Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Evgeny Morozov in the Prospect on how dictators watch us on the web:
But that isn’t what happened in Belarus. After the first flash mob, the authorities began monitoring By_mob, the LiveJournal community where the activities were announced. The police started to show up at the events, often before the flashmobbers did. Not only did they detain participants, but they too took photos. These—along with the protesters’ own online images—were used to identify troublemakers, many of whom were then interrogated by the KGB, threatened with suspension from university, or worse. This intimidation didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, only hardcore activists would show up. Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.

The Belarusian government shows no sign of being embarrassed by the fact it arrested people for eating ice-cream. Despite what digital enthusiasts tell you, the emergence of new digital spaces for dissent also lead to new ways of tracking it... In Iran, dissidents used to be active on Goodreads, an international social networking website for book-lovers. Here they quietly engaged in conversations about politics and culture, unseen by the censors—that is, until the Los Angeles Times helpfully published an article about what was going on, tipping the authorities off.

This isn't so much a failure of digital forms of organizing, but a mere reflection that a lot of the old rules for operational security still apply.
There are three main strands to the “democracy by tweets” theory. First, despite my caveats, the internet can if used properly give dissidents secure and cheap tools of communication. Russian activists can use hard-to-tap Skype in place of insecure phone lines, for example. Dissidents can encrypt emails, distribute anti-government materials without leaving a paper trail, and use clever tools to bypass internet filters. It’s now easier to be a “one-man NGO”: with Google Docs, you can do your own printing, lowering the risk of leaks. Second, new technology makes bloody crackdowns riskier, as police are surrounded by digital cameras and pictures can quickly be sent to western news agencies. Some governments, like Burma and North Korea, don’t care about looking brutal, but many others do. Third, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest, helping to turn “fence-sitters” into protesters at critical moments. An apolitical Iranian student, for instance, might find that all her Facebook friends are protesting and decide to take part.

All in all, a good counter to the sometimes overly optimistic assessments of the impact of the internet generation on democratization, as it is important to remember that the internet can just as easily be used by authoritarian regimes:
Ultra-loyalist groups supporting Thailand’s monarchy were active during both the September 2006 coup and more recent street protests, finding anti-monarchy material that needed to be censored via a website called Protecttheking.net. In this, they are essentially doing the job usually reserved for the secret police. In much the same way, the Iranian revolutionary guards posted online photos of the most ardent protesters at the June 2009 rallies, asking pro-Ahmadinejad Iranians to identify them...

Government-controlled internet providers in Belarus, for example, run dedicated servers full of pirated digital goodies for their clients to download for free. Under this new social contract, internet users are allowed plenty of autonomy online—just so long as they don’t venture into politics.

But the key graph is this:
Governments usually give cash to a favoured NGO—often based outside the authoritarian state in question—which has the job of creating new social media infrastructure: group blogs, social networks, search engines and other services that we take for granted in the west. The NGOs then hire local talent to work on a Belarusian Twitter or an Egyptian version of the blog-search platform Technorati.

Yet these services work because they are born in entrepreneurial cultures where they can be speedily built and adapted to local needs. The stodgy form-filling process of angling for the next juicy grant, which in truth drives nearly all NGOs, is a world away from a freewheeling Palo Alto start-up. The result is a clumsy arrangement in which NGOs toil away on lengthy, expensive and unnecessary projects instead of ditching them when it becomes apparent they won’t work and moving on to the next idea.
Copyright © Swing Right Rudie
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