The Net Delusion

The Dark Side of Internet Freedom


By Evgeny Morozov

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“The revolution will be Twittered!” declared journalist Andrew Sullivan after protests erupted in Iran in June 2009. Yet for all the talk about the democratizing power of the Internet, regimes in Iran and China are as stable and repressive as ever. In fact, authoritarian governments are effectively using the Internet to suppress free speech, hone their surveillance techniques, disseminate cutting-edge propaganda, and pacify their populations with digital entertainment. Could the recent Western obsession with promoting democracy by digital means backfire? In this spirited book, journalist and social commentator Evgeny Morozov shows that by falling for the supposedly democratizing nature of the Internet, Western do-gooders may have missed how it also entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder — not easier — to promote democracy. Buzzwords like “21st-century statecraft” sound good in PowerPoint presentations, but the reality is that “digital diplomacy” requires just as much oversight and consideration as any other kind of diplomacy. Marshaling compelling evidence, Morozov shows why we must stop thinking of the Internet and social media as inherently liberating and why ambitious and seemingly noble initiatives like the promotion of “Internet freedom” might have disastrous implications for the future of democracy as a whole.


To Aernout van Lynden

For anyone who wants to see democracy prevail in the most hostile and unlikely environments, the first decade of the new millennium was marked by a sense of bitter disappointment, if not utter disillusionment. The seemingly inexorable march of freedom that began in the late 1980s has not only come to a halt but may have reversed its course.
Expressions like "freedom recession" have begun to break out of the think-tank circuit and enter the public conversation. In a state of quiet desperation, a growing number of Western policymakers began to concede that the Washington Consensus—that set of dubious policies that once promised a neoliberal paradise at deep discounts—has been superseded by the Beijing Consensus, which boasts of delivering quick-and-dirty prosperity without having to bother with those pesky institutions of democracy.
The West has been slow to discover that the fight for democracy wasn't won back in 1989. For two decades it has been resting on its laurels, expecting that Starbucks, MTV, and Google will do the rest just fine. Such a laissez-faire approach to democratization has proved rather toothless against resurgent authoritarianism, which has masterfully adapted to this new, highly globalized world. Today's authoritarianism is of the hedonism- and consumerism-friendly variety, with Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher commanding far more respect than Mao or Che Guevara. No wonder the West appears at a loss. While the Soviets could be liberated by waving the magic wand of blue jeans, exquisite coffee machines, and cheap bubble gum, one can't pull the same trick on China. After all, this is where all those Western goods come from.
Many of the signs that promised further democratization just a few years ago never quite materialized. The so-called color revolutions that swept the former Soviet Union in the last decade produced rather ambiguous results. Ironically, it's the most authoritarian of the former Soviet republics—Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan—that found those revolutions most useful, having discovered and patched their own vulnerabilities. My own birthplace, Belarus, once singled out by Condoleezza Rice as the last outpost of tyranny in Europe, is perhaps the shrewdest of the lot; it continues its slide into a weird form of authoritarianism, where the glorification of the Soviet past by its despotic ruler is fused with a growing appreciation of fast cars, expensive holidays, and exotic cocktails by its largely carefree populace.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were started, if anything, to spread the gospel of freedom and democracy, have lost much of their initial emancipatory potential as well, further blurring the line between "regime change" and "democracy promotion." Coupled with Washington's unnecessary abuses of human rights and rather frivolous interpretations of international law, these two wars gave democracy promotion such a bad name that anyone eager to defend it is considered a Dick Cheney acolyte, an insane idealist, or both.
It is thus easy to forget, if only for therapeutic purposes, that the West still has an obligation to stand up for democratic values, speak up about violations of human rights, and reprimand those who abuse their office and their citizens. Luckily, by the twenty-first century the case for promoting democracy no longer needs to be made; even the hardest skeptics agree that a world where Russia, China, and Iran adhere to democratic norms is a safer world.
That said, there is still very little agreement on the kind of methods and policies the West needs to pursue to be most effective in promoting democracy. As the last few decades have so aptly illustrated, good intentions are hardly enough. Even the most noble attempts may easily backfire, entrenching authoritarianism as a result. The images of horrific prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were the result, if only indirectly, of one particular approach to promoting democracy. It did not exactly work as advertised.
Unfortunately, as the neoconservative vision for democratizing the world got discredited, nothing viable has come to fill the vacuum. While George Bush certainly overdid it with his excessive freedom-worshiping rhetoric, his successor seems to have abandoned the rhetoric, the spirit, as well as any desire to articulate what a post-Bush "freedom agenda" might look like.
But there is more to Obama's silence than just his reasonable attempt to present himself as anti-Bush. Most likely his silence is a sign of an extremely troubling bipartisan malaise: the growing Western fatigue with the project of promoting democracy. The project suffers not just from bad publicity but also from a deeply rooted intellectual crisis. The resilience of authoritarianism in places like Belarus, China, and Iran is not for lack of trying by their Western "partners" to stir things up with an expectation of a democratic revolution. Alas, most such Western initiatives flop, boosting the appeal of many existing dictators, who excel at playing up the threat of foreign mingling in their own affairs. To say that there is no good blueprint for dealing with modern authoritarianism would be a severe understatement.
