Cyber Wars 2.0

Evgeny Morozov
The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
(Public Affairs 2011)

If you are reading this review from the Rail’s website, you should pick up a copy of Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. Once you get past the author’s straw-man bashing of those he dubs “cyber-utopians” and the foreign-policy establishment’s Manichean antinomies of “democracy” and “authoritarian” countries, you can learn much about how the “dark side” of the Internet works. Most disturbing, everything Morozov warns about the anti-democratic tactics employed by repressive, dictatorial regimes around the globe has been developed, implemented or held in ready by the ostensibly “free” nations of the West.

The book was released in January, moments before some of the long-entrenched and U.S.-backed Middle East state tyrannies began to collapse; the book also came out just before a trove of U.S. foreign policy memos were published through WikiLeaks. Most revealing, the book does not anticipate the rebellions now shaking North Africa or the role played by web-based social networking technologies. Least of all, it does not recognize the role ordinary citizens play in history. The gulf separating “before” and “after” Tunisia puts The Net Delusion in stark relief.

Books are distillations, frozen intellectual moments. Each represents an author’s best effort to understand and explain the subject s/he is addressing. Authors are, however, trapped by fortuitous chance, as much observers as prisoners of what they are attempting to comprehend. One can only wonder how the analysis of The Net Delusion would be different if the author had the benefit of a later publication date.

Morozov is a native of Belarus, a 21st century cosmopolitan who is as comfortable in Minsky as Moscow, Shanghai as San Francisco. He has little sympathy for the ill-informed and uncritical champions of techno-politics. He is unforgiving of poor Andrew Sullivan, the well-intentioned if naïve commentator who was swept up in the initial excitement of the 2009 Iranian uprising, dubbing it the “Twitter revolution.” For Morozov, such enthusiasm is unforgivable. Surely, Sullivan, a long-term gay rights activist, would be more reflective given half-a-chance to reconsider his all-too-enthusiastic initial comments.

Thankfully, Morozov also goes after bigger fish. Most importantly, he takes aim at Obama’s State Department, particularly Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her former assistant Jared Cohen (now with Google). The foreign-policy establishment comes off as a bunch of bumbling techno-neophytes, ideological hacks looking to merely reframe cold war-era verities to meet 21st century uncertainties.

The Net Delusion is a cautionary tale, a rejoinder to those seduced by the phantasmagoria of the digital spectacle. Its real value is in the innumerable stories Morozov pulls together to reveal how the new technologies are being co-opted by authoritarian regimes—and freedom loving Western democracies—to repress people throughout the world. Blessed with a smart writing style, he pulls together a sizable body of information about the Internet’s underbelly. These examples suggest the outline of the 21st-century techno-corporatist state, one that all of us as citizens of the digital, networked, and globalized capitalist world order need to be aware of; it is our future.

On June 22, 2009, the West woke to images of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old Iranian college graduate and underground musician, shot dead during a peaceful protest against the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Images of blood streaming from her nose and mouth were captured by cell phones and portable cameras as both digital still and moving images and, in nano-moments, distributed worldwide through the Internet.

Neda’s images quickly appeared on Flickr and YouTube, along with countless news outlets and blogs, fueling a nearly worldwide condemnation of the Iranian government. Morozov provides an invaluable addition to the now-familiar story, reminding readers that these images also served a very different purpose. Unbeknownst to democracy advocates, the images were posted on Iran’s state-owned news agencies websites, with the faces of some of the unidentified protesters circled in red; it asked its patriotic citizens to identify those so marked—and they complied. This is but one telling example of the Internet’s “dark side.”

China has taken what Morozov considers the unholy trinity of the digital information age—censorship, propaganda, and surveillance—to the extreme. In addition to the use of such conventional forms of repression as the restricting of Google, blocking blogs, and using the kill-switch on threatening sites, it has invented some new ones. Extending the Iranian model of harnessing loyal citizens to identify alleged dissidents, China set up the 50-Cent Party, online snoops who get paid for every dissident blog or website they identify.

