Freedom.gov

Why Washington's support for online democracy is the worst thing ever to happen to the Internet.

BY EVGENY MOROZOV | JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2011

The Internet Freedom Agenda has similarly backfired. The state of web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect before Clinton's initiative, but at least it was an issue independent of those countries' fraught relations with the United States. Google, Facebook, and Twitter were hardly unabashed defenders of free speech, but they were nevertheless emissaries, however accidentally, of a more open and democratic vision of the Internet. Authoritarian governments didn't treat them as a threat, viewing them largely as places where their citizens chose to check their email, post status updates, and share pasta recipes. Most governments, China being the obvious exception, did not bother to build any barriers to them.

But as the State Department forged closer ties with Silicon Valley, it vastly complicated the tech companies' inadvertent democracy promotion. The department organized private dinners for Internet CEOs and shuttled them around the world as part of "technology delegations." Cohen, who recently left Foggy Bottom to work for Google, called Facebook "one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the world has ever seen" and famously asked Twitter to delay planned maintenance work to keep the service up and running during Iran's 2009 Green Revolution.

Today, foreign governments see the writing on the virtual wall. Democratic and authoritarian states alike are now seeking "information sovereignty" from American companies, especially those perceived as being in bed with the U.S. government. Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control. Russia is toying with spending $100 million to build a domestic alternative to Google. Iranian authorities are considering a similar idea after banning Gmail last February, and last summer launched their own Facebook clone called Velayatmadaran, named after followers of the velayaat, or supreme leader. Even Turkey, a U.S. ally, has plans to provide a government-run email address to every Turkish citizen to lessen the population's dependence on U.S. providers.

Where the bureaucrats and diplomats who touted the Internet Freedom Agenda went wrong was in thinking that Washington could work with Silicon Valley without people thinking that Silicon Valley was a tool of Washington. They bought into the technologists' view of the Internet as an unbridled, limitless space that connects people without regard to borders or physical constraints. At its best, that remains true, but not when governments get involved.

The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington's digital diplomats. The idea that the U.S. government can advance the cause of Internet freedom by loudly affirming its commitment to it -- especially when it hypocritically attempts to shut down projects like WikiLeaks -- is delusional. The best way to promote the goals behind the Internet Freedom Agenda may be not to have an agenda at all.

Illustration by Steve Caplin for FP

 

Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov is author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, from which this essay is adapted.

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CATHERINE A. FITZPATRICK

3:47 AM ET

January 7, 2011

No, US Needs an Explicit Foreign Policy to Aid Cyber Dissidents

Here comes Morozov again, doing the work of authoritarian governments for them -- trashing the U.S. Internet freedom program supporting cyber dissidents abroad, and leading us to cynicism and defeatism about the hope of countering tyrants because...they use the Internet, too. Then, cynically dumping on the same social media tools he uses handily to widely promote his views, he leaves us with no policy options except to...listen to such self-appointed Internet gurus counseling quietism -- and commission more lectures for them on conference panels. No thanks.

Let's be clear on something, shall we? It's *okay* for governments to have a foreign policy with foreign aid that supports freedom movements abroad. This simple, valid truth, practiced by governments all over the world -- good and bad, for freedom by various definitions -- is something Morozov and increasingly many on the left won't concede. He thinks freedom can't have a "gov" address -- as if foreign aid should limit itself to sacks of flours and diplomacy should consist of cables casually leaked on WikiLeaks. There's quite a movement afoot these days, inspired largely by the Kremlin and their agents of influence, to discredit the "colour revolutions". This has spilled over into European and American intellectual discourse that is tending toward the cynical and even hateful towards such movements if they are funded from abroad.

This is highly troubling, in both the moral and political sense. There's nothing wrong, legally or morally, with making solidarity with oppressed peoples abroad -- and putting the power of our purse behind it. Indeed, it is our duty as a democratic and free nation morally, and it is in our geopolitical self-interest as well. What, we're supposed to just chronicle the suffering of those abroad and endorse UN resolutions about it and not really help?