Lost in their own strategizing, Western leaders are pining for something that has guaranteed effectiveness. Many of them look back to the most impressive and most unambiguous triumph of democracy in the last few decades: the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly—and who can blame them for seeking to bolster their own self-confidence?—they tend to exaggerate their own role in precipitating its demise. As a result, many of the Western strategies tried back then, like smuggling in photocopiers and fax machines, facilitating the flow of samizdat, and supporting radio broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, are given much more credit than they deserve.
Such belated Cold War triumphalism results in an egregious logical fallacy. Since the Soviet Union eventually fell, those strategies are presumed to have been extremely effective—in fact, crucial to the whole endeavor. The implications of such a view for the future of democracy promotion are tremendous, for they suggest that large doses of information and communications technology are lethal to the most repressive of regimes.
Much of the present excitement about the Internet, particularly the high hopes that are pinned on it in terms of opening up closed societies, stems from such selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history, rewritten to glorify the genius of Ronald Reagan and minimize the role of structural conditions and the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system.
It's for these chiefly historical reasons that the Internet excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better. Viewing it through the prism of the Cold War, they endow the Internet with nearly magical qualities; for them, it's the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries. Given that it's the only ray of light in an otherwise dark intellectual tunnel of democracy promotion, the Internet's prominence in future policy planning is assured.
And at first sight it seems like a brilliant idea. It's like Radio Free Europe on steroids. And it's cheap, too: no need to pay for expensive programming, broadcasting, and, if everything else fails, propaganda. After all, Internet users can discover the truth about the horrors of their regimes, about the secret charms of democracy, and about the irresistible appeal of universal human rights on their own, by turning to search engines like Google and by following their more politically savvy friends on social networking sites like Facebook. In other words, let them tweet, and they will tweet their way to freedom. By this logic, authoritarianism becomes unsustainable once the barriers to the free flow of information are removed. If the Soviet Union couldn't survive a platoon of pamphleteers, how can China survive an army of bloggers?
It's hardly surprising, then, that the only place where the West (especially the United States) is still unabashedly eager to promote democracy is in cyberspace. The Freedom Agenda is out; the Twitter Agenda is in. It's deeply symbolic that the only major speech about freedom given by a senior member of the Obama administration was Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom in January 2010. It looks like a safe bet: Even if the Internet won't bring democracy to China or Iran, it can still make the Obama administration appear to have the most technologically savvy foreign policy team in history. The best and the brightest are now also the geekiest. The Google Doctrine—the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology accompanied by the irresistible urge to enlist Silicon Valley start-ups in the global fight for freedom—is of growing appeal to many policymakers. In fact, many of them are as upbeat about the revolutionary potential of the Internet as their colleagues in the corporate sector were in the late 1990s. What could possibly go wrong here?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Once burst, stock bubbles have few lethal consequences; democracy bubbles, on the other hand, could easily lead to carnage. The idea that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor is marred by what I call cyber-utopianism: a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside. It stems from the starry-eyed digital fervor of the 1990s, when former hippies, by this time ensconced in some of the most prestigious universities in the world, went on an argumentative spree to prove that the Internet could deliver what the 1960s couldn't: boost democratic participation, trigger a renaissance of moribund communities, strengthen associational life, and serve as a bridge from bowling alone to blogging together. And if it works in Seattle, it must also work in Shanghai.
Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil. Even if true—and that's a gigantic "if"—their theories proved difficult to adapt to non-Western and particularly nondemocratic contexts. Democratically elected governments in North America and Western Europe may, indeed, see an Internet-driven revitalization of their public spheres as a good thing; logically, they would prefer to keep out of the digital sandbox—at least as long as nothing illegal takes place. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, have invested so much effort into suppressing any form of free expression and free assembly that they would never behave in such a civilized fashion. The early theorists of the Internet's influence on politics failed to make any space for the state, let alone a brutal authoritarian state with no tolerance for the rule of law or dissenting opinions. Whatever book lay on the cyber-utopian bedside table in the early 1990s, it was surely not Hobbes's Leviathan.
Failing to anticipate how authoritarian governments would respond to the Internet, cyber-utopians did not predict how useful it would prove for propaganda purposes, how masterfully dictators would learn to use it for surveillance, and how sophisticated modern systems of Internet censorship would become. Instead most cyber-utopians stuck to a populist account of how technology empowers the people, who, oppressed by years of authoritarian rule, will inevitably rebel, mobilizing themselves through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever new tool comes along next year. (The people, it must be noted, really liked to hear such theories.) Paradoxically, in their refusal to see the downside of the new digital environment, cyber-utopians ended up belittling the role of the Internet, refusing to see that it penetrates and reshapes all walks of political life, not just the ones conducive to democratization.
I myself was intoxicated with cyber-utopianism until recently. This book is an attempt to come to terms with this ideology as well as a warning against the pernicious influence that it has had and is likely to continue to have on democracy promotion. My own story is fairly typical of idealistic young people who think they are onto something that could change the world. Having watched the deterioration of democratic freedoms in my native Belarus, I was drawn to a Western NGO that sought to promote democracy and media reform in the former Soviet bloc with the help of the Internet. Blogs, social networks, wikis: We had an arsenal of weapons that seemed far more potent than police batons, surveillance cameras, and handcuffs.
