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Prometheus of Democracy?

Debunking the myth that the ’Net always advances the cause of freedom

Iranians protesting a 2009 election used social-networking sites to spread the word. Authorities later were able to use the sites to monitor the groups. Iranians protesting a 2009 election used social-networking sites to spread the word. Authorities later were able to use the sites to monitor the groups. (Associated Press/ File 2009)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Isn’t Iran supposed to be a free country by now?

Less than two years ago, tens of thousands of angry citizens filled the streets of Tehran, denouncing the country’s fraudulent elections. These protesters had the fervent support of millions in America and Europe.

Better yet, they had Internet services like Twitter and Facebook, which helped them organize rallies and beamed images of their struggle to an outraged world.

Armed with youth, vigor, and the power of the Internet, how could these protesters lose? But lose they did, and decisively.

It turns out that Twitter-based activism is easily managed in a country where the government has near-total control over Internet access. Indeed, Iranian leaders soon realized that the Internet could be a despot’s best friend. They created blogs to spew pro-government propaganda and learned to scour social networking sites as an easy way to track the regime’s opponents, and their online friends as well.

The crushing of Iran’s Twitter Revolution has come as a severe disappointment to liberal citizens of the West. We’ve been bred to the idea that ever-greater access to information inevitably leads to the spread of freedom and democracy. But in his sardonic, powerful new book, “The Net Delusion,’’ Evgeny Morozov rips this idea to shreds. He shows how the world’s autocrats have learned to love the Internet. Nations like Iran, China, and Venezuela now embrace it as a tool of propaganda and public surveillance. They’ve even learned to use the Internet as a social safety valve, where disgruntled citizens can blow off steam without posing a serious threat to the establishment.

Meanwhile, many Westerners cling to a simplistic fantasy that truth alone will set people free. Morozov thinks it’s because we learned the wrong lesson from the fall of the old Soviet Union, a brittle old dictatorship that was terrified by the free flow of information. Histories of the Cold War often note that the spread of technologies like the videocassette player and the photocopier exposed many Soviet citizens to Western news and entertainment, and their images of freedom and prosperity.

These works often suggest that information technology played a major role in the Soviet collapse.

But as Morozov notes, that decline had far more to do with a decaying economy and an elite no longer willing to commit mass murder to stay in power. Western media played a marginal role at best. He even cites research showing that residents of communist East Germany who could pick up West German TV broadcasts actually became less likely to rebel; they were too busy watching “Dallas,’’ “Dynasty,’’ and “Miami Vice.’’

Today’s dictators get it. Internet users in countries like China may search in vain for information about the Tiananmen massacre, but they can get all the Western movies and TV shows they want. In addition, China and other unfree countries have developed their own Internet institutions, including search engines, social networks, and even alternatives to the online reference site Wikipedia.

Written in the national language and tailored to the specific culture, these sites are often far more popular than their Western counterparts. Of course, these sites are careful to follow the official government line. Dissenting ideas are gently airbrushed away.

And don’t suppose that pro-regime materials are cranked out solely by some bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth. Plenty of patriotic Chinese or Iranian bloggers will stand up for their country without any prodding.

Controlling governments have learned to recruit these loyal citizens for their online propaganda campaigns.

Meanwhile, we Westerners continue to harbor illusions about the power of online organizing. But such Internet activism can provide governments with new tools of control. “The new technologies allow us to identify conspirators and those who are violating the law, without having to control all people individually,’’ Iran’s police chief said early last year amid concerns about possible renewed unrest over the disputed elections.

Online political sites are also tempting targets for government-backed hacking. Morozov tells of how Vietnam hacked into the website of a well-known refugee organization and planted a virus there.

Anybody who downloaded software from the site got a little something extra — a program that let Vietnamese authorities track their online activities.

But an excessive reliance on cyberactivism poses a subtler danger. It threatens to turn revolutionary movements into mere salons of fiery political conversation. Amid all the tweets and status updates of the Iranian uprising, few were engaged in the hard, dangerous, face-to-face business of building a real political movement. Everybody’s equal on the Internet, but a revolution needs leaders, and Twitter isn’t very good at producing them. Online organizing has its uses, Morozov says. But apart from traditional grass-roots activism, it’s little more than a nuisance to the people in power.

Morozov wants American foreign policy to encourage the spread of democracy, and agrees that there’s a role for the Internet. But he rightly insists on a top-to-bottom rethink of that role. Apart from a few sensible suggestions on the book’s final two pages, Morozov leaves this vital task to others.

It’s too bad that so trenchant an analyst has so few positive prescriptions to offer. Still, Morozov has produced an invaluable book. Copies should be smuggled to every would-be Twitter revolutionary, and to their clueless groupies in the Western democracies.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

THE NET DELUSION: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
By Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs, 409 pp., $27.95