Can Egypt's Internet Movement Be Exported?

“Official Washington had no appetite for regime change in Egypt,” notes Evgeny Morozov, a leading skeptic of the power of digital uprisings, “while Silicon Valley managed to contribute to undermining Mubarak.”

As the world has now seen, the resilient protestors who gathered in Cairo were continuously broadcast, and often organized, through social networks built in Palo Alto. Yet Morozov, an author and agitator who has met with democracy activists in Cairo, cautions against downloading the wrong lessons from Egypt, as he recently explained in an interview with The Nation.

Egypt’s transformation does not illuminate our understanding of how most dictators combat web uprisings, he argues, because Egypt did not really fight the web in the first place.

“Egypt hasn’t been trying to control the web all that much,” Morozov says, “other than beating up bloggers.” He has a point. Mubarak’s crackdown on the Internet was tardy, clumsy and counterproductive. Shutting down the web two days into the uprising , Mubarak was too late to disrupt the virtual networks materializing in the streets, yet the extreme measure revealed his regime’s panic. Likewise, the decision to abduct Wael Ghonim, the activist Google executive, after his Facebook group topped 300,000 people revealed little comprehension of social media. Choosing to target Ghonim, of all people, ensured a large, networked constituency would follow the prominent case – both within and beyond the country. (Over 860,000 people now back the Arabic Facebook group he started, with another 85,000 following its English counterpart ). Many other dictators, however, are savvier than Mubarak.

From Iran to China, authoritarian governments have already modernized their oppressive systems with proactive online filtering, censorship and other thuggery. China filters individual content , scrubbing reports of protests from the web, while Iran has blocked entire websites, including Facebook, the Huffington Post and blogging platforms like LiveJournal. Just this week, Iran cracked down further on opposition websites and mobile phone service, after a wave of protests spread from Egypt’s example. Egyptian protestors’ effective use of social media may not be very replicable elsewhere, applying Morozov’s theory, because its wired uprising snowballed within a country still operating on a “19th century kind of authoritarianism.” Most reformers in the region must battle an upgraded authoritarianism that is already weaponizing the web, a central warning in Morozov’s new book, The Net Delusion. The methodical tome is a skeptical assault on “Internet Freedom,” and after Egypt’s revolution, it’s drawing attention from diplomats and organizers on both sides of the dictator divide.

Morozov critiques “Internet-centrism” – the tendency to focus more on visible technological tactics than recondite root causes – and unloads on just about every smart-sounding bromide you’ve ever heard about the web reforming politics or repressive regimes. Social networks do not just help dissidents fight their dictatorships, he warns, they also help dictatorships track and arrest their dissidents. The US State Department is not simply tapping the wisdom of tech companies to inform foreign policy, it risks being undermined as these firms erect a parallel diplomacy made of code, not cables. The U.S. talks about new training programs for a few digital activists in the Middle East, Morozov acidly observes, but it could do more for freedom if it stopped training and giving aid to a few dictators in the same neighborhood.

The same transparent, accessible online organizing tools that enable activists to publicize and share information about protests can be used by authoritarian regimes to track and crack down on those getting involved. Pictures from Iran’s 2009 protests spread online in real time, and drew pivotal attention to the nation’s unrest. Yet months later, the Iranian police used 38 of those close-up photos, he reports, to help Iranians identify dozens of their fellow citizens. Those activists were then arrested, based on some of their own grassroots agitprop. Thus Iran melds citizen informants, a traditional authoritarian tool, with the latest in crowdsourcing, turning benign photos from a protesters’ cell phone into another source of intimidation.

And while it's not the whole story, this week's horrific scenes from Libya show that in some countries, the citizens may follow Egypt's example, while the government does not.

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This post is excerpted from a longer essay originally published in The Nation. You can discuss this series with Ari Melber on his Facebook page.