When the EU funds some dubious Palestinian organizations, we don't hear Morozov complaining; when Russian and Kazakhstan fund GONGOs (government-organized NGOs) to pack sessions at the OSCE to plant their pro-regime perspectives, we don't hear Morozov complaining. It's only when its the U.S.

But the U.S. is doing a *good* thing when it provides democracy assistance abroad. Let's not confuse that with misguided policies that involve *imposing* democracy, even through war -- which in fact the Obama administration has repudiated and worked hard at revising. It is right and proper for various agencies and institutes to give money to NGOs abroad working for human rights and freedom in their countries. Why this is seen as somehow "tainted" *even under the Obama administration* by the left (!) is something I can only marvel at. If anything, we don't give *enough* foreign aid; a lot of the democracy assistance we keep for our own consultants and infrastructure, so that beleaguered dissidents abroad only get a pittance anyway.

Let's take Belarus, a country where democrats are now being horribly hammered by Lukashenka, an autocratic despot clinging to power who just put 640 people in jail. This is Morozov's homeland, but his brief tweets on the subject of this outrageous crackdown on the leading and legal democratic opposition, who took part lawfully in elections, was to snort that "electby" (the hashtag on Twitter for the Belarusian elections) seemed to be a topic mainly trending in Washington, DC -- a swipe implying nastily that somehow the demonstrations were merely astro-turfed from abroad. In fact, I couldn't find evidence that the topic *did* trend in DC -- that appears to have been a literary device on Morozov's part. His other tweets on the subject amounted to hand-wringing that the WikiLeaks rep in Europe, a notorious antisemite and apologist for authoritarian regimes, went to Belarus to meet with Lukashenka -- and how that made WikiLeaks, a group he supports, look bad. He couldn't see it as in fact emblematic of WikiLeaks.

Instead of pretending Washington or WikiLeaks bad eggs were the problem, or some Western company which supplies the government with technology, the rest of us were trying to gather petitions or get interventions made or provide concrete aid to families who needed lawyers. If he can't use Belarusians' suffering as an opportunistic cudgel to beat Western governments, Morozov appears indifferent to the tragedy of his homeland.

The few million that his country got in democracy aid; the small part of this that might have gone to actually supporting independent news sites -- this must all be abolished, in Morozov's view, as if it is tainted and evil. Yet the people who ask for and receive this money happily and legally and openly (grants are reported openly by the agencies) are supposed to wait for philanthropy from somewhere else. Why? I'm happy to have my tax dollars go to pay for a Belarusian, or for that matter a Sudanese or Chinese dissident. Why can't it?! That's what we as a free and democratic nation *should* be doing.

As for China, Morozov's typical comment is to sneer that Cisco is cited by State as promoting Internet freedom -- when it ostensibly helped to build the "Great Chinese Firewall." Even if true -- and the picture may be more complicated -- the reality is that Cisco isn't the problem; the Chinese government is.

Yet Morozov's analysis *always* distracts us and indeed drives us far, far away from the actual agents of suppression of Internet freedom, and substitutes, with sleight of hand, another surrogate target, which is this supposedly poor American policy. If only we can get America to stop funding cyberdissidents in the Middle East, so goes this argument made on blogs this past summer, why, these dissidents will be free to flourish without the kiss of death that America brings and will succeed in their fight against brutal regimes.

Baloney. For one, you can't convince the U.S. to take down their aid program just because of some gaffes -- i.e. when Jared Cohen tweeted about lattes instead of torture in Syria or tried to steer #russtechdel to the soft option of children's rights in Russia instead of the tough ones like assassination of journalists (something I was very critical of). For two, you can't convince all the dissidents not to take U.S. aid. That must vex Morozov and his colleagues more than anything.

As we've already amply established, the State Department never bought into Haystack as some kind of salvation, and granting an export license is the right thing to do with technology that aims to help dissidents; sanctions are to be imposed to prevent help to the Iranian regime, not to block those helping its critics. I don't have any special magical belief in SMS texting saving Mexicans from deadly drug cartels either. But at least the State Department is exploring options and putting together a program that emphatically places promotion of freedom at the center of foreign policy -- rather than cynical RealPolitik that would dictate silence and even complicity with such authoritarian regimes abroad -- already enough of a problem with the U.S. What is Morozov's solution? Let's have another TED conference and trash the U.S. so we can have a feel-good bonding session and establish our net-roots credentials?!