Nevertheless, after I spent a few busy years circling the former Soviet region and meeting with activists and bloggers, I lost my enthusiasm. Not only were our strategies failing, but we also noticed a significant push back from the governments we sought to challenge. They were beginning to experiment with censorship, and some went so far as to start aggressively engaging with new media themselves, paying bloggers to spread propaganda and troll social networking sites looking for new information on those in the opposition. In the meantime, the Western obsession with the Internet and the monetary support it guaranteed created numerous hazards typical of such ambitious development projects. Quite predictably, many of the talented bloggers and new media entrepreneurs preferred to work for the extremely well-paid but largely ineffective Western-funded projects instead of trying to create more nimble, sustainable, and, above all, effective projects of their own. Thus, everything we did—with generous funding from Washington and Brussels—seemed to have produced the results that were the exact opposite of what my cyber-utopian self wanted.
It was tempting to throw my hands up in despair and give up on the Internet altogether. But this would have been the wrong lesson to draw from these disappointing experiences. Similarly, it would be wrong for Western policymakers to simply dismiss the Internet as a lost cause and move on to bigger, more important issues. Such digital defeatism would only play into the hands of authoritarian governments, who would be extremely happy to continue using it as both a carrot (keeping their populace entertained) and a stick (punishing those who dare to challenge the official line). Rather, the lesson to be drawn is that the Internet is here to stay, it will continue growing in importance, and those concerned with democracy promotion need not only grapple with it but also come up with mechanisms and procedures to ensure that another tragic blunder on the scale of Abu Ghraib will never happen in cyberspace. This is not a far-fetched scenario. How hard is it to imagine a site like Facebook inadvertently disclosing the private information of activists in Iran or China, tipping off governments to secret connections between the activists and their Western funders?
To be truly effective, the West needs to do more than just cleanse itself of cyber-utopian bias and adopt a more realist posture. When it comes to concrete steps to promote democracy, cyber-utopian convictions often give rise to an equally flawed approach that I dub "Internet-centrism." Unlike cyber-utopianism, Internet-centrism is not a set of beliefs; rather, it's a philosophy of action that informs how decisions, including those that deal with democracy promotion, are made and how long-term strategies are crafted. While cyber-utopianism stipulates what has to be done, Internet-centrism stipulates how it should be done. Internet-centrists like to answer every question about democratic change by first reframing it in terms of the Internet rather than the context in which that change is to occur. They are often completely oblivious to the highly political nature of technology, especially the Internet, and like to come up with strategies that assume that the logic of the Internet, which, in most cases, they are the only ones to perceive, will shape every environment than it penetrates rather than vice versa.
While most utopians are Internet-centrists, the latter are not necessarily utopians. In fact, many of them like to think of themselves as pragmatic individuals who have abandoned grand theorizing about utopia in the name of achieving tangible results. Sometimes, they are even eager to acknowledge that it takes more than bytes to foster, install, and consolidate a healthy democratic regime.
Their realistic convictions, however, rarely make up for their flawed methodology, which prioritizes the tool over the environment, and, as such, is deaf to the social, cultural, and political subtleties and indeterminacies. Internet-centrism is a highly disorienting drug; it ignores context and entraps policymakers into believing that they have a useful and powerful ally on their side. Pushed to its extreme, it leads to hubris, arrogance, and a false sense of confidence, all bolstered by the dangerous illusion of having established effective command of the Internet. All too often, its practitioners fashion themselves as possessing full mastery of their favorite tool, treating it as a stable and finalized technology, oblivious to the numerous forces that are constantly reshaping the Internet—not all of them for the better. Treating the Internet as a constant, they fail to see their own responsibility in preserving its freedom and reining in the ever-powerful intermediaries, companies like Google and Facebook.
As the Internet takes on an even greater role in the politics of both authoritarian and democratic states, the pressure to forget the context and start with what the Internet allows will only grow. All by itself, however, the Internet provides nothing certain. In fact, as has become obvious in too many contexts, it empowers the strong and disempowers the weak. It is impossible to place the Internet at the heart of the enterprise of democracy promotion without risking the success of that very enterprise.
The premise of this book is thus very simple: To salvage the Internet's promise to aid the fight against authoritarianism, those of us in the West who still care about the future of democracy will need to ditch both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism. Currently, we start with a flawed set of assumptions (cyber-utopianism) and act on them using a flawed, even crippled, methodology (Internet-centrism). The result is what I call the Net Delusion. Pushed to the extreme, such logic is poised to have significant global consequences that may risk undermining the very project of promoting democracy. It's a folly that the West could do without.
Instead, we'll need to opt for policies informed by a realistic assessment of the risks and dangers posed by the Internet, matched by a highly scrupulous and unbiased assessment of its promises, and a theory of action that is highly sensitive to the local context, that is cognizant of the complex connections between the Internet and the rest of foreign policymaking, and that originates not in what technology allows but in what a certain geopolitical environment requires.
In a sense, giving in to cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism is akin to agreeing to box blindfolded. Sure, every now and then we may still strike some powerful blows against our authoritarian adversaries, but in general this is a poor strategy if we want to win. The struggle against authoritarianism is too important of a battle to fight with a voluntary intellectual handicap, even if that handicap allows us to play with the latest fancy gadgets.

