Cory Doctorow reviews the Net Delusion

It seems that Morozov wants to see the chaos of popular, grassroots movements replaced with a kind of orderly, top-down style of regimented activism led by intellectuals whose thoughts can’t be pithily expressed in 140-character tweets. Whether or not Morozov sees himself as one of those intellectuals is never explicitly stated.

In a nutshell, this is the assessment by Cory Doctorow in the Guardian, in a quite detailed review:

At its core, there is some very smart stuff indeed in The Net Delusion. Morozov is absolutely correct when he forcefully points out that technology isn’t necessarily good for freedom – that it can be used as readily to enslave, surveil, and punish as it can to evade, liberate and share. Unfortunately, this message is buried amid a scattered, loosely argued series of attacks on a nebulous “cyber-utopian” movement, whose views are stated in the most general of terms, often in the form of quotes from CNN and other news agencies who are putatively summing up some notional cyber-utopian consensus. In his zeal to discredit this ideology (whatever it is), Morozov throws whatever he’s got handy at anyone he can find who supports the idea of technology as a liberator, no matter how weak or silly his ammunition.

As an example of Cory’s detailed review of how Morozov approaches his subject, here’s the excerpt on security issues.

Cory Doctorow:

“Wu, a law and communications scholar, carefully and devastatingly traces out the history of media regulation in response to potential decentralisation of communications oligarchies and monopolies, and places the internet in a context that establishes its credentials as a genuinely novel phenomenon. Morozov knows that the internet is different, of course — he even says so, discussing the way that the net can mimic and overtake other media, and the problems this creates.

This failure to engage with the best thinking and writing on the subject of the internet’s special power to connect and liberate is Net Delusion’s most serious demerit. When Morozov talks about the security risks arising from dissidents’ use of Facebook – which neatly packages up lists of dissidents to be targeted by oppressive nations’ secret police – he does so without ever mentioning the protracted, dire warnings of exactly this problem that have come from the “cyber-utopian” vanguard as embodied by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, NetzPolitik, Knowledge Ecology International, Bits of Freedom, Public Knowledge, and dozens of other pressure groups, activist organisations and technical projects around the world.

Indeed, there is hardly any mention at all of history’s most prominent internet freedom fighters, such as the venerable cypherpunks movement, who have spent decades building, disseminating and promoting the use of cryptographic tools that are purpose-built to evade the kind of snooping and network analysis he (rightly) identifies as being implicit in the use of Facebook, Google and other centralised, private tools to organise political movements.

Though Morozov is correct in identifying inherent security risks in the use of the internet by dissidents, his technical analysis is badly flawed. In arguing, for example, that no technology is neutral, Morozov fails to identify one crucial characteristic of cryptographic systems: that it is vastly easier to scramble a message than it is to break the scrambling system and gain access to the message without the key.

Practically speaking, this means that poorly resourced individuals and groups with cheap, old computers are able to encipher their messages to an extent that they cannot be deciphered by all the secret police in the world, even if they employ every computer ever built in a gigantic, decades-long project to force the locks off the intercepted message. In this sense, at least, the technological deck is stacked in favour of dissidents – who have never before enjoyed the power to hide their communiques beyond the reach of secret police – over the state, who have always enjoyed the power to keep secrets from the people.

Morozov’s treatment of security suffers from further flaws. It is a truism among cryptographers that anyone can design a system so secure that he himself can’t think of a way of breaking it (this is sometimes called “Schneier’s Law” after cryptographer Bruce Schneier). This is why serious information security always involves widespread publication and peer-review of security systems. This approach is widely accepted to be the best, most effective means of identifying and shoring up defects in security technology.

And yet, when Morozov recounts the tale of Haystack, a trendy, putatively secure communications tool backed by the US state department that was later found to be completely insecure, he accepts at face value the Haystack creator’s statement that his tool was kept secret because he didn’t want to let Iranian authorities reverse-engineer its workings (real security tools work even if they have been reverse-engineered).

Instead, Morozov focuses his criticism on the “release early, release often” approach to free and open source software, and mocks the aphorism “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” though if these had been applied to Haystack, it would have been revealed as a failure long before it got into the hands of Iranian activists. Here, Morozov is as wrong as he could possibly be: if you want to develop secure tools to allow dissidents to communicate beneath the noses of oppressive regimes, you must widely publish the workings of these tools and revise them frequently as your peers identify new vulnerabilities in them.

Morozov would have done well to familiarise himself with the literature and arguments of technologists who care and think about this stuff (the closest he comes to engaging with these people is to mock EFF founders Mitch Kapor for comparing the internet to Jeffersonian discourse and John Perry Barlow for penning A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace). Some of the world’s most ingeniously paranoid experts have spent 20-plus years thinking up plausible technological nightmare scenarios, all of which are more frightening than Morozov’s efforts, which include the bizarre speculation that secret police might someday soon have technology to isolate individual voices out of recordings of thousands of chanting demonstrators and match them to an identity database.”

