Cory Doctorow, "The Net Delusion": Do Cell Phones Work During Revolutions?

"The Net Delusion": Do Cell Phones Work During Revolutions? Cory Doctorow We need a serious critique of net activism. Morozov's book "The Net Delusion" argues that technology isn't necessarily good for freedom – but how else can the oppressed have a voice? Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion is the first book from the Belarusian-born foreign policy writer and blogger. Morozov has built a reputation as a sharp and sometimes caustic critic of the internet and "cyber-utopianism" and Net Delusion expands the arguments he's made elsewhere. I read my review copy with interest; I like Evgeny – the times we've met and corresponded, he's struck me as smart and committed. At its core, there is some very smart stuff indeed in The Net Delusion. Morozov is absolutely correct when he forcefully points out that technology isn't necessarily good for freedom – that it can be used as readily to enslave, surveil, and punish as it can to evade, liberate and share. !--break--> Unfortunately, this message is buried amid a scattered, loosely argued series of attacks on a nebulous "cyber-utopian" movement, whose views are stated in the most general of terms, often in the form of quotes from CNN and other news agencies who are putatively summing up some notional cyber-utopian consensus. In his zeal to discredit this ideology (whatever it is), Morozov throws whatever he's got handy at anyone he can find who supports the idea of technology as a liberator, no matter how weak or silly his ammunition. The role of Twitter Morozov begins with an effort to set the record straight on the role of Twitter in the recent Iranian elections. Twitter was widely reported as crucial to the on-the-ground oppositional effort in Iran, but subsequently, it became clear that Iranians in Iran are only peripherally involved with Twitter, though they used many other network tools and these were, indeed central to the reaction to the Iranian election. Morozov then thoroughly documents the fact that many of the three million Iranian expats are indeed active on Twitter, and that their traffic, along with sympathetic messages from non-Iranian users, made the Iranian election and its aftermath into major phenomena on Twitter. He also documents the close connections that these expats have with their families in Iran, using other tools such as Facebook. But then he fails to conclude from this that the news from Twitter may have jumped to Facebook (and vice versa) through these Iranians abroad, instead choosing to portray the roaring traffic of millions of Iranian expats on Twitter as being so isolated from their close relations on Facebook as to be practically irrelevant. But not entirely irrelevant. Morozov goes on to quote Golnaz Esfandiari, a Radio Free Europe Iran correspondent, in "deploring Twitter's pernicious complicity in allowing rumours to spread" in Iran during the crisis. I was shocked to read this in Morozov's work: how could Twitter be "complicit" in spreading rumours – did Esfandiari or Morozov expect internet services to pro-actively censor user contributions before allowing them to go live on their networks? And if so, did Morozov believe that Twitter would be better at supporting internet freedom if it appointed itself an censor? I was so baffled by this that I emailed Morozov to ask what, exactly, the reader was supposed to make of it. Morozov told me that he thought that Esfandiari had been speaking loosely; she meant that Twitter's users were "complicit" in spreading rumours. This is certainly better, but without some evidence that Twitter is uniquely suited to spreading false rumours, it's hardly an indictment of Twitter, leaving me wondering why it's in the book at all, especially as Morozov spent the previous pages arguing that nothing from Twitter made its way into Iran — unless it's part of the throw everything and see what sticks approach to discrediting "cyber-uptopians". And I think it is: later, Morozov blames "internet culture" for the "persistence of many urban myths," a profoundly weird idea, given that scholars of urban myths such as Jan Brunvand have found that many of today's urban legends originate in the middle ages and have proven amply fecund without the need for the internet as a breeding medium. Technology and revolution Morozov is skeptical of technology's capacity to foment revolution and spread democracy. Free access to information isn't necessary or even important to toppling corrupt regimes, he says — this is a shibboleth of Reaganites and their sentimental view of Samizdat, Radio Free Europe and other cold war information efforts. The Soviet Union didn't fall because of political organising, brave dissidents, or photocopied zines – it fell because it was a badly run nightmare that lurched from crisis to crisis until it imploded. Indeed, free access to foreign media – such as was enjoyed by citizens of the GDR who were able to tune into West German broadcasts – often acted to diffuse anti-authoritarian sentiment, anaesthetising East Germans with such efficiency that even the Stasi came to sing the praises of decadent western TV. Ironically, Morozov here agrees – unwittingly perhaps, but vigorously – with his ideological opponents such as Clay Shirky, the NYU professor whom