chapter one
The Google Doctrine
In June 2009 thousands of young Iranians—smartphones in their hands (and, for the more advanced, Bluetooth headsets in their ears)—poured into the stuffy streets of Tehran to protest what they believed to be a fraudulent election. Tensions ran high, and some protesters, in an unthinkable offense, called for the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei. But many Iranians found the elections to be fair; they were willing to defend the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if needed. Iranian society, buffeted by the conflicting forces of populism, conservatism, and modernity, was facing its most serious political crisis since the 1979 revolution that ended the much-disliked reign of the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
But this was not the story that most Western media chose to prioritize; instead, they preferred to muse on how the Internet was ushering in democracy into the country. "The Revolution Will Be Twittered" was the first in a series of blog posts published by the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan a few hours after the news of the protests broke. In it, Sullivan zeroed in on the resilience of the popular microblogging site Twitter, arguing that "as the regime shut down other forms of communication, Twitter survived. With some remarkable results." In a later post, even though the "remarkable results" were still nowhere to be seen, Sullivan proclaimed Twitter to be "the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran" but didn't bother to quote any evidence to support his claim. Only a few hours after the protests began, his blog emerged as a major information hub that provided almost instantaneous links to Iran-related developments. Thousands of readers who didn't have the stamina to browse hundreds of news sites saw events unfolding in Iran primarily through Sullivan's eyes. (And, as it turned out, his were a rather optimistic pair.)
It didn't take long for Sullivan's version of events to gain hold elsewhere in the blogosphere—and soon enough, in the traditional media as well. Michelle Malkin, the right-wing blogging diva, suggested that "in the hands of freedom-loving dissidents, the micro-blogging social network is a revolutionary samizdat—undermining the mullah-cracy's information blockades one Tweet at a time." Marc Ambinder, Sullivan's colleague at the Atlantic, jumped on the bandwagon, too; for him, Twitter was so important that he had to invent a new word, "protagonal," to describe it. "When histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown," wrote Ambinder on his blog. The Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen proclaimed that "this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter," while National Public Radio's Daniel Schorr announced that "in Iran, tyranny has run afoul of technology in the form of the Internet, turning a protest into a movement." When Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asserted that in "the quintessential 21st-century conflict ... on one side are government thugs firing bullets ... [and] on the other side are young protesters firing 'tweets,'" he was simply registering the zeitgeist.
Soon technology pundits, excited that their favorite tool was all over the media, were on the case as well. "This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media," proclaimed New York University's Clay Shirky in an interview with Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard academic and the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, alleged that "Twitter, in particular, has proven particularly adept at organizing people and information." John Gapper, a business columnist for the Financial Times, opined that Twitter was "the tinderbox that fanned the spark of revolt among supporters of Mir-Hossein Moussavi." Even the usually sober Christian Science Monitor joined in the cyber-celebrations, noting that "the government's tight control of the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber road blocks, making the country ripe for a technology-driven protest movement."1
Twitter seemed omnipotent—certainly more so than the Iranian police, the United Nations, the U.S. government, and the European Union. Not only would it help to rid Iran of its despicable leader but also convince ordinary Iranians, most of whom vehemently support the government's aggressive pursuit of nuclear enrichment, that they should stop their perpetual fretting about Israel and simply go back to being their usual peaceful selves. A column in the right-wing Human Events declared that Twitter had accomplished "what neither the U.N. nor the European Union have [sic] been able to do," calling it "a huge threat to the Iranian regime—a pro-liberty movement being fomented and organized in short sentences." Likewise, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal argued that "the Twitter-powered 'Green Revolution' in Iran ... has used social-networking technology to do more for regime change in the Islamic Republic than years of sanctions, threats and Geneva-based haggling put together." It seemed that Twitter was improving not only democracy but diplomacy as well.
Soon enough, pundits began using the profusion of Iranian tweets as something of an excuse to draw far-reaching conclusions about the future of the world in general. To many, Iran's Twitter-inspired protests clearly indicated that authoritarianism was doomed everywhere. In a column modestly entitled "Tyranny's New Nightmare: Twitter," Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten declared that "as new media spreads its Web worldwide, authoritarians like those in Iran will have a difficult time maintaining absolute control in the face of the technology's chaotic democracy." That the Green Movement was quickly disintegrating and was unable to mount a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad didn't prevent the editorial page of the Baltimore Sun from concluding that the Internet was making the world safer and more democratic: "The belief that activists are blogging their lives away while governments and corporations take greater control of the world is being proven false with every tweet, every blog comment, every protest planned on Facebook."
Inspired by similar logic, Mark Pfeifle, former deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, launched a public campaign to nominate Twitter for the Nobel Peace Prize, arguing that "without Twitter, the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy." The Webby Awards, the Internet's equivalent of the Oscars, hailed the Iranian protests as "one of the top ten Internet moments of the decade." (The Iranian youths—or, rather, their smartphones—were in good company: The expansion of Craigslist beyond San Francisco in 2000 and the launch of Google AdWords in 2004 were among other honorees.)


