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Evgeny Morozov on internet usage and the media

Evgeny Morozov - Ben Brewer
Evgeny Morozov, a Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University is the contributing editor and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, is interested in the ability of the Internet to aid efforts against authoritarian governments. Morozov believes that the Internet is a poor vehicle to spread democracy. Morozov plans to release a book Fall of 2010, tentatively titled Big Brother in a Small World. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Economist and Newsweek International. Max Calenberg from the S&B sat down with Morozov to discuss the Internet and the actions of its major players.

How did you become interested in the Internet and its effect on people’s ability to revolt or rebel?

I essentially became interested in new media and blogging…four or five years ago—back then there was a lot of interest and it just was a year after the revolution in Ukraine and there was a lot of interest in how you can actually use technology and new media to spread democracy further in the region and that includes Belarus where I was from originally. So I started blogging about events in Belarus in English for an online magazine based in the Czech Republic.

Why do you think it’s taken people in the U.S. so long, until something like the use of Twitter during the Iranian election protests, to realize that the Internet is a means to rebel against a government when it has been so prominently used in Eastern Europe for so long?

In Eastern Europe there is still this living tradition of revolution, since 1989. In 1989…some more communication tools were used quite actively. People used Xerox machines and fax machines and there was this kind of understanding that technology can actually help, and a lot of people were supplying funding—including the U.S.A government—in Poland to buy Xerox machines and to buy technology so there was definitely an understanding that technology can play a role. There’s a lot of more understanding when it’s China or Iran, which are in the headlines. There is, of course, more and more attention being paid to these issues simply because they are China and Iran. So at this point there is definitely a realization in the U.S. that something is happening but I think that understanding is pretty shallow.

One interesting case in Internet censorship is Australia, where you have a country that is a constitutional democracy but they have fairly heavy Internet censorship. Why do you think that is?

It’s not just Australia, if we look at many governments in Western Europe they are cracking down on what’s happening online. France just passed a law last week—the famous three strikes and you’re out law—where basically if you’re caught downloading something illegal on the Internet three times they will basically disconnect you. The details of that are not very well worked out because the law just passed. It’s not very easy to completely disconnect someone. The same sort of thing is happening in Britain. Looking at a country like Russia today, Russia has less censorship than Australia, and even the United Kingdom, and it poses all sorts of weird questions like whether some the authoritarian governments have found new ways of controlling the Internet which goes beyond censorship or whether our western democracies are failing so badly that they need censorship as part of their operation.

Where do you think the idea that we have a right to remain anonymous on the Internet stems from?

I think it comes from our legal tradition. And it comes from general customs and expectations and it’s sort of insurant in the constitution.

But, imagine I am driving down the road, I have the right to do that anonymously, but the minute I crash I completely lose my right to be anonymous.

Yes, but it doesn’t mean the government has a right to monitor you preemptively before you crash into something. Imagine you are growing marijuana in your garden and a police helicopter flies over and sees it. The courts have ruled that this is alright to use this evidence because it is a common airspace. But then there was a different case where the police used heat waves to see if there is something growing in your house and courts found that it’s not okay, that they have no right to do it, whether you are breaking a law or not. We have to be very careful with a thing like this because there are big risks that we are not fully aware of simply because there is so much data out there.

Just last week Google released Buzz and there was a lot of backlash due to its lack of privacy protection, do you think they were wrong in implementing a service that took so many actions without the users’ direct permission?

What really struck me most about Google Buzz was that they linked different Google services, they linked Gmail with Picasa with Google Reader and if you think about it, you can make an argument that is all in the public already, by mixing data from three streams that are public already you are not creating anything new but I would argue that’s not the case, because that is how databases are made. If you gather a database of banal details about someone it doesn’t make a banal database.

Do you think that Google owes its allegiance to its users to protect their privacy, or if a government comes to them saying ‘we want all you’ve got on this person because we think he may be a criminal,’ they should hand over the information?

I think Google owes it allegiances to their shareholders. I think it’s a mistake to think of these new Internet companies as some sort of NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], which happen to make money on the side. That’s not how they function. And Google doesn’t really have—other than this mysterious moral of ‘don’t be evil,’ and a very nice mission statement ‘to organize all the world’s information’—but then I start thinking about it. I don’t know if I want to organize all the world’s information, there are all sorts of people and subjects. So there is kind of a catch right there. I think Google’s logic is kind of based on some flawed argument that by giving people exposure to info they will somehow make them to aspire to freedom and democracy.

There has been talk from several camps of making individuals get a sort of license to surf the internet, like driving a car. Do you think this could be a solution?

A plausible solution to what? I don’t see a problem yet.

I guess it would address child pornography, libel and privacy. Basically if you have a quick way to keep someone accountable they will be must less likely to break the law.

We have ways to do it, we now delegate all of that to ISPs [Internet Service Providers] and [they] are supposed to locate those people through their records. Its not like we are running out of people to put on trial. I actually think it would be a pretty terrible solution to a problem that for the most part doesn’t exist.

What is your stance on net neutrality?

That is a difficult one and it’s something I haven’t really decided myself. On the one hand, you have to know what category to put the Internet in. Is it some kind of national resource? How do you manage it? Does it suffer from common use? Maybe the way to think about the Internet is that it’s always there, and if we start rationing it, we need to start calling it something else. It has the right to exist, but it’s something else. I think that hasn’t been properly understood. The practical understanding of the Internet is so weak— we don’t know how to conceptualize these issues. We are stuck with the issue of whether we should encourage competition and sort of let companies do whatever they want or just say yes you can do whatever you want. If you define it by the set of experience there is no way that you can sort of make an argument that we’ll be regulating and the people who download more videos will be punished and people who download more text will be rewarded. My own view is that it is a probably a set of experience that does include some sort of notion of infinity, and we should somehow work around it and put it into law.

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