Of course Clinton has to talk about Internet freedom -- it's about freedom, duh. Even if her speech overpraised the efficacy of Twitter revolutions, it's not "straight out of the Bush handbook," but out of the Carter handbook; Carter was the first U.S. president to make human rights a foreign policy. And that's ok.

People are going to go on trying to use the Internet to overthrow tyrants like Lukashenka in Morozov's homeland where he lives no longer. They will do that because they want freedom -- and that's ok. They are doing this largely peacefully, and we should support this. Human solidarity and validation of these struggles are what are needed most of all.

And no one can prove there is any "net loss" of freedom because Clinton backed the freedom struggle (!). The resources and rhetoric that the U.S. laid on for this were in fact rather meager. And whatever setbacks occur are squarely the fault of Internet enemies themselves, not the U.S. After all, it is they who turn off the Internet (like Turkmenistan did with service to 2 million mobile phone users when a Russian contract wouldn't be renewed without more payment to the Turkmen state). The U.S. can't stand idly by while the despots adapt the Internet to their plans for domination; just as it had to organize radio broadcasting in the Cold War era, it has to have a plan now for the Internet age.

Good Lord, Russia didn't block foreign funding to civil society groups because the U.S. funded these "colour revolutions" at a modest level -- movements that would exist regardless, and aren't the "astroturfs" of Morozov's imagination. They blocked them because they are authoritarians restoring Soviet-like rule; the Western support is merely an excuse. If Morozov's theory were true, the plunging budgets for Eurasia -- which have been slashed mercilessly in recent years not only by the U.S. government but the EU and by many foundations -- would mean that the governments grew *more* secure with their civic groups, not less. Yet it's precisely when many international NGOs and foundations have had to pull out of Eurasian capitals like Moscow or Minsk or Tashkent or Ashgabat and reduce support to locals that the governments have savaged them the most. Again: the Kremlin and other autocratic powers oppress freedom for their own reasons, and trying to pretend that those who fight them are the problem not only distracts from the *real* root of the problem but fails in creating a viable policy.

Governments are all over the Internet -- indeed they make parallel versions of things like Facebook, like Russia's Vkontakte, which unceremoniously shut down the social network group of Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate in Belarus, which numbered more than 8000 people, the minute he was arrested and fell out of favour -- and Moscow didn't need to help the Belarusian opposition cynically in order to bargain for a better oil deal.

Indeed, the Internet is far too value to allow a handful of cynical geeks in the transnational Wired State fiercely seeking to come to power with anarchist projects like WikiLeaks to run it. Indeed, democratically-elected governments under the rule of law accountable to citizens and tax-payers should be involved in keeping the Internet free -- and they have an important role to play. There is a revolutionary new cyberutopian fiction afoot again, revived by some of the people who failed to impose this radical vision 20 years ago like J.P. Barlow and Dave Winer, that a new Internet should be fashioned free of corporations and governments and run by...people like them. No thank you. WikiLeaks isn't an Internet freedom project; it's a nihilist anarchist conspiracy in fact to shut the U.S. government down under guise of the transparency cause, as we can confirm from Assange's own writings.

Fortunately, the Clinton program does not seem to be heeding Morozov's persistent demands that it shut down and cave to autocrats, and has continued its rather modest efforts. It should do more; and Morozov should stop thwarting even the democrats in his own homeland from getting desperately needed assistance. He also needs to be challenged a great deal more than he ever is for explicating his plan for how *he* would oppose the authoritarians whose work he seems glad to duplicate in savaging U.S. policy.

 

MALICEIT

8:23 PM ET

January 7, 2011

RE:

"Then, cynically dumping on the same social media tools he uses handily to widely promote his views, he leaves us with no policy options except to...listen to such self-appointed Internet gurus counseling quietism -- and commission more lectures for them on conference panel" -- And you are our Democratic, white-shining angel over here who will guide us through the maze of World Wide Webuisque policies?