Morozov singles out for a great deal of condemnation. Shirky's work – most recently The Cognitive Surplus – comes to exactly the same conclusion about traditional western media, especially TV. Shirky holds that TV served primarily to numb us to the crushing boredom that accompanied the surge of leisure time that arose in the early days of the information age. In Shirky's view, the internet is exciting precisely because it is the antidote to that passive viewing experience, a mechanism for luring people into participation through a series of ever-greater commitments. Regulation and control Morozov doesn't engage this argument in any depth, though. Indeed, when he finally addresses the internet on its own, separate from mobile phone networks, 40-year-old TV broadcasts, and other media, he does so only to scoff at "technology gurus" who "reveal their own historical ignorance" when they engage in "quasi-religious discourse about the power of the internet". He supports this caricature with a few of the dumbest quotes cherry-picked from the last two decades of "internet discourse," but neatly ignores all the serious work on the history of the net as distinct from other media – notably, he fails to mention or address the arguments raised in Timothy Wu's excellent The Master Switch that was published last year. Wu, a law and communications scholar, carefully and devastatingly traces out the history of media regulation in response to potential decentralisation of communications oligarchies and monopolies, and places the internet in a context that establishes its credentials as a genuinely novel phenomenon. Morozov knows that the internet is different, of course — he even says so, discussing the way that the net can mimic and overtake other media, and the problems this creates. This failure to engage with the best thinking and writing on the subject of the internet's special power to connect and liberate is Net Delusion's most serious demerit. When Morozov talks about the security risks arising from dissidents' use of Facebook – which neatly packages up lists of dissidents to be targeted by oppressive nations' secret police – he does so without ever mentioning the protracted, dire warnings of exactly this problem that have come from the "cyber-utopian" vanguard as embodied by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, NetzPolitik, Knowledge Ecology International, Bits of Freedom, Public Knowledge, and dozens of other pressure groups, activist organisations and technical projects around the world. Indeed, there is hardly any mention at all of history's most prominent internet freedom fighters, such as the venerable cypherpunks movement, who have spent decades building, disseminating and promoting the use of cryptographic tools that are purpose-built to evade the kind of snooping and network analysis he (rightly) identifies as being implicit in the use of Facebook, Google and other centralised, private tools to organise political movements. Though Morozov is correct in identifying inherent security risks in the use of the internet by dissidents, his technical analysis is badly flawed. In arguing, for example, that no technology is neutral, Morozov fails to identify one crucial characteristic of cryptographic systems: that it is vastly easier to scramble a message than it is to break the scrambling system and gain access to the message without the key. Outsmarting the secret police Practically speaking, this means that poorly resourced individuals and groups with cheap, old computers are able to encipher their messages to an extent that they cannot be deciphered by all the secret police in the world, even if they employ every computer ever built in a gigantic, decades-long project to force the locks off the intercepted message. In this sense, at least, the technological deck is stacked in favour of dissidents – who have never before enjoyed the power to hide their communiques beyond the reach of secret police – over the state, who have always enjoyed the power to keep secrets from the people. Morozov's treatment of security suffers from further flaws. It is a truism among cryptographers that anyone can design a system so secure that he himself can't think of a way of breaking it (this is sometimes called "Schneier's Law" after cryptographer Bruce Schneier). This is why serious information security always involves widespread publication and peer-review of security systems. This approach is widely accepted to be the best, most effective means of identifying and shoring up defects in security technology. And yet, when Morozov recounts the tale of Haystack, a trendy, putatively secure communications tool backed by the US state department that was later found to be completely insecure, he accepts at face value the Haystack creator's statement that his tool was kept secret because he didn't want to let Iranian authorities reverse-engineer its workings (real security tools work even if they have been reverse-engineered). Instead, Morozov focuses his criticism on the "release early, release often" approach to free and open source software, and mocks the aphorism "with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," though if these had been applied to Haystack, it would have been revealed as a failure long before it got into the hands of Iranian activists. Here, Morozov