Morozov also has a special antipathy for Russia, a country he knows all too well. He discusses how the state went after the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta following its discussions of the assassination of one its reporters, Anna Politkovskaya.

One of the strangest cases Morozov discusses involves how the Saudi government killed Tomaar.net. The site was originally established to promote the philosophical study of Islam, but outside of Muslim orthodoxy. Islam is Saudi Arabia’s state religion and the majority of the population follows the Salafi creed within the Sunni tradition. It adheres to the fundamentalist tenets of the Wahhabi movement.

Tomaar’s website was hosted in the U.S., so the government first denied access to the site from all those connected from Saudi Arabia. After Tommar’s techies came up with a clever by-pass scheme, the Saudis disabled the site by launching a DDoS (i.e., distributed denial of service) attack that overloaded the site with too much traffic. (A DDoS attack was launched by WikiLeaks followers associated with the group Anonymous against PayPal and the major credit card companies following disclosure of their compliance with a U.S. government request that they halt the site’s transactional processing capabilities.)

Morozov reveals that a state’s method of control—whether it be authoritarian or democratic—over what it perceives as a threatening site takes many forms.

Morozov’s analysis of cyber-control is focused mostly on non-Western, authoritarian states. His critique, however, is equally appropriate for so-called democratic countries. He is forced to repeatedly come back to the good-old U.S. of A. to locate the heart of the Internet’s dark side: the intimate collaboration between American high-tech corporations and the U.S. government.

One revealing example illustrates both how this linkage works and its unanticipated consequences. As Iran’s 2009 Green protest movement was underway, the State Department requested Twitter delay a planned maintenance shutdown, which it did. This action may have helped Iranian protesters, but it provided Ahmadinejad with the rationale of U.S. government intervention to legitimize a widespread crackdown on tech-media efforts and dissidents. (Morozov’s book was completed before Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, and Apple complied with a U.S. government request to cut off services to WikiLeaks.)

Morozov has pulled together an enormous number of invaluable examples of a global digital police state in formation. He offers a devastating critique of naïve cyber-utopians, so popular among the foreign-policy establishment and media distraction industry. Unbeknownst to the author, his critique is also an unstated challenge to the “cyber realism” he advocates as his disappointing conclusion.

After a rigorous and well-argued analysis of the Internet and social networking, he fails to follow his argument to its logical conclusion. He seems intellectually overwhelmed by the evidence he has so carefully amassed.

Analytically, the author is, at heart, a postmodern elitist, a Leninist in Jeffersonian clothing. Faced with capitalism logic toward totalitarian globalization, he can only envision dissident movements putting on suits and ties on the morning after the revolution and, with utmost civility, going about the dirty job of governing. He sees uprisings as efforts to recapitulate the hierarchical structure of political party and nation state that gave rise to modern tyranny. The raw, rough-and-tough struggles for real power now sweeping North Africa seem but a sideshow.

Morozov’s intellectual hubris is rooted in his failure to acknowledge capitalism’s original sin, its negative dialectic. It is at once both progressive and regressive, a system designed to re-enforce hierarchy and maximize the wealth and power of those in control.

Nothing better captures this contradiction than the role technology has played over the last few centuries. Whether the printing press, the telegraph, the radio or television, and now the Internet, each innovation is scarred, helping to both liberate and repress, sometimes being both and sometimes something more.

Morozov’s The Net Delusion should be read carefully and critically. It reveals the logic of a new form of tyranny, one unique to our 21st century. It is one of the few books out there that undercuts the self-serving fictions promulgated by many public officials regarding the place of the new media in contemporary political life. Perhaps more importantly, the book shows how this tyranny is repeatedly subverted, undone by its own arrogance, freeing ordinary people to claim a better life. This unintended lesson is Morozov’s most important contribution.

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN regularly contributes to AlterNet and CounterPunch and can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.com.

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