"It's *okay* for governments to have a foreign policy with foreign aid that supports freedom movements abroad."--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covert_United_States_foreign_regime_change_actions

"There's quite a movement afoot these days, inspired largely by the Kremlin and their agents of influence, to discredit the "colour revolutions""---According to American. Now ask a Georgian or Ukrainian on what they think of it.

"There's nothing wrong, legally or morally, with making solidarity with oppressed peoples abroad -- and putting the power of our purse behind it."---Tell that to people who DEMOCRATICALLY elected their government officials in Ukraine in 2004 and in Georgia in 2003 AND THEN US CAME ALONG...

"Let's not confuse that with misguided policies that involve *imposing* democracy, even through war -- which in fact the Obama administration has repudiated and worked hard at revising."---Refer to my previous 2 responses. Also if he tried to "repudiate" then he would of made sincere and public apology to the people of those countries.

"If he can't use Belarusians' suffering as an opportunistic cudgel to beat Western governments, Morozov appears indifferent to the tragedy of his homeland. "---Have you ever considered that the more west tries to impose (no, without quotation marks) their democracy, the more horrible the despots become?

"The few million that his country got in democracy aid; the small part of this that might have gone to actually supporting independent news sites -- this must all be abolished, in Morozov's view, as if it is tainted and evil"--- Where are the sources showing where the money went? Where all those pro-democratic oil-backs went to? No? Well let me tell you something: Swiss banking accounts were and continue to be the favorite of all those PRO-DEMOCRATIC people you support. Refer to Color revolutions and their current economic state (what, you think they didnt steal it????)

"Even if true -- and the picture may be more complicated -- the reality is that Cisco isn't the problem; the Chinese government is."--- You forgot something, Cisco is a corporation, thus they work (and do) whatever has more money. Do you think they really care what Chinese do with their firewall no matter how many times they emphasized that they are pro-democracy, pro-connecting people and so on

"For one, you can't convince the U.S. to take down their aid program just because of some gaffes -- i.e. when Jared Cohen tweeted about lattes instead of torture in Syria or tried to steer #russtechdel to the soft option of children's rights in Russia instead of the tough ones like assassination of journalists (something I was very critical of)"--- How exactly would you stop assassinations with internet? What can do with power of internet to stop tortures? Since you clearly know better then everyone else that something should be done I would gladly listen to you explain this.

"Good Lord, Russia didn't block foreign funding to civil society groups because the U.S. funded these "colour revolutions" at a modest level -- movements that would exist regardless, and aren't the "astroturfs" of Morozov's imagination. They blocked them because they are authoritarians restoring Soviet-like rule; the Western support is merely an excuse."--- Ok, let me explain in in terms of Uhmarica.
October, 1962. Cuban missile crisis. Have US went schizo? Yes.
November, 2004. US "coups" Ukrainian government. Have Russia went schizo? Yes.
See where I'm going with this?Also on topic of authoritarianism: look up FDR and court packing.

"Again: the Kremlin and other autocratic powers oppress freedom for their own reasons, and trying to pretend that those who fight them are the problem not only distracts from the *real* root of the problem but fails in creating a viable policy"--Again: coup less, and we can be friends on Facebook, kk?

"Indeed, the Internet is far too value to allow a handful of cynical geeks in the transnational Wired State fiercely seeking to come to power with anarchist projects like WikiLeaks to run it."---But its ok to use it for regime changes? After all its such a valuable tool.

"There is a revolutionary new cyberutopian fiction afoot again, revived by some of the people who failed to impose this radical vision 20 years ago like J.P. Barlow and Dave Winer, that a new Internet should be fashioned free of corporations and governments and run by...people like them."--- That was a late-happiest view of the world. Also 20 and 30 years ago people were anti-war while US government was couping governments on the "unfavorable" side of political spectrum and also selling "democracy bonds" in terms of weapons to Contras and others.