is as wrong as he could possibly be: if you want to develop secure tools to allow dissidents to communicate beneath the noses of oppressive regimes, you must widely publish the workings of these tools and revise them frequently as your peers identify new vulnerabilities in them. Morozov would have done well to familiarise himself with the literature and arguments of technologists who care and think about this stuff (the closest he comes to engaging with these people is to mock EFF founders Mitch Kapor for comparing the internet to Jeffersonian discourse and John Perry Barlow for penning A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace). Some of the world's most ingeniously paranoid experts have spent 20-plus years thinking up plausible technological nightmare scenarios, all of which are more frightening than Morozov's efforts, which include the bizarre speculation that secret police might someday soon have technology to isolate individual voices out of recordings of thousands of chanting demonstrators and match them to an identity database. Watching the watchers The picture Morozov paints of information security is misleadingly static. Noting that the web has allowed an alarming amount of surveillance by commercial actors such as ad-networks, Morozov concludes that this kind of tracking will come to the world's censorious, spying governments. But internet users who perceive a threat from advertisers face few difficulties in limiting this spying with ad blockers and the like. Lamentably, relatively few people take advantage of these countermeasures, but to assume that dissidents in oppressive regimes will have the same sanguine trust of their governments that punters have towards Google's tracking cookies is a rather titanic leap. In Morozov's analysis, your vulnerability on the web remains the same whether you're in a friendly or adversarial relationship to the site you're visiting or the snoop you're worrying about. Morozov is also willing to assume an improbable mien of credulity when it suits his argument – for example, he worries that the Chinese government proposed to install a mandatory censorware program on every PC called Green Dam, even though this move was ridiculed by security experts around the world, who correctly predicted that it would be a dismal failure (if censorware can't prevent your 12-year-old from looking at porn, it won't stop educated Chinese internet users from finding out about Falun Gong). Meanwhile, Morozov completely fails to report that the entertainment industry's plan to use "trusted computing" systems to control your use of your PC and internet connection presents a much more credible and subtler threat to the internet's freedom. Morozov isn't alone in his mistaken views about internet security — as he points out, the west's diplomatic apparatus is riddled with willfully stupid, wishful thinking about technology. China expert Rebecca MacKinnon – who is cited throughout Net Delusion – has railed at technologists' and diplomats' stubborn focus on penetrating censoring firewalls (such as the "Great Firewall of China"), while ignoring the much graver and subtler risks to liberty employed by Beijing's politburo. If the point of Net Delusion is to get the diplomatic corps to listen to a different set of wonks, or get the popular press to report more precisely on the capabilities of technology, that's admirable, I suppose. But I think Morozov is hoping to address people outside of Whitehall, Brussels and the DC Beltway here – it seems to me that he's hoping the whole world will stop looking to technology as a force for liberation, and instead trust in – what? I'm not sure. It seems that Morozov wants to see the chaos of popular, grassroots movements replaced with a kind of orderly, top-down style of regimented activism led by intellectuals whose thoughts can't be pithily expressed in 140-character tweets. Whether or not Morozov sees himself as one of those intellectuals is never explicitly stated. The question of serious discourse in the age of the internet is an important one, and here Morozov tries to bolster his technical arguments with ideological ones. In Morozov's view, the internet is merely the latest instalment in a series of communications technologies that spread trivia, gossip and inanity, crowding out serious thought and reflection. He's hardly the first to observe that fast-paced media leads to quick, flitting thought-processes; Morozov cites Neil Postman's 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death, but he may as well have cited Thoreau's Walden: "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." 