In reading for my thesis, I came across Evgeny Morozov’s article “How dictators watch us on the web” – in one section of which he lists a number of uses of the internet and new media which he classifies as bad:
In Russia, the internet has given a boost to extreme right-wing groups like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, which has been using Google Maps to visualise the location of ethnic minorities in Russian cities and encouraging its members to hound them out. Criminal gangs in Mexico are fond of YouTube, where they flaunt their power by uploading videos of their graphic killings. Generally, in the absence of strong democratic norms and institutions, the internet has fuelled a drive for vigilante justice rather than the social variety Miliband was expecting.
He’s writing about whether the internet can be used to promote democracy, really, not ‘good’. But I can’t help but think he’s basically arguing that the internet is a neutral force. He’s challenging pro-democracy uses and providing examples of anti-democracy uses. Isn’t he just describing a kind of information technology arms race, though? (Clay Shirky agrees, though in my opinion their debate devolves into semantic static) Is there a clear winner yet, or will there every be? Maybe we just can’t generalize this broadly. These examples were pretty interesting anyways.
And it doesn’t help that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can launch a cyber-attack on a sovereign nation. Last year I took part in one—purely for the sake of experiment—on the websites of the Georgian government. As the Russian tanks were marching into South Ossetia, I was sitting in a cafe in Berlin with a laptop and instructions culled from Russian nationalist blogs. All I had to do was to input the targets provided—the URLs of hostile Georgian institutions (curiously, the British embassy in Tbilisi was on that list)—click “Start” and sit back. I did it out of curiosity; thousands of Russians did it out of patriotism. And the Russian government turned a blind eye. The results of the attack were unclear. For a brief period some government emails and a few dozen websites were either slow or unavailable; some Georgian banks couldn’t offer online services for a short period.
Patrick Meier has also been responding to Morozov’s article, and egads, there’s been a lot of debate on this one.