"WikiLeaks isn't an Internet freedom project; it's a nihilist anarchist conspiracy in fact to shut the U.S. government down under guise of the transparency cause, as we can confirm from Assange's own writings."---I want to see those writings.

PS: You clearly had not lived in Eastern country. Nor you know what they think.

 

CATHERINE A. FITZPATRICK

11:07 AM ET

January 8, 2011

Sorry, I won't trash "colour revolutions"

Many Georgian and Ukrainians are happy to have U.S. aid. If you are referring to some who might be sympathetic to the Kremlin's view on this, or some who are supporting certain government leaders now, that's not an accurate representation of what the democratic will of the Ukrainian people is regarding foreign aid.

Wikipedia is hardly a source on this, and I reject the idea that the U.S. cannot fund democrats abroad. Of course it can.

I'd also have to ask how democratic some of these elections have been in this region lately.

As you're an anonymous poster, no one can tell what your own country/party/ideological affiliation is, but that may give us a clue as to why you find this very normal and decent act of solidarity somehow 'suspect'.

I see no evidence that the "colour revolution" actors are somehow all hoarding money in Swiss back accounts. That sounds like a lurid Kremlin propaganda campaign. Obviously colour revolutions can be criticized like any other social movement. But I reject the notion that you cannot help people abroad struggling for freedom. If you accept the cynical Kremlin thesis, you merely leave the field to Russian imperialism and the overreac of other autocrats in the world. Happy with that idea?

Morozov's harassment of Cisco is merely a facile anti-capitalist jab that distracts from the nature of the authoritarian governments that he finds no way to challenge, but merely cynically describe.

The Cuban missile crisis was induced by the Soviets. Perhaps you haven't read the many post-Soviet files and books on this subject including by the actors themselves, including a book I translated.

I find it highly tendentious and inaccurate to describe the situation in Ukraine in 2004 as "a U.S. coup". Indeed, apparently "coup" means anything except what the Kremlin backs. Mmkay.

As for Assange's writings, Google them and read Aaron Bady's blog and many others.

I've lived and worked in Eastern countries, and have worked in this field for 30 years. Next?

 

MALICEIT

5:31 PM ET

January 8, 2011

RE:

Of course they are happy. Ask a Georgian about Saakashvili rule, or a Ukrainian about Yushchenko. Clearly with 30 years of experience in this field you cannot comprehend that "yanke go home". Ukrainians barely shook off US puppet, and so far pretty happy with their choice. As for aid: no one cares about where it goes as long as it peaceful. But if it send in order to change regime: then everyone has problems. Sorry, I should of clarified that.

Yes, February of 2010 had pretty democratic elections. Also it seems that you still think in Cold War terms of "if they aren't pro-US, but a democracy we should coup them anyway, just so Reds cant get them." The problem is those guys (no matter how democratically couped) are not exactly favored by the populace (you want to look in how people of Iran overthrew their US-institutioned Shah in 1970's) Besides is everything a Kremlin propaganda campaign?
Georgia attacks South Ossetia-Kremlin propaganda, Kosovo prime minister trades illegal organs-Kremlin propaganda and soo on. So what you saying is just so Russian Imperialism cant get their hands on countries they should be "willingly" accept American Imperialism? And since no one really wants American Imperialism--Coup is a way to go.

You clearly did not understand what was Cuban crisis about. No matter how many books you translated. I wasn't talking about what Soviet Union wanted in it, i was merely talking what effect did it have on American populace.

Where in his writings did he ever say he was an anarchist? And, NO, I'm not gonna read Aaron Bady at all.

Clearly worked. Not lived.

 

VERMONT CHARLES

12:17 PM ET

January 7, 2011

Morozov's Article

I don't not share Fitzpatrick's negative views on Google and the open source programs. (But I do keep my hands on my wallet when dealing with them!)

But she is right on in blasting Morozov for saying that we should not publicly support cyber dissidents abroad. The negative blowback by the powers in Belarus, iran and China against their own citizens, would have happened anyway regardless of what Hillary Clinton did or did not say. The internet is a real threat to them, they know that, and act accordingly.