'The internet will make us stupid' Which is to say, intellectuals have been bemoaning the trivialising effect of mass media forever – I don't see an enormous gap between the church argument against Martin Luther – allowing the laity to read the Bible will trivialise theology – and Thoreau, Postman and Morozov arguing that the internet will make us stupid by exposing us to too many "LOLCats". But as Clay Shirky has pointed out, there is a crucial difference between hearing about Princess Adelaide's health by telegraph or watching the cast of Dallas act out their intrigues on TV and doing "LOLCats" on the net: namely, that anyone can make a "LOLCat" and disseminate it to the world. That is, the internet has the capacity to be participatory in a fashion that no other medium has ever approximated: anyone with a manifesto or exposé can make it widely available. It's true that in a world in which anyone can publish, it's harder to know what to pay attention to, but it's silly to argue that freedom would be better served if 90% of the world was forced to remain silent so that their intellectual betters would have a clear channel in which to educate the rest of us. And yet, Morozov makes the ease of publishing online into a vice. First, because the trivia drowns out the serious; second, because anti-democracy nationalist crazies can use the net to fuel hatred and intolerance; and lastly, because the old hardship involved in political organising was itself a means of honing your commitment – the risks and privation associated with dissident activity hardened dissidents' resolve. It's true that the internet has put more trivia at our fingertips than ever before, but that's only because it has put more of everything at our fingertips. It has never been simpler to publish, read and participate in serious and weighty discourse than it is today. And while there may be a hundred (or a thousand) trivial Twitterers for every thoughtful, serious blog like Crooked Timber there are more outlets for serious discussion on blogs, message boards, video services, and yes, Twitter discussions than ever before in the entire history of the human race. It's tempting to look at all this diversity and see an echo chamber in which people of the same narrow views get together and vigorously agree with each other, but a cursory glance at the heated debate that is the internet's signature rhetorical style militates against it. Besides, if we're all confined to echo chambers consisting of nothing but a narrow slice of public life, how is it that all this trivia – funny YouTube videos, fascinating popular press clippings, and links to the weird and unusual – keep ending up on our screens? (Morozov tries to have his cake and eat it too here, warning that we are both in danger of being drowned out by random trivia and that the echo-chamber effect will end "serendipitous news discovery"). I'm less concerned that Morozov with the fact that the net has provided a home for authoritarian kooks, hyper-nationalist racists and mobs of violent, censorious loonies. People who believe in free speech should not be distressed by the fact that others use the freedom of expression to express bad, wicked or stupid things; as the free expression mantra goes: "The answer to bad speech is more speech." Advocating freedom And here is another way in which the internet isn't neutral, but rather, tilted in favour of freedom's advocates. Powerful governments have always had the capacity to control public discourse through censorship, official media, deception, agents provocateurs, and other means overt and covert. The novel thing about Russian oligarchs using the internet to propagandise is that they are forced to do so using a medium that their ideological opponents are also able to exploit. In the Soviet era, dissidents confined themselves to whispers and hand-copied samizdat; today, their descendants are able to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the state's propagandists on the same internet, one link away. And yes, this is risky business, but the risk isn't new (and the creation and refinement of open peer-reviewed anonymity tools opens up new possibilities for minimising the risk) – the new thing is the replacement of unidirectional propaganda vehicles such as TV (whether broadcasting Eastern or Western messages) with a new medium that allows any message to be placed alongside any other through powerful concepts such as the hyperlink. I share with Morozov a sense of irony in the use of the internet by radical Islamists to decry freedom, but while Morozov finds it ironic that the tools of freedom can be used to espouse censorship, I find it ironic that would-be censors rely on universal access one of the hardest-to-censor media yet devised to make their point. As to the question of privation as being key to hardening activists' commitment, I'm confident that for every task that is automated by the internet, new, difficult-to-simplify tasks will well up to take their place. As a lifelong political activist, I remember the thousands of person-hours we used to devote to putting up flyposters, stuffing envelopes, and running telephone trees simply to mobilise people for a protest, petition or public meeting (Morozov minimises the difficulty of this, asserting, for example, that Iranians would just find out, by word of mouth, about demonstrations, regardless of their tools – which leads me to suspect that he never tried to organise a demonstration in the pre-internet era). I'm sure that if we'd been able to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a mouse, we wouldn't have hung up our placards and called it a day; that drudge work absorbed the lion's share of our time and our capacity to think up new and exciting ways to make change. Besides, Morozov can't have it both ways: on the one hand, he sounds the alarm about extremist and nationalist groups who are organised and motivated by the internet to take gruesome action; a few pages later, he tells us that the internet