Sunday, 9 January 2011

Guys who get the interwebs: #1 Evgeny Morozov

I was going to fold one of these articles into a wider roundup of recent reading, but a friend of mine sent me a second article by Evgeny Morozov and I felt they deserved their own post. Morozov is, for reference, a visiting scholar at Stanford and one of the better writers on the internet and its impact on the political and security spheres, both domestically and internationally. I'd thoroughly recommend his twitter feed for those who want to keep abreast of this kind of material.

First up is Freedom.gov, a piece which recently appeared in Foreign Policy. It details the dramatic failure of the Obama administration's attempts to use the internet as a tool for improving freedom overseas. Personally I have to take any US claims that the internet should be a tool for freedom with a pinch of salt, considering their wildly overdramatic reaction to Wikileaks.

Morozov posits an interesting argument, that by so blatantly pointing to the fact the US is going to use the internet as a tool to undermine opressive foreign Governments they have essentially given the game away, encouraging those Governments to take aggressive steps to limit their population's ability to access the internet as a resource:
Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions -- vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace.

...

Where the bureaucrats and diplomats who touted the Internet Freedom Agenda went wrong was in thinking that Washington could work with Silicon Valley without people thinking that Silicon Valley was a tool of Washington. They bought into the technologists' view of the Internet as an unbridled, limitless space that connects people without regard to borders or physical constraints. At its best, that remains true, but not when governments get involved.
Like the printing press, newspapers and every other tool which made public debate easier the internet has helped to ensure that ideas and discussions flow more freely and closer to the public, bringing more people on board. As with printing presses and newspapers public access to the internet will be restricted if governments see it as a threat to their power. By politicising the platforms like Twitter and Facebook they become percieved parts of the American foreign policy arsenal.

A Russophile friend of mine sent me this second article seperately. Morozov analyses the shift in Russia from direct censorship online to using the toolkits which hackers, and online activists like Anonymous, have been using for quite some time to push sites off the internet and limit access by the general public to these resources.
Hours before the judge in the latest Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial announced yet another guilty verdict last week, Russia's most prominent political prisoner was already being attacked in cyberspace.

No, Khodorkovsky's Web site, the main source of news about the trial for many Russians, was not being censored. Rather, it had been targeted by so-called denial-of-service attacks, with most of the site's visitors receiving a "page cannot be found" message in their browsers.
The interesting thing is that the Russian state itself doesnt really have to take an active part in these attacks.
Under the Russian model - what I refer to as "social control" - no formal, direct censorship is necessary. Armies of pro-government netizens - which often include freelancing amateurs and computer-savvy members of pro-Kremlin youth movements - take matters into their own hands and attack Web sites they don't like, making them inaccessible even to users in countries that practice no Internet censorship at all.
Its a simple and elegant solution that allows the Kremlin to avoid the negative publicity of having aggressive policies of limitation to what people can see online, whilst also preventing not only their own citizens but also foreign readers from accessing material which is considered objectionable. Its also decentralised, so no edicts have to be put out, and the Kremlin doesnt have to monitor the internet for things which offends them.
The Kremlin in fact practices very little formal Internet censorship, preferring social control to technological constraints. There is a certain logic to this. Outright censorship hurts its image abroad: Cyberattacks are too ambiguous to make it into most foreign journalists' reports about Russia's worsening media climate. By allowing Kremlin-friendly companies and vigilantes to police the digital commons, the government doesn't have to fret over every critical blog post.
These two articles are interesting in how they dovetail togeather. The world's supposedly most tech savvy nation is failing dramatically to use the internet to promote its agenda overseas through clumsy ineptitude, whilst the Kremin has figured out a PR friendly way to suppress significant amounts of content online.

The lesson really is that the internet is a chaotic space, and to achieve your foreign policy goals in this space you have to embrace the way the internet works at the moment, not try to impose a new order upon it. The Kremlin has taken on board the existing, already working tools which are perfectly effective, wheras America wants to create a new order online. Its a bit of a no-brainer as to why the Kremlin is doing so well.
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