Evgeny Morozov on the dark side of internet freedom

Evgeny Morozov highlights the dangers that can emerge when governments and corporations harness the internet to serve their own objectives.

This is an edited transcript of our interview with Evgeny Morozov. Morozov highlights the dangers that sometimes emerge when governments and corporations harness the internet to serve their own objectives. Watch the interview here.

Interviewer: What do you think about our first principle?

Morozov (0.10m): I think it does reflect a good normative ideal to work towards. When the internet started, there were many, often technical principles, such as the so-called end-to-end principle. These did not really aspire to any broader democratic, liberal principle. It is important for us to have an indication of where we want to go, and this principle is a good first step. Having said that, I think we also need many footnotes added to it. We still have to understand what and who makes the internet. It is fine to be working towards limiting the private and public powers, but the brutal reality is that most of the services are still provided by private companies, most of the infrastructure is provided either by private companies or the government and there is nothing we can do. NGOs, as powerful as they are, are not going to build the next Facebook or the next Google.

Given those constraints, and I have seen many NGOs try and fail, there needs to be a different working method. We have to be pragmatic about it. Most of these services will be provided by private players, some in Silicon Valley. So we need an understanding that the involvement of private companies and governments is inevitable. How do we make sure that they behave in a responsible manner? Here we have to consider ways in which we can potentially exert pressure on governments and companies through civil society ventures, through projects like yours. We have to understand the ways in which you can make Facebook respect that it is the new public square where people talk about their issues. How do we make Facebook accept that responsibility? So far they have been quite resistant to doing that.

Interviewer: Do you see the internet as a democratising power?

Morozov (2.28m): The internet definitely has a liberating effect, which is one of the many effects it has. As a platform where people can engage in communication or exchange ideas, where they can learn about the world or the opinions of other people, of course it is liberating by anyone’s standard. But that is not the only effect. We can also think of many cases in which it has boosted the powers of governments to spy on their citizens, to spread propaganda, to engage in cyber-attacks, cyber-harassment, intimidation, the list is very long. So, while it is important for us to work towards maximising the potential of the internet and gain a better understanding of this potential, it is also important that we do not lose sight of those other ways in which it can be used by more nefarious players to advance an agenda that is far from democratic.

Part of my project in the last few years has been trying to bring more awareness of this darker side, so that when we shape the policy towards the internet, and also global policy on issues like democracy promotion, we are well aware of the fact that it is not just maximising the liberating potential, it is not just about building websites, not just about training bloggers, not just about facilitating the exchange of ideas. It is also about much more complex challenges, complicated and dangerous and unpleasant activities, like building anti-censorship tools, building anti-surveillance tools, forcing companies to be more responsible. In the western world those tasks have so far received much less attention, and that happened precisely because it is much easier for policy-makers, for ministers of foreign affairs and their staffers, to go on singing praise to blogs and social networks and thus show themselves to be modern and up-to-date with the latest technologies, as opposed to trying to regulate companies, delivering the uncomfortable and unpleasant message to their colleagues in law enforcement that if we want to preserve the internet as a liberating space, we need to curtail our own surveillance activities. All of that needs to happen, and it has not happened so far. My fear is that this fascination with the ‘liberatory’ potential will be used just as an excuse not to talk about more uncomfortable subjects.

Interviewer: How can the average netizen bring about change?

Morozov (5.15m): I am suspicious of the very term ‘netizen’ because no-one who uses the term seriously has so far shown me how the concept of netizenship relates to the broader concept of citizenship. So unless someone makes that connection explicit and intellectually substantial from a broader political philosophy and political theory perspective, I refuse to use that term except when I return to my populist mode or when I have to engage in discourse where people use the term.

What can the average netizen do? Pressure their governments. My ultimate fear is this: The United States has emerged as the loudest and aggressive and maybe even well-intentioned supporter of internet freedom, promoting what is called the internet freedom agenda on the assumption that the biggest threat to internet freedom comes from China, Russia, the Middle East and Iran. While, if you really analyse the developments on the internet over the last few years, you see that it is the American intelligence community – FBI, CIA, NSA – and American companies, working together, who are posing the biggest threat to internet freedom. Whether they are building censorship tools that are then exported to dictators, or building surveillance tools which end up in dictators’ hands, or not having a well-developed stance on issues like anonymity.

Many such issues need to be regulated domestically. If you accept that premise, the biggest threat to internet freedom is in America and the west, not in Iran and China. If that really is the case, then on the one hand it is very depressing, because the enemy is at home. But on the other hand it is also uplifting. If democracies are still functioning as they should, which is a big if, then there are ways in which citizens can influence those agendas. There are political parties that I am very glad to see, for example the Pirate Party, emerge as a viable player in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. They are politicising these issues to a point where they can actually change government policy. There are many goods things about the internet, and there are many bad things about the internet and we have to make sure that our government acts responsibly, keeping in mind both its domestic agenda and its foreign agenda.

Citizens can see this space as political, try to see who are the key players and actors and institutions that they can influence in order then to push governments to behave more responsibly. As much as I like to talk about civil society and NGOs and activists, I still believe that the most important things on the internet freedom agenda are ultimately determined by governments. And it is those governments that need to be pushed around and this is where citizens can of course exert the greatest impact.

There are also many other small things citizens can do. If you do not want cyber-attacks to proliferate, they you have to makes sure that your computer is not hosting malware. We only have so many cyber-attacks because so many computers are engaged in bot-nets, which are then being used to wage cyber-attacks on the websites of Vietnamese dissidents. As long as each of us does not investigate what is going on inside our laptops while we are not using them, the odds are that our computers are launching those cyber-attacks as well. There is an element of internet and computer literacy that needs to be built in, where citizens themselves need to be aware of what their responsibilities are.