allows for such simple action that no one will be stirred to leave their house and do something substantial. Morozov observes the hundreds of thousands – millions, even – of people who are motivated to take some small step in support of a cause, such as changing their Twitter avatar or signing an online petition and concludes that the ease of minimal participation has diffused their activist energy. I look at the same phenomenon and compare it to the activist world I knew before the internet, in which the people who could be coaxed into participating in political causes were more apt to number in the hundreds or thousands, and reflect on the fact that every committed, lifelong activist I know started out as someone who took some small casual step and went on to greater and deeper involvement, and I conclude that the net is helping millions of people wake up to the fact that they can do something about the causes they care about and that some fraction of those people will go on to do more, and more, and more. The liberating power of technology The Net Delusion's most peculiar thesis is that the west's confidence in technology's liberating power has alerted dictators who were previously uninterested in controlling the internet, and made the internet harder to use for spreading freedom. Morozov cites the Iranian authorities' response the US state department's over-the-top claims about the role of Twitter in the post-election demonstrations as an exemplar. In Morozov's view, Iran's powerful politicians were largely unconcerned about the net until the Americans told them that it would be their downfall, whereupon they took it upon themselves to turn the internet into a tool for spying on and propagandising to their citizens. Morozov then mentions various leaders, such as Hugo Chávez, who made use of the US rhetoric in their own internet projects. He also accuses Andrew McLaughlin, deputy chief technical officer of the US government, of giving ammunition to the world's dictators by publicly calling out America's telecoms companies for engaging in covert censorship of their networks, because this allowed dictators to justify their own policies. This may be Net Delusion's most bizarre moment: condemning an American politician for bravely fighting against censorship at home because foreign dictators will be comforted to know that they're not the only ones engaged in censorship. I find it hard to believe that Morozov genuinely wants the west's politicians to turn a blind eye to censorship at home lest the news of the west's imperfection should reach hostile ears. In the same breath, Morozov warns us that dictators aren't fools or madmen, but rather, extremely clever and technically accomplished politicians. I think he's right — the western caricature of dictatorships as thuggish, lurching idiocracies just doesn't match up with the technical and social accomplishments of these states – and that's why I think he's wrong about dictators' relationship to the internet. Power arises directly from mechanisms for communicating and organising, and the internet has been around for long enough for every successful autocrat to take notice of this fact. I find the suggestion that Iran's ruling elite only woke up to the power of the internet when the US state department publicly asked Twitter to change its maintenance rota (so as not to interfere with tweets related to Iran's election) to be as ridiculous as the state department's own overconfidence in the role of Twitter in influencing foreign politics. Activists who have paid attention to the way that authoritarian states interfere in their citizens' use of the internet know that the suspicion of – and greed for – the internet's power has festered in the world's dictatorships for as long as the internet has been in the public eye. The real problem with Morozov's exposé of "net-utopians" is that it bears no resemblance to the movement I know intimately and have been a part of for a decade. Where Morozov describes people who see the internet as a "deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression," or "refusing to acknowledge that the web can either strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes," I see only straw-men, cartoons drawn from CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences. Everyone I know in this movement – from donors to toolsmiths to translators to front-line activists to UN wonks – knows that the internet presents a risk as well as an opportunity. But unlike Morozov, these people have a program for minimising the risks arising from internet use (which is why there is so much campaign activity around the privacy and censorship problems arising from proprietary software, social networking services, and centralised data-collection systems such as Google) and maximising its efficacy as a tool for liberation, through the development of software and training that provides better anonymity, better communications security, and even abstract tools like zero-knowledge networking system that allow for the broad dissemination of information among large groups of people without revealing their identities. Morozov is right to assert that the west's politicians have a simplistic view of the internet's relationship to foreign policy, but this isn't merely a foreign policy problem – the same