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Analysis & Opinion
12.01.11 Cyber Tyranny
By Rose Griffin

Evgeny Morozov is a Belarusian born blogger, journalist and author. He released his first book, the Net Delusion on January 4 this year. In it he challenges the notion that the Internet and associated technologies will fuel the collapse of authoritarian regimes and aid the spread of democracy around the world. Questioning the media hype about the role of Twitter in the Iranian protests in 2009 and rhetoric from a number of key U.S. policymakers, he hypothesizes about how the Internet already is, and could be further, manipulated by authoritarian regimes.

“I became involved with blogging and new media when I joined Transitions Online, a Prague-based NGO. That was around 2006,” said Morozov, “For two and a half years I was their director of new media, doing a lot of trainings for bloggers, activists and journalists in the former Soviet space.”

Morozov sees the Internet as a relatively minor factor in the recent Belarusian elections. “I don’t think it played much of a role,” he said. “We don’t know what role it could have played, for access to some Web sites was impossible because the https protocol, essential to services like e-mail was not working on election day.”

Russia Profile, in Minsk to cover the December elections, experienced this first hand. With e-mail services down for at least two days, copy was filed via Skype. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were also affected.

But a key part of Morozov’s thesis is that the impact of social networking sites on protest movements has been overestimated. He suggests that contrary to media hype, Twitter played a small part in social unrest in Iran in 2009. “I don't think that Twitter played much of a role in facilitating protests in Iran in 2009,” Morozov said. “It played some role in publicizing them - not least because there were many Westerners who were eager to re-tweet what was coming from Iran.”

Morozov thinks a similar phenomenon did not take place during the recent Belarusian elections for one simple reason. “Why didn't it happen in the case of Belarus? This one is pretty easy: fewer people in the West care about Belarus to begin with.”

But just because the Internet did not prove to be a make or break weapon in the opposition’s arsenal in Belarus, is not to say that authoritarian governments around the world have not already begun to take advantage of what it offers.

An activist with a Facebook profile benefits from a platform to promote his activities at home and abroad, but if the authorities decide to crack down on their activity, they have put all of their Facebook friends at risk. Information about connections and contacts among activists, which used to be much harder to come by and was often extracted by force, is now readily available to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Internet. Morozov says that some of these tactics were used in the wake of civil unrest in Iran in 2009, with activists identified from photographs posted online, and Iranians abroad warned by text message that protesting could have consequences for their relatives back home.

Digital surveillance is far quicker and cheaper than more traditional methods, and also undermines the “human factor,” where those working for the authorities can begin to empathize with someone whose life they are listening in to for many hours a day.

The close links between Western technology companies and the U.S. government could also lead to accusations of governmental control and interference abroad – Twitter postponed maintenance of the site scheduled to take place during the Iranian protests following a request from a U.S. government official.

Since Morozov wrote the book, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have generated a huge amount of debate about the role of the Internet and many question what the lasting impact will be on the way policy makers view its role. Morozov said that the revelations themselves will have limited impact on how Western policy makers view the Internet, but that the WikiLeaks phenomenon will lead to greater concern among policy makers about the potential impact of the Internet.

“The fact that information got leaked and that it was so hard to suppress once it got leaked would of course make policy-makers - especially in the United States - more concerned about the Internet,” Morozov said.

“I expect the government to implement tougher policies when it comes to Internet anonymity, for example. Also, the fact that the Department of Justice is now going after some of WikiLeaks' supporters is likely to have chilling effects on many Internet users – so this in itself would be a negative development,” he said.

Whether Julian Assange is extradited to the United States and how he is treated once he gets there will allow for some degree of analysis of how the authorities there plan to treat those who use the Internet to reveal compromising information.

And Morozov has interesting insight for Russia watchers as well. In addition to some government censorship, he sees the rise of Web sites such as Russia.Ru, above all a light entertainment platform with the odd pro-government tit-bit thrown in, as having a greater impact. Contradicting the stereotype that free information is all that is needed to turn citizens into pro-democracy activists, Morozov says that people use the Internet for very similar reasons around the world - from communicating to weight loss to romance tips.
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