Interviewer: Do you think there should be any restrictions on the internet?

Morozov (9:30m): Well, as long as we have laws in the real space, I see no reason why those laws should not extend to cyber-space. We still have defamation laws and we can of course have a long argument about British libel laws and what not. Not all laws are perfect! But as long as there are laws, on data retention for example, I see no reason why we should surrender those laws when we talk about the internet. This idea of the internet as a lawless space that needs to remain lawless, I think is bizarre.

Interviewer: So who should decide what the restrictions are? Should that be down to every individual state, or should there be an international agency that decides?

Morozov (10.15m): In a perfect world of course there should be an international agency, but we do not live in a perfect world. I cannot give you a more sophisticated answer than that, I am afraid. I can bloviate about the importance of international agencies, but we all know that very often they fail to deliver.

I definitely do not want countries unilaterally deciding on things like censorship, because very often they would use the pretence of stopping the spread of false information as a means of cracking down on political speech, so for example in China or South Korea we see governments who, in name only, claim to be eliminating rumours from online forums and blogs but in fact what they are doing is eliminating speech that disagrees with the government’s position. I do not want to give that prerogative to governments. On the other hand, I do not want those governments to meet and produce an international agreement on how to deal with rumours on the internet, which is now being discussed by certain Central Asian countries, China, Iran and Russia. So, all the traditional hurdles and obstacles of democratic and global democratic process and diplomacy, they are all right there when we talk about the internet.

I am just not sure that you would be able to achieve some kind of harmonised set of rules of to how to govern the internet, in part because the laws are not harmonised. Even within the European Union, many parts of legislation are not fully harmonised. As long as we tolerate that diversity and legal pluralism there is no way to have a harmonised approach and there is definitely a danger in trying to achieve that. Keeping that in mind, I think the way forward is some kind of a balance between cooperation and unilateral action. I would prefer that cooperation focuses mostly on fostering productive capabilities on the internet. I do not want to international cooperation on censorship. I want an international agreement on e-commerce. This is where I would welcome more international action. I do not want countries to come together and decide on the common surveillance standard because mostly likely it will not be the standard adopted in Switzerland but the standard adopted in China. So from that perspective, I am not sure I trust international rule-making in this particular case.

Interviewer: What do you think is the overall impact the internet has had on freedom of speech and do you think tools like Twitter and Facebook have actually helped promote freedom of speech?

Morozov (13.25m): That depends on how you conceptualise freedom of speech. If you are eager to have a very broad definition that also includes things like privacy and surveillance and the broader universe of issues related to freedom of expression, you can easily argue that the overall effect has been negative. Even though you can self-publish very easily and you have your own printing-press, in reality your printing press comes with an  IP address that can be tracked. And yes, you are talking and talking and talking, but then there is a guy sitting in the local KGB office who reads everything that you publish, learns how to govern more effectively and then arrests you. There are people who think that people like me overstate the power of surveillance, overstate how easy data-mining is, how you can hire private actors who will actually track everything, how you can track the IP addresses that  predict dissent even before dissent happens. Many people do not buy that story, they believe in the power of activists to challenge this, and they focus on two or three heroic cases where activists did use all the encryption tools ever invented by mankind and they think that this proves that the surveillance state loses.

I think it does not prove that the surveillance state loses, because as heroic as they are, they are just three individuals. The reality is that the majority of people voluntarily surrender a lot of their private information while talking and publishing all over the internet, while at the same time the government actually gets empowered by all that data. I would be very cautious not to draw any absolute conclusions about the net effect of the internet on freedom of expression. It is just impossible to tell and anyone who tells you that they know the impact is probably wrong because  it depends on the country case analysis.

You take a country like Russia, where there is no censorship on the internet, formally. Technically, few sites except for really radical extremist sites are banned. So, if your indication of freedom of speech is availability of websites, or internet filtering, Russia looks like a great case. It looks as democratic as any western European country, probably even more democratic than Britain with its libel laws. The problem is that once you start looking at the case more closely, you start to see that the government has found better ways to control the internet. Through the oligarchs close to the Kremlin, they own the publishing companies and the new media publishing companies that actually host all those blogs and social networks. Mysterious cyber-attacks on the websites of activists and independent media appear out of nowhere, coordinated by young people close to the Kremlin. You have an army of commentators who leave comments on the websites of prominent opposition to spoil the discussion and take it in the direction that is favourable for the Kremlin.

Censorship and control takes other forms than just internet filtering. You need a particular lens and a very particular framework for grasping what the internet does for each country. In Russia internet control will take one form. In Azerbaijan it will take another form. My problem with most of the internet scholarship in the last decade is that the criteria they chose to measure internet freedom and freedom of expression online is internet filtering. How many websites are filtered? How many are not filtered? When you adopt that as your measure or benchmark, it is very easy to see progress where there is none. Reasonably, that is the only metric you can have to have a quick study, and governments need quick studies. That is why you see a lot of governments funding a lot of interesting work which measures internet filtering, especially western governments. Does it actually say anything about internet control? I’m not so sure.

Interviewer: Maryam Omidi. Transcribed and edited by Free Speech Debate.

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Liberdade de Expressão em Debate é um projeto de pesquisa do Programa Dahrendorf para o Estudo da Liberdade de Expressão, do Colégio St Antony's na Universidade de Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

A Universidade de Oxford