And in the concluding section, this passsage:

“The real problem with Morozov’s exposé of “net-utopians” is that it bears no resemblance to the movement I know intimately and have been a part of for a decade. Where Morozov describes people who see the internet as a “deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression,” or “refusing to acknowledge that the web can either strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes,” I see only straw-men, cartoons drawn from CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences.

Everyone I know in this movement – from donors to toolsmiths to translators to front-line activists to UN wonks – knows that the internet presents a risk as well as an opportunity. But unlike Morozov, these people have a program for minimising the risks arising from internet use (which is why there is so much campaign activity around the privacy and censorship problems arising from proprietary software, social networking services, and centralised data-collection systems such as Google) and maximising its efficacy as a tool for liberation, through the development of software and training that provides better anonymity, better communications security, and even abstract tools like zero-knowledge networking system that allow for the broad dissemination of information among large groups of people without revealing their identities.

Morozov is right to assert that the west’s politicians have a simplistic view of the internet’s relationship to foreign policy, but this isn’t merely a foreign policy problem – the same politicians have fantastically failed to come to grips with the internet’s implications for copyright, free speech, education, employment, and every other subject of import. Morozov is right that cold war metaphors like “Great Firewall” obscure as much as they illuminate (The Net Delusion would be worth the price alone for its brilliant assertion that dictatorships use “fields” as much as “walls” in their internet strategies, which need to be “watered” rather than “strengthened” or “demolished”).

But in his zeal to awaken policy-makers to the nuance and non-technical aspects of foreign policy, he is sloppy and lazy. He asserts that ihe Internet is different from a samizdat-era fax machine, because the internet is useful to oppressors and oppressed alike – though I’ve never met a bureaucrat who didn’t love his fax.”

Cory Doctorow concludes that we need a constructive way to pinpoint the internet’s weaknesses as a medium of advocacy and popular organisation, and that the Net Delusion fails to deliver this approach.

In conclusion, what we need to do:

“Dissidents require systems of communication and organisation. Every human endeavour that requires more than one person’s effort has to devote a certain amount of resources to the problem of coordination: the internet has greatly simplified this problem (think again of the hours activists used to spend simply addressing postcards with information about an upcoming demonstration). In so doing, it has provided a disproportionate benefit to dissidents and outsiders (who, by definition, have fewer resources to start with) than it has to the incumbent and powerful (who, by definition, have amassed enough power to squander some of it on coordination and still have enough left over to rule).

The internet makes it possible for more people to speak and participate, which, inevitably, means that protest movements will have a more diffuse set of goals than was common in the era of top-down, authoritarian revolutions. But Morozov romanticises the consensus of revolutions gone by – whether it was 1776, 1914 or 1989, every successful revolution is a fragile coalition of conflicting interests and views, held together by the common desire to abolish the old system, even if there was no consensus on what to replace it with.

Meanwhile, the internet has become so integral to the daily functioning of the world’s states that it’s hard to credit Morozov’s fear that in the event of a real revolutionary threat, governments will simply pull the plug. As Morozov himself points out, Burma’s brutal junta kept the internet running day after day during its brutal crackdown on political riots, despite the global black eye it received courtesy of the reports that emerged thanks to the net; China depends so much on the net for its internal functioning that it’s impossible to contemplate a national net shutdown (and even the regional shutdowns such as the one in Xinjiang province during the Uighur unrest are notable by dint of being such a rarity).

The world needs more people seriously engaged with improving the lot of activists who make use of the net (that is, all activists). We need to have a serious debate about tactics such as the Distributed Denial of Service – flooding computers with bogus requests so that they can’t be reached – which some have compared to sit-in demonstrations. As someone who’s been arrested at sit-ins, I think this is just wrong. A sit-in derives its efficacy not from merely blocking the door to some objectionable place, but from the public willingness to stand before your neighbours and risk arrest and bodily harm in service of a moral cause, which is itself a force for moral suasion. As a tactic, DDoS has more in common with filling a business’s locks with super glue, or cutting its phone lines – risky, to be sure, but closer to vandalism and thus less apt to convince your neighbours to look sympathetically on your cause.

We need to fix the mobile internet, which – thanks to closed networks and devices – is more amenable to surveillance and control than the fixed-line variety. We need to fight the move – driven by entertainment companies and IT giants such as Apple and Microsoft – to design devices to work covertly and without the consent of their owners in the name of protecting copyright.

We need to pay heed to Jonathan Zittrain (another scholar whom Morozov both dismisses and then later inadvertently agrees vigorously with), whose The Future of the Internet warns that the increase in crime, sleaze and fraud on the net will cause user fatigue and make people more willing to accept locked-down devices and networks that can be used to control, as well as protect them.

We need all of this, and a serious critique and roadmap for the future of net activism, because the world’s oppressive regimes (including supposedly free governments in the west) are availing themselves of new technology at speed, and the only way for activism to be effective in that environment is to use the same tools.”

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