It’s fashionable to hold up the Internet as the road to democracy and liberty in countries like Iran, but it can also be a very effective tool for quashing freedom. Evgeny Morozov on the myth of the techno-utopia.
A storm of protest hit Google last week over Buzz, its new social networking service, because of user concerns about the inadvertent exposure of their data. Internet users in Iran, however, were spared such trouble. It’s not because Google took extra care in protecting their identities—they didn’t—but because the Iranian authorities decided to ban Gmail, Google’s popular email service, and replace it with a national email system that would be run by the government.
Such paradoxes abound in the Islamic Republic’s complex relationship with the Internet. As the Iranian police were cracking down on anti-government protesters by posting their photos online and soliciting tips from the public about their identities, a technology company linked to the government was launching the first online supermarket in the country. Only a few days later, Iran’s state-controlled telecommunications company confirmed it had struck an important deal with its peers in Azerbaijan and Russia, boosting the country’s communications capacity and lessening its dependence on Internet cables that pass through the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
Most of these paradoxes are lost on Western observers of the Internet and its role in the politics of Iran and other authoritarian states. Since the publication of John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996, they have been led to believe that cyberspace is conducive to democracy and liberty, and no government would be able to crush that libertarian spirit (why, then, Mr. Barlow felt the need to write such a declaration remains unknown to this day). The belief that free and unfettered access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, leads to the opening up of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization now forms one of the pillars of “techno-utopianism.”
[Read more at WSJ]