Can Egypt's Internet Movement Be Exported?
“Official Washington had no appetite for regime change in Egypt,” notes Evgeny Morozov, a leading skeptic of the power of digital uprisings, “while Silicon Valley managed to contribute to undermining Mubarak.”
As the world has now seen, the resilient protesters who gathered in Cairo were continuously broadcast, and often organized, through social networks built in Palo Alto. Yet Morozov, an author and agitator who has met with democracy activists in Cairo, cautions against downloading the wrong lessons from Egypt, as he recently explained in an interview with The Nation.
Egypt’s transformation does not illuminate our understanding of how most dictators combat web uprisings, he argues, because Egypt did not really fight the web in the first place.
“Egypt hasn’t been trying to control the web all that much,” Morozov says, “other than beating up bloggers.” He has a point. Mubarak’s crackdown on the Internet was tardy, clumsy and counterproductive. Shutting down the web two days into the uprising, Mubarak was too late to disrupt the virtual networks materializing in the streets, yet the extreme measure revealed his regime’s panic. Likewise, the decision to abduct Wael Ghonim, the activist Google executive, after his Facebook group topped 300,000 people revealed little comprehension of social media. Choosing to target Ghonim, of all people, ensured a large, networked constituency would follow the prominent case – both within and beyond the country. (Over 860,000 people now back the Arabic Facebook group he started, with another 85,000 following its English counterpart). Many other dictators, however, are savvier than Mubarak.
From Iran to China, authoritarian governments have already modernized their oppressive systems with proactive online filtering, censorship and other thuggery. China filters individual content, scrubbing reports of protests from the web, while Iran has blocked entire websites, including Facebook, the Huffington Post and blogging platforms like LiveJournal. Just this week, Iran cracked down further on opposition websites and mobile phone service, after a wave of protests spread from Egypt’s example. Egyptian protestors’ effective use of social media may not be very replicable elsewhere, applying Morozov’s theory, because its wired uprising snowballed within a country still operating on a “19th century kind of authoritarianism.” Most reformers in the region must battle an upgraded authoritarianism that is already weaponizing the web, a central warning in Morozov’s new book, The Net Delusion. The methodical tome is a skeptical assault on “Internet Freedom,” and after Egypt’s revolution, it’s drawing attention from diplomats and organizers on both sides of the dictator divide.
Morozov critiques “Internet-centrism” – the tendency to focus more on visible technological tactics than recondite root causes – and unloads on just about every smart-sounding bromide you’ve ever heard about the web reforming politics or repressive regimes. Social networks do not just help dissidents fight their dictatorships, he warns, they also help dictatorships track and arrest their dissidents. The US State Department is not simply tapping the wisdom of tech companies to inform foreign policy, it risks being undermined as these firms erect a parallel diplomacy made of code, not cables. The U.S. talks about new training programs for a few digital activists in the Middle East, Morozov acidly observes, but it could do more for freedom if it stopped training and giving aid to a few dictators in the same neighborhood.
The same transparent, accessible online organizing tools that enable activists to publicize and share information about protests can be used by authoritarian regimes to track and crack down on those getting involved. Pictures from Iran’s 2009 protests spread online in real time, and drew pivotal attention to the nation’s unrest. Yet months later, the Iranian police used 38 of those close-up photos, he reports, to help Iranians identify dozens of their fellow citizens. Those activists were then arrested, based on some of their own grassroots agitprop. Thus Iran melds citizen informants, a traditional authoritarian tool, with the latest in crowdsourcing, turning benign photos from a protestors’ cell phone into another source of intimidation.
The strongest policy argument in The Net Delusion, however, is not about the innovation of oppression or trendy skepticism towards web activism (see Gladwell, Malcolm.) It is the unconventional and welcome call for the US government to reassess its rosy view of the prized technology sector, which is now yoked to the geopolitics of several democracy uprisings.
