“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.