, on whose board he now sits. This has clearly been an entree to fellowships at Stanford, Yahoo! and the New America Foundation, generating bylines at the Economist, the FT, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.
And throughout The Net Delusion, Morozov shows a degree more sympathy for the kind of diligent, time-and-people-intensive democracy promotion of the diplomatic classes revealed by the Wikileaks cables, than he does for the crackers, hacker and platform-makers of digital evangelism.
Indeed, his central caution is that the unthinking Western promotion of cyber-tools as enablers and organisers of dissent under authoritarian regimes - sometimes driven by Cold-War nostalgia, sometimes by a lazy and mistaken search for "diplomatic efficiency" - can sometimes make things worse for those concerned.
Encouraging dissidents to use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or mobile texting - even if those services protect the identity of users and don't cave under state pressure (whatever the state) - still provides a stream of social data which can reveal networks of activists, or alerts regimes to protests and concerns well in advance.
The powerful "sentiment analysis" software required for these tasks is being provided to regimes by Western tech-corps like IBM, Cisco and Ericsson - an amoral info-commercial complex about which Morozov is enjoyably robust: "we don't just need a wikinomics, but a wikiethics as well".
Though his demolition job on the embarrassments of Cupertino-driven "internet freedom" is comprehensive, Morozov does have more than a few positive suggestions on how Western powers can fashion information networks to give power and voice to those who need it most.
Encryption and security protocols are high on his list. He suggests they are a "win-win" for Western tech giants, who might both placate the increasing data-privacy concerns of their domestic customers, as well as give dissidents a much safer medium for informing and organising themselves.
Of course, security is at the heart of Wikileaks' offer to whistle-blowers everywhere. As Assange said in an interview with David Frost on Al'Jazzera recently, their extremely secure upload technology means that they cannot know the identity of any particular wikileaker to their service in advance.
Indeed, Assange's insurance policy - against heaven knows what depradations from the American state - is an encryption key that will unlock the complete archive of Wikileaks' documentation to the world, unfortunately described by his lawyer as "the information equivalent of a thermo-nuclear bomb".
Yet Morozov, no doubt directly informed by the particularly fustian nature of Belarussian oppression, reminds us that hammering in your safe code at a keyboard is only a secreted micro-camera away from revelation. And apparently, it's not yet possible to use long-range audio equipment to tell what characters are being distantly tapped out on a laptop (for that, some small mercies).
The Net Delusion is most useful as a reminder of how fleet-footed, rather than leaden and second-rate, many authoritarian regimes are in their cyberpolicies. China is a veritable powerhouse of disinformation-technology - not only building effective mobile, social networking and gaming platforms in which users trade off efficiency for surveillance, but also inducing the required netiquette on those services.
The Fifty-Cent Party, for example, is an army of blog-commenters who get paid for every dissident blog they snow with patriotic, party-approved rebuttals. And more subtly, China encourages blogging that highlights local corruption or poor services, while keeping a ceiling on more ambitious political critiques.
It's also a delight to be reminded that, in their search for ever-better propaganda techniques, a most honoured guest of the Central Party School in 2001 was one Peter Mandelson, there to "share his insights about the re-invention of the British Labour Party". China is inspiring the same burst of innovation in many other regimes: and Morozov usefully reminds us that loyal nationalism and patriotic service can be as much a motivation for the young socio-technical operative as the bohemian anarchisms of Julien Assange and his pals.
Which makes it imperative that the demonisation of Wikileaks stops, and a clear-sighted engagement with the shift in power that it heralds, begins. Morozov himself set out the options in a superb Financial Times editorial recently: these info-hackers, present and future, could become either a new "Transparency International" or a new "Red Brigades".
That is, their desire to be a new "fifth estate" - true to the spirit of the American "First Amendment" which holds a free press to be the best friend of accountable democracy - can be steadily answered by a non-panicked establishment. Or if things go pear-shaped (or bloody) for the likes of Assange, an info-insurrection may be unleashed that could leave considerable swathes of our comfortable, well-functioning knowledge society in ruins.
"Internet freedom", in short, is a valiant sword with a number of blades, existing in several dimensions simultaneously. As we go down the rabbit-hole of Wikileaks, Morozov's humane and rational lantern will help us land without breaking our legs.