Are Facebook, Twitter and Google going to usher in a new age of democracy and freedom around the world? 

No, according to Evgeny Morozov, who's speaking in Portland on Wednesday night, April 6.

Morozov, a native of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, is the author of The Net Delusion, a book critical of what he calls the “cyber-utopianism” underlying U.S. foreign policy. Democracy doesn’t automatically come with access to the Internet and social Media, says Morozov. And, Silicon Valley’s successes will not translate into political gains for Washington.   

Instead Morozov says totalitarian governments are now finding their own uses for new media. From cyber- attacks to spying on their citizens through Facebook and Twitter, oppressive regimes are turning the Internet into an iron fist.

WW corresponded with Morozov through email. Look for the rest of this interview in tomorrow’s paper.

WW: How much easier is it for totalitarian states to trawl Facebook and Twitter than to spy on their citizens the old-fashioned way with agents and listening devices?

Evgeny Morozov: Here much depends on their targets. Professional dissidents often have access to encryption tools—they can hide their online trails really well (however, not always—in Vietnam, for example, the local dissident community discovered they had malware installed on their computers, which got there after they downloaded software from a trusted Web server—turns out someone first broke into that server and replaced the files the dissidents wanted to download with infected copies). But regular folk don't always have access to encryption tools—and many of them don't know how to use them. They are very easy prey. The fact that so much information is posted to social media is, of course, an enabling factor too: it's one thing to hack into the inbox of a dissent—and it's quite another thing to have the dissident voluntarily self-disclose sensitive information on Facebook.  

What's been the worst example globally in which social media has worked against an uprising?

I don't think it's appropriate to argue that social media somehow “works against” an uprising. There are clearly instances when certain political causes enjoy a lot of support online but that support doesn't translate into real numbers when it comes to getting people into the streets. To some extent, we have seen such failures in the Caucasus—Armenia and Azerbaijan—and, to a certain extent, in Syria, where early calls for Egypt-style protests on Facebook did not translate into real-world protests (there have been protests in Syria since then but they do not appear to be Internet-driven). The other important thing to keep in mind is what happens after the uprising: in the case of Iran, the authorities were left with a trove of online evidence to sift through, from tweets to pokes. They made great use of that data and arrested many activists based on the information they found online.

What is the Google Doctrine?

It so happens that plenty of people in the Middle East and a few other regions in the world are hooked to American Web-services like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Since these are American companies, it's very tempting for policymakers in Washington to trade on the success of Silicon Valley companies and use it for political purposes—encourage more Facebook use or “Twitter revolutions.” We already saw some such attempts during the last two years, especially in the State Department's attempts to promote the “Internet Freedom Agenda.” I've been quite critical of such attempts, not least because they politicize new media and its users and force authoritarian governments to limit access to American sites and replace them with domestic alternatives.

Totalitarian states have sponsored their own social media sites. In your book you mention the Kremlin's ambitions to establish its own search engine. How successful have these attempts been?

It's not just [the] Kremlin trying to build its own search engine—the Iranians, the Chinese, and even the Turkish are trying to have their own homegrown champions as well. Will their efforts be successful? Not always. But then, they have other means at their disposal: they can impose tax fines on foreign competitors, or block access to their websites, or launch cyber-attacks (to an extent all of this has happened in China, which explains Google's exit). Most likely, we are going to see local entrepreneurs come up with their own Web projects and then leverage government interest in such products to win the battle against American companies.

You write: “The recognition of the revolutionary nature of technology is a poor excuse not to regulate it.” What do you mean?

If you look at the history of technology and communications, virtually every new tool and invention gets heralded as the next big thing: it will solve the problems of inequality; it will allow more people to join the conversation; it will result in more democracy, etc. In most cases, this doesn't happen: early plans for “teledemocracy” got crushed by the reality of most people watching television to forget about democracy altogether. This is a particularly acute problem in America, where it's fashionable to let the market do the job when it comes to regulation. The reason why the Brits have such superb cultural coverage on radio and television is because they have BBC—that was clearly a decision made by the public back when it mattered. In America, there was no such decision—and we know the results. So, there is nothing contradictory in seeing the Internet as a revolutionary technology—but we have to be very careful not to waste its potential. Regulation would be one way to avoid such an outcome.

We talked a lot about totalitarian countries. You described Google as the world's largest intelligence firm, and Facebook obviously has a trove of information on its more than 500 million active users. Are we the citizens of the world’s democracies simply crossing our fingers with these companies and hoping they will not be evil?

Not just citizens—policymakers too. Some of this is happening because there is some natural aura of “goodness” around information (this, I'd say, has to do with the legacy of the Enlightenment). Clearly, if BP or Exxon or any other big oil company said its corporate motto was “Don't Be Evil,” we would laugh. Not so when it comes to Google. Had NSA or Stasi argued that they want individuals to become more transparent and share more information about themselves online, we would be horrified. But when Mark Zuckerberg says this, it's all right. This, I think, is dangerous—especially when the likes of Google commit basic security mistakes when it comes to storing data (how can I be sure that Google didn't capture my online banking info when they parked their Google van near my house to take a photo of it? I can't be sure.). So yes, we do need to shed some of the cyber-utopian assumptions that we have and become serious about Silicon Valley giants. They are capitalists first and missionaries second—not vice versa.