politicians have fantastically failed to come to grips with the internet's implications for copyright, free speech, education, employment, and every other subject of import. Morozov is right that cold war metaphors like "Great Firewall" obscure as much as they illuminate (The Net Delusion would be worth the price alone for its brilliant assertion that dictatorships use "fields" as much as "walls" in their internet strategies, which need to be "watered" rather than "strengthened" or "demolished"). But in his zeal to awaken policy-makers to the nuance and non-technical aspects of foreign policy, he is sloppy and lazy. He asserts that ihe Internet is different from a samizdat-era fax machine, because the internet is useful to oppressors and oppressed alike – though I've never met a bureaucrat who didn't love his fax. And though Morozov wants us to know that "Tweets don't topple governments, people do," he later blithely asserts that the Soviet bloc disintegrated of its own accord, not because of people, who were beside the point of the great and inevitable sweep of history. Morozov may believe that this was true of the USSR, but given how much of the rest of the book is devoted to the plight of dissidents on the ground, I think it's safe to say that even Morozov would agree with himself that some of the time, people play a role in the toppling of authoritarian regimes. In this project, dissidents require systems of communication and organisation. Every human endeavour that requires more than one person's effort has to devote a certain amount of resources to the problem of coordination: the internet has greatly simplified this problem (think again of the hours activists used to spend simply addressing postcards with information about an upcoming demonstration). In so doing, it has provided a disproportionate benefit to dissidents and outsiders (who, by definition, have fewer resources to start with) than it has to the incumbent and powerful (who, by definition, have amassed enough power to squander some of it on coordination and still have enough left over to rule). The internet makes it possible for more people to speak and participate, which, inevitably, means that protest movements will have a more diffuse set of goals than was common in the era of top-down, authoritarian revolutions. But Morozov romanticises the consensus of revolutions gone by – whether it was 1776, 1914 or 1989, every successful revolution is a fragile coalition of conflicting interests and views, held together by the common desire to abolish the old system, even if there was no consensus on what to replace it with. Meanwhile, the internet has become so integral to the daily functioning of the world's states that it's hard to credit Morozov's fear that in the event of a real revolutionary threat, governments will simply pull the plug. As Morozov himself points out, Burma's brutal junta kept the internet running day after day during its brutal crackdown on political riots, despite the global black eye it received courtesy of the reports that emerged thanks to the net; China depends so much on the net for its internal functioning that it's impossible to contemplate a national net shutdown (and even the regional shutdowns such as the one in Xinjiang province during the Uighur unrest are notable by dint of being such a rarity). The world needs more people seriously engaged with improving the lot of activists who make use of the net (that is, all activists). We need to have a serious debate about tactics such as the Distributed Denial of Service – flooding computers with bogus requests so that they can't be reached – which some have compared to sit-in demonstrations. As someone who's been arrested at sit-ins, I think this is just wrong. A sit-in derives its efficacy not from merely blocking the door to some objectionable place, but from the public willingness to stand before your neighbours and risk arrest and bodily harm in service of a moral cause, which is itself a force for moral suasion. As a tactic, DDoS has more in common with filling a business's locks with super glue, or cutting its phone lines – risky, to be sure, but closer to vandalism and thus less apt to convince your neighbours to look sympathetically on your cause. We need to fix the mobile internet, which – thanks to closed networks and devices – is more amenable to surveillance and control than the fixed-line variety. We need to fight the move – driven by entertainment companies and IT giants such as Apple and Microsoft – to design devices to work covertly and without the consent of their owners in the name of protecting copyright. We need to pay heed to Jonathan Zittrain (another scholar whom Morozov both dismisses and then later inadvertently agrees vigorously with), whose The Future of the Internet warns that the increase in crime, sleaze and fraud on the net will cause user fatigue and make people more willing to accept locked-down devices and networks that can be used to control, as well as protect them. We need all of this, and a serious critique and roadmap for the future of net activism, because the world's oppressive regimes (including supposedly free governments in the west) are availing themselves of new technology at speed, and the only way for activism to be effective in that environment is to use the same tools.