How Dictators Watch Us on the Web

By Bruce Sterling

*Evgeny Morozov is making some great points here. There was a day when backward local governments were caught flatfooted by fax machines and 1200 baud modems, but that was then, and this is definitely now.

*After getting scorched by Twitter last season, the Iranians are breaking new ground in using the Net to screw with their offshore diaspora. It'll be particularly interesting when people like the Belarus regime get it together to firewall their own country, and then digitally oppress the citizens of other countries. Kind of Cold War proxy warfare all over again, but multilateral and digitized.

*In 2009, the Net is not inherently democratic, any more than the Net of 1989 was inherently the ARPANET of 1969. And the Net of 2029 will be something just as different from today's.

*Some factors really have changed since the end of the Cold War: all dictatorial regimes used to be very tied to blood and soil, but these newfangled net-based spy and repression apparatuses, no matter how loyal they seem to be, are just not going to be very national. They can't be. They're inherently global.

*In other exciting network news, the sky is full of remote-controlled robot assassins "secretly" killing hundreds of people, and that modern tech breakthrough is maybe 15 years away from mass deployment by anyone who wants to use it anywhere.

"My homeland of Belarus is an unlikely place for an internet revolution. The country, controlled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, was once described by Condoleezza Rice as "the last outpost of tyranny in Europe."

"Its last presidential election in March 2006 was followed by a short-lived and unsuccessful revolution. The initial protests were brutally suppressed. But where public rallies couldn't succeed, protesters turned to more creative forms of insurgency: flash mobs. In a flash mob, social media or email is used to assemble a group of people in a public place, who then perform together a brief, often surreal action.

"Some young Belarusians used the blogging service LiveJournal to organise a series of events in Minsk with subtle anti-government messages. In a typical flash mob, the youngsters smiled, read newspapers or ate ice-cream. There was nothing openly political but the subtext was: "It's better to lick ice-cream than the president's ass!" The security services made many arrests, but their actions were captured in photos that were posted on LiveJournal and on photo-sharing websites like Flickr. Western bloggers and then traditional media picked up the news, drawing attention to the harsh crackdown.

Details of this rebellion have since been celebrated by a cadre of mostly western thinkers who believe that digital activism can help to topple authoritarian regimes. Belarusian flash mobs are invoked to illustrate how a new generation of decentralised protesters, armed only with technology, can oppose the state in ways unthought of in 1968 or 1989. But these digital enthusiasts rarely tell you what happened next.

Enthusiasm for the idea of digital revolution abounds. In October, I was invited to testify to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Washington DC-a hotchpotch of US congressmen, diplomats and military officials. The group was holding a hearing titled: "Twitter Against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes."

I would once have happily accepted the premise, but recently my thinking has changed. From 2006-08 I worked on western-funded internet projects in the former Soviet Union-most with a "let's-promote-democracy-through-blogs" angle. But last year I quit. Our mission to use the internet to nudge citizens of authoritarian regimes to challenge the status quo had so many unexpected consequences that, at times, it seemed to be hurting the very causes we were trying to promote.

At the hearing, I was the lonely voice of dissent in a sea of optimism. In one speech, Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican known for his conservative Christian views, implored us to "tear down the new walls of the 21st century, the cyber-walls and electronic censorship technology used by tyrants."

Jon Stewart, host of the satirical programme The Daily Show, recently poked fun at a similar suggestion from a congressman that the web was freeing the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran: "What, we could have liberated them over the internet? Why did we send an army when we could do it the same way we buy shoes?" Unfortunately, critical voices like his are rare.

The majority of the media, so cranky when reporting the internet's impact on their industry, keep producing tear-jerking examples of the marriage of political protest and social media. And what a list it is: Burmese monks defying an evil junta with digital cameras; Filipino teenagers using SMS to create a "textual revolution;" Egyptian activists using encryption to hide from the all-seeing-eye of the Mukhabarat; even Brazilian ecologists using Google maps to show deforestation in the Amazon delta.

And did I mention Moldova, China and Iran? These cyber-dissidents, we are told, now take their struggles online, swapping leaflets for Twitter updates and ditching fax machines for iPhones.

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:.

(((Well, that was a nice historical period - sort of like the days when you could blow any Commie's mind with a pair of blue jeans. Time to come up with another scheme. Just a suggestion here, but I bet it's dead easy to corrupt and bribe secret-police agents by using Amazon.)))


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