Sure we have to be smarter in our efforts, but let's keep up the efforts and the open pressure!

 

XTIANGODLOKI

4:44 PM ET

January 7, 2011

Politicizing technology is hardly in America's best interest

I am not sure why people are blasting this article. The author is not arguing against supporting "freedom", but not to do so overtly. The point of this article makes perfect sense: If the US government publicly announces that it is working with a certain silicon valley company to destabilize a foreign country, of course that foreign country will pay a lot more attention at that company's technology. The author of this article correctly points out the politicization of technology has not done much good to help "human rights" but only made matters worse for the local dissidents.

The author pointed out the hypocrisy of the US government supporting cyber activism abroad yet is against wikileaks. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The US has explicit laws to limit foreign influence within its own political system. It's a felony to inject foreign capital into the massive US political campaign machine for example, and people do get arrested and put into jail for that. Yet at the same time the US wants to influence other countries' political systems. Even if this is somehow justified in the name of "human rights", If the US wants to continue to fund the "cyber freedom warriors" it should do so quietly.

 

CATHERINE A. FITZPATRICK

10:58 AM ET

January 8, 2011

You may not be aware of the

You may not be aware of the history of covert assistance to democracy abroad, for example the CIA's support of cultural projects in Europe in the 1950s or the support of foreign broadcasting, or the programs of Col. North in the Iran-contras scandal.

Such covert assistance was tainted by association with espionage and the U.S. began to discard that approach decades ago. It was repudiated by Congress and the American people, and in the 1970s, broadcasting was turned over to a Congressionally-funded body for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and democracy assistance also became and open process through organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy.

So it would be a step backward for the U.S. to begin covert aid to dissidents abroad -- something that would in any event, given the propensity for anything related to online work to become exposed, likely be hard to do in secret anyway.

So what if the U.S. State Department works with a certain Silicon Valley company to help dissidents?! That company will already be one with a conscience and a sense of corporate responsibility that will not want to be party to harassment of dissidents by collusion with foreign governments anyway. We have seen, for example, how even Google, which originally collaborated with China, ultimately backed out, although not exactly for human rights reasons (it was more about protecting its servers). Yahoo was roundly criticized for cooperating with the Chinese government in handing information about a dissident who was jailed as a result. So those days are over.

There isn't any "hypocrisy" in a government helping dissidents overcome illegitimate blocking of the Internet by authoritarian governments, and yet also prosecuting unlawful hacking of America's own classified government documents.

You may have some operating theory that governments don't get to protect their diplomatic cables or don't get to show solidarity to persecuted people abroad, but then say so, don't merely invoke the need to have clandestine aid.

The U.S. doesn't directly support political campaigns abroad. Yet European political parties emphatically do. So this issue isn't as clearcut as you imagine.

 

GRANDEROHO

6:30 PM ET

January 7, 2011

I forget what they call this

I forget what they call this but it reminds me of course I took on global problems of population growth, where the teacher talked about a serge in oral sex among teenagers due to the sex scandal that Bill Clinton had. The simple fact of acknowledging it's existence on the news made the act spread across the US among teens. I think the author brings up a valid argument, but I still believe in the democratic process. I would say that in the short term the United States probably is impeding the process of democracy in those countries through the internet, but I don't believe with all control in place they can impede the internet for long.

Even in China where obvious controls are being put into place, things like World of Warcraft which has been banned in the past and is going through bans now, sees it's biggest market in China. I don't think how hard these authoritarian governments try, they can impede the internet, unless they do away with it entirely. People will find ways around controls.

If people want to speak freely, they will find avenues to do such.

 

GANESH_PRMA

2:07 PM ET

January 31, 2011

Washington's support for online democracy

Call it the Internet Freedom Agenda: the notion that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed. That Barack Obama's administration would embrace such an idea was not surprising; the U.S. president was elected in part on the strength of his online organizing and fundraising juggernaut. The 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, Moldova, and China's Xinjiang region -- all abetted to varying degrees by communications technology -- further supported the notion that the Internet was, as Clinton said in her speech, "a critical tool for advancing democracy."