  • “Evgeny Morozov has produced a rich survey of recent history that reminds us that everybody wants connectivity but also varying degrees of control over content, and that connectivity on its own is a very poor predictor of political pluralism…. By doing so, he's gored any number of sacred cows, but he's likewise given us a far more realistic sense of what's possible in cyberspace—both good and bad—in the years ahead. Morozov excels at this sort of counter-intuitive analysis, and he instantly recasts a number of foreign policy debates with this timely book.” Stephen M. Walt, Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University 
    Net Delusion is a brilliant book and a great read. Politicians and pundits have hailed the Internet as a revolutionary force that will empower the masses and consign authoritarian governments to the ash-heap of history, but Morozov explains why such naïve hopes are sadly misplaced. With a keen eye for detail and a probing, skeptical intelligence, he shows that the Web is as likely to distract as to empower, and that both dictators and dissidents can exploit its novel features. If you thought that Facebook, Twitter, and the World Wide Web would trigger a new wave of democratic transformations, read this book and think again.”
    Malcolm Gladwell
  • Winner of the 2012 Goldsmith Book Prize A New York Times Notable Book of 2011 Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
    “Evgeny Morozov is wonderfully knowledgeable about the Internet—he seems to have studied every use of it, or every political use, in every country in the world (and to have read all the posts). And he is wonderfully sophisticated and tough-minded about politics. This is a rare combination, and it makes for a powerful argument against the latest versions of technological romanticism. His book should be required reading for every political activist who hopes to change the world on the Internet.” Thomas P.M. Barnett, author, The Pentagon's New Map, and senior managing director, Enterra Solutions LLC

On Sale
Feb 28, 2012
Page Count
448 pages

Evgeny Morozov

About the Author

Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, a New York Times Notable Book of 2011 and winner of Harvard’s Kennedy School’s 2012 Goldsmith Book Prize. He is a senior editor to the New Republic. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and many other publications. His monthly column comes out in Slate, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), El Pais (Spain), Corriere della Sera (Italy), and several other newspapers. He was born in Belarus.

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