A public display down the side of a road I often pass on my bicycle on route to the station reads approximately this: “The Internet is full of news, but who tells you the truth”. The ad is by the regional newspaper for Leiden, Leidsch Dagblad. Morozov would probably start a whole story about newspapers and the truth in less and none democratic nations. I could also start about the colour of the newspaper which influences the stance a paper takes towards the truth, but we get off topic.
There is a double irony about this book. One is that it never could have been written without a fully functioning Internet. Despite all the dark sides, the very book itself is a showcase of the strength of the Internet. For most of the examples Morozov has gathered to prove his point, the Internet also strengthens dictatorial regimes as well as the position of modern data conglomerates like Google, Facebook, etc., he (or his sources) could never have gathered without it. The other is that since the text of the book went to the printer (published 2011), the Arab spring broke out full force, in which even the dictators believed in the strength of modern communication as a grass root opposition force. The fact that Mubarak’s regime applied the kill switch on networks proves this. In how far the Internet and cell phones really were decisive, is something historians can ponder over in the future. To my mind they are tools, but it is the discontent with a large part of the people in combination with a nothing left to lose attitude, that is decisive in the end.
I totally agree with Morozov. Every day the news proves that the Internet has many dark sides, dark sides that society has a very hard time in dealing with. The Internet gives governments and companies insights into the everyday life of ordinary citizens that were unprecedented. The radio, television, airplanes, etc. all changed the way we looked upon and even lived life, but it did not enter our lives as the communication was always one way. As Dutch 80’s pop icons sang in their hit ‘Doris Day’: “There’s a knob on your tv”. There’s a knob on my computer, laptop, cell phone as well, I even use them, every day, but something of me remains behind, knowingly but also unsolicited. It’s in this data resources that governments and companies will look for clues that are of interest. This will happen simply because it is possible. “Have you already been tagged?”, was a question I got at a meeting I attended recently. In all honesty, I didn’t know what was meant. It was about face recognition on Facebook. No, I am not, but I have no doubt that Facebook can already deliver this, without me being on Facebook. A nice service to their customers, you might say, but what does this mean for people living under a dictatorial regime that uses this technique? It’s questions like these that Morozov poses page after page and completely convinced me.
I agree with Morozov that technical solutions often seem to be implemented because they are there and implications are only found out about later, often when it’s too late and a cure hard to work in. Human inventiveness often prevails over technique also. That these techniques are sold to all interested, is nothing new. Wasn’t it a French rocket fired by the Argentinian navy that sunk a British ship in the Falkland war?
In the end the book is a cry out for regulation of the Internet. However, as long as cyber utopists play first violin, this regulation, Morozov warns, will never happen. Especially if the US government lauds cyber utopism towards all unfriendly regimes as the solution to democratization, while at home it is warning about the dangers of the Internet and desperately looks for tighter control to mitigate cyber threats. The people, parents will demand security someday soon, says Morozov, and in how far does the U.S. than differ from e.g. China or Iran?
The Internet is a new beast. It hasn’t shown it’s true nature yet, I think. Very slowly it may be moving out of the Wild West phase of its life cycle. A cyber Pat Garrett is desperately needed to get us rid of the descendants of William Bonney. The chances were out there to profit from the fact that more and more organisations started using the Internet far beyond its original intent and totally unprepared for this new environment. It meant budget cuts, major budget cuts, with no knowledge of what they were getting into. The chances that criminals picked up on very quickly and somehow dictatorial regimes wizened up on much more quickly than democracies. All this needs fixing. Governments, IP resource organisations and Industry need to cooperate in earnest to achieve this fix, but it is becoming quite clear to all concerned that a responsible society cannot go on as it is at present. This way criminals will be pushed back to the fringes of the Internet, just like they are in real life.
If there’s room for critique it’s that there is not a conclusive advice on how to proceed. I had expected a bit more in the final pages. Although it triggered loads of thoughts in my mind, this is not as helpful, as I do not have the podium Morozov has. Perhaps he’s saving this for a part 2?
Where the dark side is concerned, the developments can only go as far as society lets them go. We all need to be vigilant for developments in our own society and stop being afraid just because our newspaper advices us to be such. Governments need, as Morozov advices, to analyse the options to promote freedom and bet on the best one after a well-developed policy process and not through utopian expectations. Also governments have to be mindful on privacy issues and make companies and themselves comply with such. The EU is already flexing its muscles and quite rightly so. There is hope for the Internet, I’m sure of it.
This is a book that everyone working with the Internet from a professional or special political interest angle needs to read. To understand what this beast does and to saver all the positive accomplishments. Next to the dark side there is also a very bright side and everything in between. Just like real life, but also very different.
Wout de Natris, De Natris Consult
Leiderdorp, 31 January 2012