Related issues at the State Department are piling up: The Obama administration has been leading corporate tech delegations to tout innovation in the Middle East; one American diplomat famously bragged about successfully convincing Twitter to reschedule site maintenance during the Iranian protests, implying a nationalistic bent to a supposedly neutral platform, and Hillary Clinton touts cyberdiplomats practicing “21st Century Statecraft,” an adjunct team that operates, according to Morozov, without the traditional “oversight” at Foggy Bottom. This week, she doubled down on the agenda with a major address on “Internet Rights and Wrongs,” which touted social media platforms and called out Syria and Iran as online oppressors, but failed to mention the censorship of an American ally like Saudi Arabia.
This approach is technological “naiveté,” Morozov warns, and the U.S. may wind up with the short ends of two different sticks. After Egypt, foreign governments may cynically view our tech agenda as a soft launch for regime change. Meanwhile, he argues, American tech companies still care more about free markets than free people. Thus the country takes a hit for playing tough, when it’s actually getting played.
“For Facebook,” Morozov posits, “getting into China matters much more than saving Egypt or Tunisia.” He finds it odd that anyone expect a company “run by venture capitalists” to promote “freedom and human rights.”
Here it is crucial, especially for activists and policymakers, to distinguish between Facebook the company and Facebook the platform.
Egyptians used the platform because Facebook was a popular way to demonstrate support for demonstrations – it has more users in Egypt than any other Middle Eastern country. They did not use it because the company backed the uprising or the right to assemble. Quite the opposite. As a company, Facebook’s rules and architecture actually impeded organizers in Egypt. And its corporate policy is lukewarm on reform.
“The turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve,” Facebook noted in a meek statement on the seventh day of protests. Then, worse than rhetoric and neglected in recent media coverage, the company actually shut down one of the top Egyptian protest groups in December. The group’s administrators were using pseudonyms to avoid government retaliation, according to Harvard researcher Jillian York, a violation of Facebook’s rules. One of those anonymous administrators turned out to be Ghonim, the Google executive who was later abducted. At the time, the group's supporters protested Facebook and got it reinstated; soon they were back to protesting much bigger adversaries.
That was not an isolated skirmish for Facebook as a company. In contrast to Google, Facebook has refused to sign the Global Network Initiative, a compact devoted to preventing web censorship by authoritarian governments and protecting individual privacy, based on the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Both of those goals cut into the profits generated from doing business in closed societies and monetizing users’ information.) It is technically possible, of course, for Facebook to require Westerners to use their real identities, while affording some protection to users risking their lives to fight police states. So far, the company has usually declined.
These are key tradeoffs, especially as the pseudo-public forums of privately held companies play a pivotal role in international uprisings. Lately, a lot of Western media commentary has focused on the fashionable question of whether Egypt was (or wasn’t!) a digital uprising, as if apportioning the proper people-to-tech ratio for credit is an urgent priority. For reformers and governments, however, the core policy questions are closer to Morozov’s concerns, even if his book is more of a dystopian warning than a white paper. After all, in asymmetric conflicts between oppressive regimes and the people whom they oppress, it is no surprise that the authoritarians will try to refract innovations for their agenda. What is striking, instead, is that when facing down Goliath, some protestors found a hole to exploit before their oppressors caught up.
In the end, one can point to many factors that helped trigger Egypt’s uprising. The big ones are obviously “offline,” real-world social conditions. There is also no doubt, however, that another trigger was the threat of a citizen turning the tools of surveillance back on the state: The martyred Khaled Said had video of police corruption in June, when Egyptian police grabbed him from an Internet café and beat him to death. In turn, the sousveillance of Said’s corpse was another trigger, as illicit pictures of his disfigured face, snapped on a cellphone in the morgue, went viral online. And then came the Facebook trigger: First Ghonim helped form the famous solidarity group as a riposte to those pictures. Then other groups responded, and helped spread the street protests. In each of those cases, the trigger was a network – the mere threat of using one, or the act of growing one to mobilize more people. The answer to whether Egypt-style uprisings succeed in other countries will depend, at least in part, on how those networks are operated by American companies, and how they respond to pressure from governments around the world.