By Alex Kingsbury

Journalist and social critic Evgeny Morozov says the idea that the Internet can be used by the West to promote democracy in repressive regimes is simplistic.

In fact, the Internet can actually empower those repressive governments in ways that overly enthusiastic Western commentators fail to appreciate when they spread the Gospel of Google. Morozov recently chatted about his new book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and how open access to information is far from a panacea for dictatorship. Excerpts:

How far back does the idea of freedom-through-the-media go?

It goes back to the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War, when it was assumed that if countries adhered to certain policy and economic ideas that they would all become democracies. The media was supposed to encourage that transition and encourage public discourse. In the 1980s, some people began to see the role of the media in ending the Cold War. But historians take a much larger view, including many other important factors, military, economic, and social.

Are these lessons misunderstood from the Cold War?

[Media] definitely played a positive role, but if you were to go back in time to the 1980s, knowing what we now do, it is not for certain that you'd put so much money into Western broadcasting. In East Germany, for instance, there was wide access to Western news broadcasts, but no one watched them. They watched the entertainment and American soap operas instead. In fact, opinions in the East about the West were actually better in places where there wasn't exposure to Western news broadcasts.

Are comparisons with past technology fair?

Not entirely. Much of the important nuance is lost when people say that the Berlin Wall has been replaced by the Great Firewall of China. Those comparisons actually conceal much more than they reveal. For example, there are many bloggers in Iran and Russia who are far more conservative and anti-Western than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Vladimir Putin. Technology has empowered them, so how does that fit into the metaphor?

Does open access to information benefit civil discourse?

Total censorship is impossible, but it has been replaced by a more subtle form of control which involves casting doubt on the accuser and making counter-accusations. Repressive regimes are empowered when they have more information about those who oppose them inside the state.

That sounds like standard spin doctoring.

Moscow and Beijing are very much looking to the West to understand how to deal with these changes that technology brings. Many of the best-selling policy books in those countries now were written by people like Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell, who wrote studies of propaganda. The Chinese, for instance, have invited some of Tony Blair's advisers to come over and teach them about spinning and propaganda.

Isn't the fact that these countries can no longer tell the "big lie" evidence that technology does equate with freedom?

If you want to measure progress based on autonomy and independence of the middle class to go on skiing trips, then sure, those people are doing fine. If you are willing to be silent in these countries, then you can surely have more autonomy than you could 30 years ago. But if you consider the situation for human rights workers or lawyers or dissidents who oppose these regimes and how much harder the Internet has made their work, then you have to come to other conclusions.

Is the idea that transparency is bad for repressive regimes based on an underestimation of their adaptability?

Yes, in part. It's also based on ignorance about how those regimes have changed. They are much more globalized and consumer-friendly. There was a popular saying that the demand for blue jeans brought down the Berlin Wall, because the communist regimes couldn't keep up with demand once their populations were exposed to those consumer goods. Now, most blue jeans are made in China.

Are you arguing that access to information doesn't equal the demand for it?

There was this idea that once Russians could use Skype to learn English, they'd go read the reports from Human Rights Watch. Instead, they learn English and use Skype; they then buy tickets to go skiing in Colorado. It may be that the middle classes in Russia and China are actually happy.

Does increased information directly aid repressive regimes?

In some instances it does. The Russian government has an incentive to watch the blogosphere, to watch for and contain discontent -- and punish dissenters. There was a big push to develop mobile banking in places like Kenya, but now we are finding that policemen there are using mobile phones to take bribes more efficiently.


Available at

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (The Contemporary Middle East)

Enemies of Intelligence

The End of History and the Last Man

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

The Great Gamble

At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes

Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century

Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

Uprising: Will Emerging Markets Shape or Shake the World Economy


© U.S. News & World Report

World - How Repressive Regimes Use the Internet to Keep Power | Global Viewpoint